There has been a rash of killings of young black men by white police. They have drawn attention to the persistence of white anti-black racism in the United States.
A recent victim of the police is Freddy Gray, a 25-year-old black man in Baltimore. He was raised in public housing and he and his sister were found to have excessively high lead levels when they were children. Later he had several run-ins with the law and went to prison for drugs. Arrested recently, apparently without very good reason, he was injured in the course of the arrest and died 10 days later of a damaged spine.
The arresting policemen were white, but the mayor and police chief of Baltimore as well as half the police officers are African-Americans. The racial situation is not as clear and horrific as in Ferguson. It teaches us that simply looking at racism of white policeman is not sufficient to understand the epidemic of young black men dying at the hands of police.
It is difficult to find much of a biography of Freddy Gray. But it looks as if he was a young man who did not pursue the American dream in the ways laid out by endless advertisements. He was not well-educated, he did not, it looks like, have a steady job, he was into drugs and he wore his pants as low as they could go without falling down.
You don't have to be a racist to dislike people like Freddy Gray. Many Americans regardless of their origins or skin color have no time for young men like him. They believe in hard work, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and being responsible. It does not look as if Freddy Gray fit that mold. If he was a victim of prejudice it was not only prejudice against people who have dark skin like his, but also against people who do not conform to standard American expectations.
But Freddy Gray was also a victim of our punitive culture. He appeared – what ever may have been the truth about him – not to be up to much. He apparently looked like a deviant. And in America we all too often resort to punishment when young people don't seem to grow up to be the sort of people we want them to be.
To be sure there are many dedicated men and women who work in programs to help people, who were born behind the eight ball, to emerge into a full and productive life. But we also have an enormous structure of police, of courts, of many, many prisons – which we, in massive irony, often refer to as correctional institutions.
Police are armed, – sometimes heavily – they are aimed at violent criminals that need to be apprehended. They are not equipped, nor are they meant to be the people who would assist youngsters to construct a good life for themselves when society is making that very difficult.
In the background of these punitive institutions is a certain mindset that classifies people either as good citizens or as criminals – persons deserving to be punished. It is a mindset only too quick to blame someone. Whoever gets blamed for some youngster not doing right, it is not us, the good upstanding citizens who go to work and pay our taxes and keep our white picket fences in good repair. Since it cannot possibly be our fault, it must be somebody else's, most likely the young men or women themselves and so they must be punished for their transgression.
It is surely obvious that this is a truly inhumane way of thinking about our fellow citizens and thinking about the ways in which our society does not function well. It is also a gross refusal of responsibility on the part of most citizens toward what happens in the poorer parts of town, where jobs are scarce, and a happy life is really hard to come by.
But there is a very different way of thinking about people who act badly. One can think of them as members of a community. They are disturbing the community, for instance by selling drugs, by not taking responsibility for their children, by not making an honest living. And if they continue to do that they will have to make restitution, they will have to repair the damage they have done. Punishing people is being vengeful. It neither deters crime nor does it correct the criminal. The community has to come together and decide with the person who is acting badly how he or she can make up for the injuries they have done. This approach to bad actors is often called "Restorative Justice." The goal is not to punish. The goal is to restore peace and harmony in the community.
But at the same time, the community must examine itself and ask where it may have gone wrong. Whatever ways some people do not manage to grow up into responsible adults, the responsibility for that is not theirs alone. It is all of us that bear some responsibility for the sufferings of young parents and the harms suffered by their children.
The mania for building more prisons, for having more three-strike rules, for having mandatory sentences and incarcerating more and more people is a cowardly way of evading the responsibility of all of us for young men and women like Freddy Gray.
It is not only racism alone that killed this young man but a society that is merciless in pursuing vengeance against young men and women for whose lives we refuse responsibility.