Categories
Blog Deep Thoughts

The Cries of the Poor: On Race & Rioting

micah-68My sister graduated from law school last week. We’re all very proud of her and all that she has accomplished. It was true delight to see her and her classmates honored for all of their hard work and dedication. Like most graduation ceremonies, speeches were featured prominently throughout. The first of the night was given by a professor selected by the graduating class. His speech was really good, and in some ways, a bit surprising. He quote Micah 6:8, which I’ll talk about in a bit. The most memorable line of his speech is paraphrased below:

God wants us to hear the cries of the poor and act before those cries become screams.
John J. Ammann, McDonnell Professor of Justice in American Society, St. Louis University School of Law.

He said this in reference to the events in Ferguson, Missouri and several other cities where civil unrest, economic dissatisfaction, and racial tension have boiled over into full-scale rioting.

2014-2015 hasn’t been a great time for the United States. For those of us who had thought, even for a tiny moment, that our ability to elect an African-American president for two terms had proven something about ability to move beyond racial prejudice, it’s been a real eye-opener. Apparently, there’s been a lot going on in the inner city. The poor, the oppressed, have been crying for a while.

And now, they’ve begun to shout.

Perhaps its time for the rest of us to listen.

Race: The Red—Not Black—Herring

Race is an obvious barrier between peoples, but the distinction is truly only skin deep.

“But they’re so different from us! They talk differently. They act differently. We’re not the same.”

Is that really true? I spent six years working in the inner city, and I’ve been married into a white “farmer’s” family for eight. I don’t really fit into either of these groups. I was far too white to be totally accepted in the inner city, and I’m a bit too urban to be a seamless addition to my in-laws.

Like most people, I try to fit in where I am as best I can. When I worked in East St. Louis, I spoke like my students, not to mock them but to put them at ease.

“I might look differently, but I’m really just like you.” I do the same with my in-laws. When I hang out with my wife’s family, I talk more about tractors and guns than I ever thought I would in my life. In this weird space that I lived, I found that, some of time, the work I did to blend into one group could be used in the other group, with only a little tweaking.

I guess these two groups weren’t that dissimilar.

The real difference isn’t race or ethnicity. How do I know? Early US history is a long story of cultural amalgamation and ethnic convergence as the English, Dutch, Germans, French, Scottish, Irish, and a whole host of others began to blend into what we know call “white people.” This was not an immediate merging. It took decades, centuries, but now, most “whites” exist in an almost non-ethnic state where they might know that they are “three-quarters German,” without having any attachment to that ethnicity.

So what separates them from African-Americans, “blacks,” who have no real ethnic attachment to Africa?1 It’s color. Whites and blacks haven’t mixed and merged like the English and the Germans because the differences are visible—skin deep. Sure, there is a great cultural difference between an Englishman and an African, but those differences are nothing compared to the similarity of a white US citizen who descends from English immigrants and a black US citizen who descends from enslaved Africans.

Skin pigmentation is what has kept ethnic Europeans separated from ethnic Africans. There’s nothing else left to justify division based upon race, which is why I think the bigger issue isn’t race.

Economic distress, demographic shifts, and the politics/perception of power are the bigger issues.

Poverty & Demographics: The Real Problems

Let’s do a really quick, Wikipedia-fueld case study of Ferguson and Baltimore, two cities who best represent the cries of the poor turning into shouts.

The first criteria we should look at is “median income.”2 Now, remember, what this number is supposed to show us the mid-point of the income spectrum. So, if the median income is $40,000, then half the population makes less than that, and half the population makes more.

Median Income
Ferguson: $36,6453 | Missouri: $50,3114
Baltimore: $41,3855 | Maryland: $69,2726

The average family size in the US is about 37 and the corresponding level of poverty is $20,9008. So, half of the population of Ferguson is likely living close to the poverty line. In fact, more people in Fergusson are statistically closer to poverty than in Missouri as a whole. Here’s an even bleaker take on Ferguson’s economics:

The town’s unemployment rate has more than doubled in recent years, from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 about one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.9

Baltimore’s median income looks better, but when you consider that Maryland is the “richest state in the US” when comparing median incomes, you see where part of that bump comes from. Also, when you factor in the higher cost of living on the East Coast, the fact that 33% of the households in Baltimore make less than $25,000, and the city’s 14% unemployment rate, you begin to see the severity of Baltimore’s plight as well.10

What other factors can we look at? How about unemployment rate? As noted in the quote above, Ferguson’s unemployment rate is 13%, and Baltimore’s is 14%. Currently, the US unemployment rate is around 5.1% (April 2015) while Missouri (March 2015) is at 6.1% and Maryland (March 2015) is at 5.4%.11 What does this tell us? The employment situation in these two urban environments is nearly three times worse that than at the national or even state level.12 This is a bleak situation: low income, low employment, low opportunities.

