During his sold-out appearance in Charlotte last week, heralded civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson pushed the rhetorical button that should be labeled: “Send Conservatives Up Nearest Wall.”
He said the problems facing inner-city African Americans – elevated poverty, crime and unemployment rates – represent the lingering aftershocks of centuries of slavery and generations of segregation.
He traced the Baltimore riots and nationwide tensions over police shootings of black men back to those twin evils of American history. He threw in a provocative afterthought: We agonized over cars and buildings that went up in flames in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, but we’ve largely ignored the human suffering unfolding there for generations.
He’s right. We’re nowhere near solving the problem of inner-city poverty. We’ve known this for decades. And yet those decades have passed without us trying anything substantially different to attack the problem. We have asked the police to contain it.
And inner-city America is tired of being contained.
But what, some ask, does slavery or segregation have to do with the looters running out of that CVS store? Or the high out-of-wedlock birth rates? Or all the absentee fathers? Why can’t inner-city blacks stop blaming “society” and blaming white people and take personal responsibility for their lives?
If you follow today’s cable-televised war between liberals and conservatives, the answer falls into one of two camps: either the people who live in the inner cities are at fault, or the society that lets them rot there is.
I won’t try to speak for all black people. But for me, when I say the legacy of slavery and segregation matter, I’m not trying to dodge any “hard truth” of black failure. I’m telling you a fact.
I was born in the Bronx in 1966 because my parents went North to escape segregation. I was raised in South Carolina because they came back after legalized segregation fell, drawn back to the Lowcountry land our forebears worked as rice plantation slaves.
My birthplace was dictated by segregation. The property I grew up on was literally shaped by the ugly legacy of slavery, as was that community itself.
That’s not living in the past. That’s living with the facts. Trying to divorce my story from all tinge of slavery and segregation makes no more sense than trying to jump out of my own skin.
Those looters in Baltimore didn’t magically appear. America isn’t some widget factory spitting out adults, and some just happen to emerge defective.
They have a back story, a history. Do those stories also involve bad personal choices? Whose story doesn’t? But I’m sure you won’t find many people in the inner city who were born middle class but proved too feckless to stay middle class as adults.
You find people whose family histories are twisted by generations of dysfunction, much of it tracing back to – yes – segregation, when social pressures on black families were absurdly, intensely unfair.
We all know this, really. Just get over it, anyway, some say. Why keep crying over segregation when the practice ended half a century ago?
How reasonable a question is that when there are still states that insist on flying the flag of the doomed slavery-loving Confederacy that died 150 years ago?
For my conservative friends, let me be clear: Looting isn’t right. It’s not excusable. Those caught should be prosecuted.
No matter how long the odds against you might be, you still owe yourself the gift of your own dignity.
The same can be said for our society. We owe our forebears who built this country a duty to shield its integrity, to deepen its dignity.
As long as millions wither in the inner cities, we aren’t meeting that burden. Stevenson contends that we’ll never fix the problems unless we get closer to them.
What does it say about us when we notice the inner city only if it sets itself on fire?
Eric: firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ericfraz on Twitter.