#BaltimoreUprising: Freddie Grey and the Future of America
by Karsonya Wise Whitehead
copyright May 1, 2015
I. PLATO & THE IDEA OF THE GOOD
I believe in the idea of the good. I believe that good people working together can bring about change. I believe that good things can happen even when you least expect them. I believe that good ideas once spoken become a part of our collective consciousness. I believe that good people working together can fix a myriad of problems. I believe that the most revolutionary job in the world, outside of being a teacher, is to be a change agent. I believe that good work—work that you can build upon, stand on, and stand behind—is both necessary and hard to do. I believe in the idea of the good and this is why I work for justice even though I understand that it may never happen.
When I first watched the Freddie Grey video, I was stunned not because I thought that things like this did not happen but because I realized—in this climate of #BlackLivesMatter—that it was still happening. I spent countless nights thinking about Grey and his life and how the system just needs to be fixed. I traveled up to his neighborhood and listened to his friends and family members testify about their lives and about the daily challenges that come with being black and poor in America. I attended marches and rallies, took pictures and recorded oral interviews. It was not until I interviewed a young boy—who told me that no matter what he does or where he goes, he is still black in America and he is still a target—that I sadly realized the problem with my thinking. I had always assumed that the system was broken and that hard work and good people would change it. I now understand that our system is not broken. It is working exactly as it was designed to work
II. MAPPING THE SYSTEM
In the mid-1600s, as American slavery began to take root, the system began a slow process of dehumanizing and criminalizing the black body. This was something that had to happen so that this brutal inhumane system could function. White people had to be complicit and they had to believe that black people were less than human. They had to buy into the system. America began to transform itself from a nation with slaves (where slavery was a part of the economic system) into a slave nation (where slavery drove the economic system). The system was working. This peculiar institution lasted close to 200 years and allowed this country and slave owners to economically grow and develop at an almost unheard of pace. As the colonies begin to expand and state lines were being drawn, slavery continued to flourish and grow. As the Revolutionary War raged on and our founding fathers and mothers (many of them large-scale slaveholders) fought for freedom from the British, slavery—like a mustard seed—sank deep into our soil and became one of the cornerstones of our political, economic, and social system. At the same time as literacy rates begin to climb as more white children were taught to read, laws were established that made it illegal to teach a black person to read or write. As the nation promoted the idea of the strength of the white family, black couples who were unable to marry were routinely separated from their children and from their chosen partners. They were absolutely voiceless and considered as three-fifths of a human for tax purposes. The system worked because it kept black people completely controlled, by seeing them as animals and putting policies in place that treated them as such.
When slavery ended and the system could have changed, Jim Crow was established and slavery by another name continued to exist. There were no reparations and formerly enslaved black people, without property or land, education or resources, had to find a way to slowly build their communities. The system, the one that had enslaved them for hundreds of years, gave them nothing and in so many ways, believed that they did not deserve anything. Legalized segregation borne out of this idea that black people are inferior to white people lasted for 77 years and drove housing policies, community development, voting practices, and school funding. This law did not end until some Americans were willing to die to force it to change and when it finally did and policies changed, the system—at its core—did not. Black people were and are still dehumanized, still criminalized, and still trying to prove to this world that our lives matter.
III. GOING FORWARD
In Baltimore City, as in many urban cities, black people have the highest rates of unemployment, the lowest rates of literacy, the highest number of high school dropouts, and they tend to live in low-income underdeveloped food deserts. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that our system must be completely restructured and we must realize that “the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.” These are complicated issues and the only way that they can be changed is for the current system to be dismantled. It is inhumane. It is racist and sexist and classist. It enslaves us all but it is not broken. It is working.