To make this even more clear, wages for full-time, private sector employees in the St. Louis area have remained stagnant while those in the Baltimore-DC-Northern Virginia area have been climbing slightly, a little faster the the US average—based upon 2010 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.13 Wages are climbing, however, for part-time workers, but the median of part-time earnings is still less than $11,000 in Maryland, less than $10,000 for the US as a whole, and just over $9000 for Missouri.14 Granted, this is still 2010 data, but I think this adds a good context for the tensions and frustrations that have been building in these communities for a long time. Riots don’t just happen because a man was shot or because another man died in police custody. Those are sparks to already very flammable piles of kindling.

Now, I know what some will say that part-time employees shouldn’t expect to make very much, and I generally agree. My wife works part-time and makes less than $10,000 a year. I completely understand that argument, however, when you consider how many people are “underemployed”—working for less money or working less hours than they had been accustomed to, due to an economic recession—you can see how some might be feeling the pinch while still being employed.

4959

According to this graph, unemployment is at 8.55 million, while 6.58 million people are working part-time due to “economic reasons,” and 2.06 million are marginally attached15 for a total of 17.19 million people who are underemployed, earning nothing or next to nothing.16

These communities are suffering economically and have been for a long time, in the past eight to ten years. I worked in the inner city and what kept its schools running was state and federal money, which dried up pretty quick as the 2007 recession became the 2010 recession. Why does that matter? Because schools not only set the tone for students as they prepare to enter the adult, working world but they’re also huge employers, which is a very important factor especially in communities where businesses have left or are leaving. When poverty and economic stress increases in a community, crime is bound to increase.

And when crime increases, interaction with the police increases.

Perception, Oppression, Distrust, Disillusionment

Let’s be very clear from the start: crime is wrong. Violence is wrong. Rioting is wrong. Those three aren’t just wrong: they’re foolish.

Crime is never an acceptable career path, though most of give room for the “bread of my family” excuse. However, most crime in the inner city doesn’t fall into that category. It’s less about feeding ones family and more about getting what one wants. That being said, incidence of crime does increase as poverty increases, as job opportunities decrease, as educational quality decreases, and as hopelessness increases. Crime is an understandable result of these negative factors, but that doesn’t excuse it.

Violence and rioting are likewise easy to understand, despite how foolish they are. I used to own a 1999 Chevy Malibu. I hated that car. One day, while I was driving, it began acting up. Again. When I finally got parked, I got out and began kicking the car. Did I do any damage to the car? I honestly don’t know. Had I really put myself into it, I could have. I’ll say this: I certainly hurt my foot. Violence and rioting are a bit like that. It’s an eruption, an explosion fueled by pent up frustration that’s fueled by a spark of anger. It’s a violent lashing out at whatever’s close by, even if that violence ends up hurting the perpetrator more than anyone else. What do I mean by that? Did the people of Ferguson or Baltimore help their economy by rioting? No. In fact, one could probably argue that their actions have actually hurt their economy. I don’t know many businesses who’d risk moving into such a volatile community.

Now, here’s a question we might want to ponder? Where does that frustration come from? I’ve offered that a large part of it comes from a depressing economic situation; however, a good portion of it has got to come from feelings of disenfranchisement and oppression. Oppression? From whom? The police, for starters, but the larger government-economical system for which the police stand as both guardian and avatar.

“Phil, do you really think that the police are actively oppressing the people of Ferguson and Baltimore?” I don’t know. Something’s going on. There have been far too many questionable interactions between the police and black men lately for it all to be coincidental. Beyond that, it doesn’t really matter if it’s real. The perception is that it’s happening. Why is this the perception? Let’s go back to that skin issue. What’s the majority racial category in Ferguson? Black. What’s the majority racial category for the police? White. On that alone, we have an “us/them” divide.

A divide that goes both ways.

