“The Blacker The Berry” and Baltimore

Kendrick Lamar's message in "The Blacker The Berry" continues to speak volumes as Baltimore reacts to Freddie Gray's death.

Kendrick Lamar’s message in “The Blacker The Berry” continues to speak volumes as Baltimore reacts to Freddie Gray’s death.

The defining pop culture statement about Baltimore’s reaction to Freddie Gray’s April 19 death in police custody – in a year that will be defined by such repeated and senseless acts of institutional racism – came almost two months before this heinous tour made “Charm City” its latest stop.

Kendrick Lamar’s single “The Blacker The Berry” presented a narrator awake to how little those in power cared about his life as a black man, and the frustration and anger inherent in such a realization. The narrator of “The Blacker The Berry” and Baltimore are marching hand in hand this week, it occurred to me as I watched and read reports of peaceful protests and riots occurring in the wake of the 25-year-old Gray’s death.

Baltimore, a once great American industrial city decimated by corporate outsourcing and the phony War On Drugs, now stands at attention, eyes open to the long festering injustice at its doorstep.

Below is an examination of Baltimore’s upheaval and unrest viewed through the prism of “The Blacker The Berry”. It’s worth noting that while Lamar’s narrator refers to himself as a hypocrite throughout the song I view this as a storytelling device the artist employs to provoke thought about the senselessness of black-on-black crime in the face of such an oppressive, corrupt and hateful society. This descriptor by no means disqualifies the narrator’s point of view.

Here is the song, in case you haven’t heard it.

Verse 1: “You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’”

Merriam Webster defines sabotage as “the act of destroying or damaging something deliberately so that it does not work correctly.” Why would a government official or corporate entity seek to damage a city like Baltimore? Lamar answers this after the comma.

Profit.

From 2007 to 2013, the Baltimore area lost around 25,000 manufacturing jobs, according to the Baltimore Sun. This is nothing new. Some reports this week have estimated the city lost around 100,000 manufacturing jobs since 1950. More recent manufacturing job losses included closures of a General Motors factory, a Solo Cup plant and a steel mill, all of which created jobs with living wages and benefits for area residents across generations. This mass flight of industry has correlated with an increase in city residents working low wage jobs. In 2007, almost one in three jobs in the Baltimore region were classified as low wage, the Brookings Institute noted. This uptick in low wage jobs (think: Walmart, McDonald’s and its corporate welfare-loving friends) has continued as manufacturing jobs departed in America’s post-recession economy.

The exodus of quality jobs naturally means more live with less (not to mention a declining tax base). In Baltimore, a city whose population of more than 600,000 is almost two-thirds black, 24 percent of residents live below the poverty line – a rate 10 percent higher than the national mark, according to U.S. Census data. One in four residents living below the poverty line is unconscionable for an American metropolitan city, even one with a reputation for decay and disarray like Baltimore.

It stands to reason someone is profiting, handsomely, as Baltimore residents get squeezed. Baltimore is hardly alone from this standpoint. Detroit, Cleveland, Youngstown, Ohio, and a host of other cities suffered the same fates when industry took its chips and cashed them elsewhere.

Did American corporations, with the aid of government measures like free trade agreements, sabotage cities in their quest for the Almighty Dollar? Yes, and the reverberations are still being felt today across America and will continue for the foreseeable future as new agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) move forward.

Verse 2: “I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society”

I am willing to concede Lamar might have referenced Ronald Reagan’s laughably racist War On Drugs and the prison-industrial complex it helped launch in the first line I quoted. That concept, in terms of black men feeling irrelevant to society, also pertains to this line from the second verse, so I will address it here.

The New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander defined in her brilliant and unsettling book of the same name, states that, in lieu of the original program’s dissolution, new tactics were devised to not only limit black men’s impact in society, such as restricting their voting rights for non-violent felony drug offenses, but also undermine their impact on their families and communities as well (i.e., more men behind bars means less men raising their children).

