In two acts.
Act I: David Brooks
For whatever reason, one of the first things I read today was this David Brooks column, “The Nature of Poverty.” Brooks is selling character these days, so his own brand of vapid exhortation on the subject has reached a fever pitch in his columns. But in this case what struck me was not the pedantic “we’ve done so much and they are still not pulling their own weight” thing (not a quote), but the extreme blindness on the issue of the protests — which he didn’t even mention (after this sociology 101 fail of an opening: “Lately it seems as though every few months there’s another urban riot” — which is a quote).
What I mean is, the Black (and other) residents of the city rising up in protest is staring him in the face as a response to decades of exploitation, marginalization, and repression, and he just wants to talk about the same old problem of lacking “responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” Amazingly, in the very next sentence, he offers this juxtaposition: “a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.”
Really, ballet? Could he not think of any of the other millions of examples of social life that fit exactly the description, “a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors”? That basically describes any society (even poor ones), or any collective activity. Maybe it never crossed his mind that juxtaposing the character-deprived ghetto with the beautiful ballet might have a slightly elitist connotation? I know ballet is not — and should not be — all White, but it’s pretty White, especially in the popular imagination. Here’s the first page Google image search for “ballet child”:
Of course, social organization is a big issue, and concentrating the efforts of poor communities for successful social change is vitally important. Brooks sees the dysfunction, and the riot, but he doesn’t see the beautifully unfolding protest, the real story of the day.
Act II: Nina Totenberg
After that aggravation, imagine my delight when, as my New York Times / NPR morning unfolded, I found out Nina Totenberg was one of the panelists on the Diane Rehm show’s weekly news roundup. Always rational and erudite, a keen legal analyst, she may be the favorite voice on NPR. But today her cluelessness reminded me a lot of Brooks’.
Seven minutes into the show, they turned from the details of the Baltimore situation to the social context, and Totenberg launched into this description of the city. This is her entire comment:
If you go to Baltimore – and they’re our neighbors here, and we go all the time – it is the quintessential example of a city that once was a thriving manufacturing, also a port, city. And now when you go there, they’ve built up the Harbor, and that’s lovely, but you drive through that city – it’s not that big – and half of it looks boarded up, people are standing on the street corners looking – just hanging out, looking like they’re probably drunk, and with nothing to do. It is sort of – the scene when you drive through the city, if you’re going to Johns Hopkins for something, and you drive through that city, it is reminiscent of what townships looked like in apartheid South Africa. It’s not a pretty sight.
This struck me as the nadir of the elitist media model that the show represents so well. She is telling us about Baltimore, based on her expertise which stems, apparently, from visiting the Inner Harbor and driving through “half the city” on her way to Johns Hopkins University. (Her use of the second person in “you’re going to Johns Hopkins for something” brings to mind Rebecca Skloot’s description in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in which the poor Black population of Baltimore historically had no contact with the elite White campus in its midst.)
Of course, unemployment is a serious problem in the poor parts of Baltimore — and their addicts can’t as easily conceal their condition as can those with more wealth and real estate. But it’s the old, scared-White-person-driving-through-the-ghetto thing that Rand Paul illustrated the other day with, “I came through the train on Baltimore last night. I’m glad the train didn’t stop.” You would think Totenberg would have watched The Wire at least enough to get the point that behind the unemployed people on street corners — inside the homes that you can’t drive through — there are men, women, and children doing all the other things people try to do everywhere else in the country, but with less money and more police brutality to contend with.
Of course she’s sympathetic about poverty. So I would have let it go, if she hadn’t followed it up with this. When host Susan Page mentioned the controversy over “calling them riots or rebellions,” and Obama using the word “thugs.” She asked, “Nina, how much difference does the language that we journalists use matter in a case like this?” To which Totenberg responded:
Well, I suppose it does. But I don’t see that people who are setting fires and breaking windows and looting stores, that you can call it a rebellion. That’s a really – that’s a stretch for me. You can have terrible wrongs, at the same time that you have a reaction that’s – inappropriate – let’s put it that way. I mean, I read a story that even some of the gang members [chuckle] were helping to calm things down.
First, I’m trying to think of an example from history of something that you would call a rebellion — in anything but a metaphorical sense — that would not include setting fires, breaking windows, and looting stores. To make matters worse, her followup gang comment, rather than illustrating a heightened level of community solidarity that has appeared in Baltimore, is somehow supposed to make the rioters look even more savage, because they’re even offending gang members.
Toward the end of the hour Susan Page gave Totenberg a chance to help herself out a little:
Page: We’ve gotten several emails, directed at you Nina, and a comment that you made earlier. I’ll just read one of them from W. Middleton, who’s writing us from Ohio, this person writes, “I am troubled by the poor choice of words describing citizens of Baltimore. To say that people are just standing around and looking drunk is insulting and in many ways captures a racist portrayal of communities of color.” What would you say, Nina?
Totenberg: Well, I s— didn’t have in mind any particular race. What I had in mind was people who obviously have no job, nothing to do, are standing on the corner, not fully functional, perhaps I should’ve said “not fully functional,” and that is the saddest thing in a, in a country that prides itself on the ability to – uh, as a working country.
Completely missing the point that it’s not necessarily offensive to describe a drunk person on the street corner as a drunk person on a street corner, what’s offensive is describing half the city as a drunk person on a street corner.
The authenticity craze sweeping young people is accentuated by social media, which delivers “real time” information, and smartphone cameras, which are perceived as unedited windows into reality. That these old media elites would say things offensive to poor Black people is of course not news. But what strikes me more and more is that the out-of-touchness of their offensiveness is growing increasingly apparent in contrast to the wave of apparently (if not actually) unmediated, authentic information all around them.