We have a African-American community that’s trapped in interminable economic woes which results in an increase in crime and a decrease in hope and positivity. Thus, negative interaction with the police (i.e. being caught by the police for doing something wrong) begins to increase. As the police have to do more “policing,” there are bound to be more honest mistakes. However, I’m also sure that not-so-honest mistakes get made as well. Alton, a community right next to mine, was recently rocked by the release of a video that appears to show a pretty disgusting piece of police abuse. An office walks into a holding cell/room, converses briefly with two young suspects, and sprays them both (only one really reacts) with mace.17

Are police officers bad guys? No, certainly not. Are they above reproach? Certainly not. Someone must watch the watchmen. Power is a very corrupting drug, especially if one relies upon it to for the sake of personal safety or comfort.

To that end, we have an European-American police force tasked with keeping the peace in a community that they aren’t a part of. They are an outside force being imposed upon an already frustrated populace. That can’t be very comfortable for the police; it has to make for a tense working environment. I worked for six years in the inner city. I spent most of my day being the only white person in the room. Looking back across those six years, most of my students were rough kids who meant well, and I truly loved my students and was view favorably by most of my students. However, even I had nervous moments, even I felt the tension. I can’t imagine the stress that a police officer might feel as an outside being called into to bring peace to a situation, a crime, that might have already become violent.

Thus, if a police officer is quick to respond harshly, we could understand that fear might play a part of it. However, I don’t see fear as a factor in the video above. I see arrogance, confidence that no consequences will befall him. Is fear a factor sometimes? Yep. Are mistakes made in good faith? Sure. But does that seem to be just the tip of a very disturbing iceberg? I’m afraid so.

That being said, if I were running a police department in a city like this, I’d work to avoid the “us/them” divide by having the racial makeup of the department be at least close to the city’s. As it is, the “powers that be” seem to be ignoring the racial make-up of their department and their city. For a bit of data on this, let’s look to The New York Times.

police-race

Baltimore’s police department is twenty percent more “white” than it’s population. Ferguson’s police department is over twice as “white” as it’s population.18 Again, just from the outside, judging only by appearance, there has to be some tension between black citizens and white authority figures simply because it’s human nature to more readily trust someone who looks like you than someone who looks differently.

It’s natural distrust those who aren’t part of your social group, who look differently, who wield seemingly unchecked power. That video of the Alton police officer is dated January 26. I first heard about this story in mid-May. If I were the parent of either boy in that room, I’d be up in arms that this story took four months to come to light. So, what if that is the norm in communities like this, which is what’s being claimed. Multiple accounts of abuse that go largely ignored or marginally acknowledged begins to fuel feels of oppression and abuse and frustration.

And then someone gets shot.

Beyond the perception of police oppression/abuse and the racial divide that leads to distrust, political disenfranchisement (or disillusionment) is also a factor. In the last mayoral election in Ferguson, less than 10% of those 18 years old or older voted.19 Clearly, the people of Ferguson don’t believe that their votes count for much, or maybe it’s a situation of “promises made, promises broken.” When I look at the national gridlock, I often feel like it doesn’t matter who I vote for because nothing will get done, so I can definitely sympathize with those who might feel that way about their city.

What must that be like to live in a city that’s dying economically, filled with tension and distrust, and to be convinced that no one is going to fix it?

I’m not trying to excuse anyone’s bad behavior, neither criminals nor rioters nor corrupt politicians nor abusive police officers. I’m trying to dig into this and realize that both sides are broken and that their’s context for all of this seemingly senseless violence.

Both sides are broken. Police officers aren’t perfect, even honest ones who are earnestly trying to protect and serve, and yet they shouldn’t be lumped in with the bad, abusive eggs.

Both sides are broken. Protestors aren’t perfect, even the genuine ones who are emotionally wounded and desperate to save their city, and yet they shouldn’t be lumped in with rioters and looters.

Both sides are broken and need a Savior.

In Conclusion: Jesus

I want to go back to Micah 6:8 and then try to wrap this up.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8

What is the greater good that we should all work toward? What does God require of us as we live out our mortality? He wants us…

1) To act justly
We have to—absolutely have to!—pursue justice for every member of society. We cannot allow anyone to become marginalized or to face oppression, even the perception of oppression, as the fear alone of retribution—whether likely or not—is crippling. Deuteronomy 27:19 says that anyone who denies justice to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow is cursed. Take a deeper look at this. We could take the foreigner as the immigrant or as anyone ethnically different from “us.” The fatherless—I don’t know of a segment of society suffering more from fatherlessness than the population of the inner city. The same goes for widows, as many mothers have been abandoned and left with young children as functional widows. What if we took foreigner a bit more literally, then God is telling us to care for immigrants. If we’re commanded to care for immigrants and make sure they receive justice, then don’t you think that we should definitely be seeking justice for our own countrymen?