America excels at putting people in jails/prisons. From 1980 to 2008 the number of Americans incarcerated skyrocketed from 500,000 to 2.3 million. One million of those jailed are/were blacks. Imprisoned blacks outnumber whites six to one, even though there are six whites in America for every black, according to the NAACP.

I mean, how can anyone who doesn’t have a confederate flag hanging from their porch look at those numbers, side by side, and not find the system racist? (Note: This does not even take into account the vast differences in sentencing for whites and blacks – vis a vis lighter sentences for powder cocaine versus crack cocaine.)

In recent years, Baltimore’s incarceration rates decreased due to changing prosecution policies toward non-violent drug offenses (read: possessing small quantities of marijuana), according to the Justice Policy Institute. Still, one-third of Maryland’s prison population are Baltimore residents, and the state’s taxpayers spend around $288 million to house these 7,800 prisoners, the International Business Times reported this week.

This cottage industry didn’t pop up by chance.

In the past two decades the city’s police budget has doubled to more than $300 million even as its budget for rec centers for youth has remained relatively stagnant around $10 million, the
Baltimore Sun reported
in 2013 in a story about the mayor choosing to close 20 rec centers. Meanwhile, the city planned earlier this decade to build a $100 million juvenile detention center before protests stalled the project.

Wait, what?

A proposal to build a juvenile detention center at 10 times the cost of the city’s recreation center budget at a time when those centers are being shuttered? Yeah, that screams Baltimore has its priorities in place and is primed to help kids succeed.

(It’s worth noting that while Baltimore’s incarceration rates have dropped violent crime in the city remains high. The city’s homicide rate ranked fifth in the country last year, according to FBI statistics. Not only are people locked up at disproportionate rates but they don’t feel safe in their communities. The city has also paid $5.7 million in damages for police abuse toward citizens since 2011. Fear operates in many different ways.)

Verse 3: “Excuse my French but fuck you — no, fuck y’all / That’s as blunt as it gets, I know you hate me, don’t you?”

The deaths of Freddie Gray, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and many other unarmed black men at the hands of police in the past calendar year have served as a powerful reminder the system has failed a substantial portion of its citizens. As Greg Howard observed in Deadspin earlier this year, “America is not for black people.”

Lamar’s narrator realizes this acutely, redirecting the hatred others, notably white people, express toward him back on them. In this way, he crafts his own golden rule: Reject others as they would reject you. His realization that his life matters, at a time when many others don’t agree, is cause for marching in the streets. Likewise, many in Baltimore and beyond have taken to the streets despite the pleas of powerful people to go home. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates laid out the best rationale for why go home requests are misguided and misleading appeals for peace (er, compliance) from powerful groups who perpetrated sins on the community in this case, either through physical violence or cutting programs that could have sparked positive change.

The elite’s message: Quiet down.

This is a control tactic. Nothing else. Shut people up. Get them to accept that nothing will change and make them feel powerless. That feeling allows the people in control to stay in control. Except an odd thing is happening in Baltimore and elsewhere. People are feeling energized. I witnessed this first hand earlier this year near Times Square and in Harlem during marches in remembrance of Mike Brown, the 18-year-old fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

What’s interesting about Baltimore is, theoretically, it is for black people, to borrow Howard’s phrase. It has a black mayor, police chief and school board chairman. Blacks have seized seats at the table, so to speak, but the system remains rigged for most city residents for reasons that often extend past the city’s borders. In this way, Baltimore’s protests also go beyond the borders of Baltimore, linking with other protests across America to demand change in how black people are viewed. Rather than suspects and potential fodder for a corrupt justice system they are human beings with real needs and dreams, just like other Americans.

Acts of protest and civil disobedience are necessary, in these situations, to drive the conversation to the root causes of the protests, to force the ugliness out into the open. These are the conversations our major corporate-owned media seek to avoid because they serve corporate interests, whose bottom line does not increase when people know how and why they are being screwed. These are exactly the conversations “The Blacker The Berry” provoke, and that’s why this song will remain the year’s most important pop culture statement when, invariably and regrettably, the next instance of unprovoked police violence happens in America.

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