2) And to love mercy
“And”—what a beautiful world! It’s a conjunction, a combining word. By telling us that we are “to act justly and to love mercy,” God is giving two commands that are equal footing. These two must remain in balance. We fight for justice for the poor and oppressed, but we must also offer mercy for those who have committed injustice. Why? Because God has given mercy to us. Who are we to demand final justice? I have friends who constantly share news stories about heinous crimes on Facebook. Without exception, they share these stories with a comment that graphically describes the punishment that should befall the perpetrator. But punishment isn’t the sum total of justice. Justice isn’t simply punishing the unjust; it’s also setting things right for the oppressed. We have fallen too hard on punishment, and as such, we have prisons stuffed full and an incredibly high recidivism rate. I’m all for punishing the criminal, but then, let’s also extend them some mercy and help them grow so that they can choose a better path if and when they’re released. Furthermore, let’s extend mercy to the communities with high crime rates. Let’s discover the context for the crime and solve the root societal problems that are causing crimes to be committed in the first place. Furthermore, what is gained by this perpetual system of violence? A pound of flesh taken from the guilty cannot be given to the injured in order to restore what what lost.

Having a balance of justice and mercy validates the pain and anger of the victim by pushing the guilty without dehumanizing the guilty and leaving them with recourse but continue down their current path. I’m not saying that mercy is easy or even natural. In fact, if it were, it wouldn’t have to be commanded.

3) And to walk humbly with God
How do we balance the conflicting demands of justice and mercy? We walk humbly with God. To be humble is to aware of who you are in relation to God. Who am I? I’m a sinner who’s been saved by the sacrifice of Jesus. I have been both the victim and the victimizer. I deserved to suffer the wrath of justice but have instead received God’s mercy. Keeping that in mind, when I hear about this person committing this crime or the people of that city rioting, I’m much slower to cast blame, to call down fire, or—more subtle and more dangerous than the other two—I’ll be less likely to feel morally superior. I’m no better than anyone else. The rioters who cross the line in expressing their frustration, the police officers who abuse their power, and everyone else you can think of who has been acting up—none of them are any worse than you and I because we have all broken God’s law and are deserving of justice.

Jesus fulfilled justice on the cross and, in this, provided us with mercy. Let’s fulfill justice by setting right what has gone wrong. Let’s hear the cries of the poor, and let’s have mercy when those cries turn to shouts, for we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.

And if we’d been listening to their cries, there wouldn’t have been a need for any shouting.


  1. I’m not ignoring Asians or Hispanics. I’m not referencing them for two reasons: they have generally achieved greater success in the US than blacks and are also more likely to have an attachment to their ethnicity. 

  2. “Median income is the amount that divides the income distribution into two equal groups, half having income above that amount, and half having income below that amount.” from Wikipedia 

  3. According to Biggest US Cities 

  4. According to Census.gov 

  5. According to Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance 

  6. According to Wikipedia 

  7. 2.54 according to Statista 

  8. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services/OASPE 

  9. Quoted from “Hit by poverty, Ferguson reflects the new suburbs” by Constantine Von Hoffman/MONEYWATCH | August 19, 2014 

  10. “Richest state” via Wikipedia | 33% under $25K/14% unemployment via BNIA 

  11. Graph provided by Google Public Data using US Bureau of Labor Statistics information. US unemployment in March 2015 was 5.6% 

  12. There are those, however, who would argue that the state and national unemployment rates have been lowered because so many people left the labor pool after having been unemployed for so long after the economy dipped in 2007/2010. However, I think that same phenomenon probably factors into these cities’ statistics as well. 

  13. These stats are a bit cloudy because I couldn’t narrow in on just Ferguson and Baltimore, but I wanted to include to give a fuller economic picture. People are unemployed or making very little money, and wages are not going up fast enough to solve this issue. 

  14. Another graph provided by Google Public Data 

  15. “Persons not in the labor force who want and are available for work, and who have looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months (or since the end of their last job if they held one within the past 12 months), but were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey. Discouraged workers are a subset of the marginally attached.” via Bureau of Labor Statistics 

  16. Underemployed stats are provided by The State of Working America 

  17. In case the YouTube video gets pulled, here’s a link to the new story

  18. This article looks really good. I’ll read the whole thing after I finish writing this massive piece. 

  19. From “Hit by poverty, Ferguson reflects the new suburbs” by Constantine Von Hoffman/MONEYWATCH | August 19, 2014 

Share This