Baltimore and the question of “Racial Violence”: Problematic confines of an ‘American’ past


Written by Jenaro A. Abrahams-Child

As tensions rise on the streets of Baltimore and a question of ‘race’ is posed, many news commentators, politicians, and journalists have toyed with the typical, “to-be-expected” discourse of condemning violence as a “means to an end.”  Without putting too much thought into the nature behind the violence, they’ve managed to construct an imagery that can only be deciphered and understood by putting an absolute value on “violence” as a concept. Racial violence however has managed to seep through the traditional barriers of the concept by projecting a much larger problem: A history of institutionalized racism.

“American” History and a context of peripheral narrative of racism.

 The History of the United States of America is one that has been plagued by the positivist, empirical construction of the narrative. Whether it be by the wielding of a musket before the advancement of flanking “redcoats” or that of a pen challenging truth with your inherent, “God-given” “right” to lie, positivism and empiricism have worked to ward off the alternate historical narratives of the ‘American imagery’ by depicting a canvas of brightly colored facts and charts to justify its ever so present bias. This bias, forged during the scientific revolution of the XIX century, has worked as a shield of an ideological caliber, working solely for the sake of “proof” and “justification” instead of understanding the complexities of what cannot be proven. This liberal notion, along with the material circumstances of an obvious but empirically invisible racial hegemony, has brought America to a historical crossroads of the recognition of such.

Nevertheless, the concept of ‘Racism’ has escaped the umbrella of ‘justification’ by making itself visible through media outlets to an otherwise oblivious population. With this recognition, ‘Racism’ manifests itself on the outskirts of law and institution. It has penetrated and destroyed campaigns that were overtly dedicated to ethnic segregation by exchanging them for the constitutional protection of the individual.  To many this may seem like the first obvious step to avoid and diminish racism as an institutional issue. However, this policy shift spearheaded by President Lyndon B. Johnson among others failed to meet the expectations of the Black Civil Rights movement as a whole thus paving the way for the peripheral notions of institutional racism for years to come.  As a result of such institutionalization, nearsighted media accusations are directed at the black individual rather than understanding the collective phenomenon of problems native to the social immersion of a poor and traumatically beaten black community. This is where (or when) Baltimore Matters.

America and its racial misconceptions:

 From amber waves of grain surrounding the Midwestern city of Ferguson, to the shining seas of Baltimore, America has experienced a wave of political and social unrest sparked by the excessive use of police force on its black community. Although this is old news for many Americans, what continues to consume popular airtime on the matter references several misconceptions and myths that should be deconstructed. These consist of: a) The idea that the violence endeavored in the riots following the death of Freddie Gray ‘doesn’t  solve anything’; b) The idea that the death of Freddy Grey like that of many other black men and women are not representative of a racial problem rather than a problem rooted in the excessive use of police force. c) That if Americans want to defeat racism, they should stop referencing it in the media; d) That the racial motivation behind the Freddie grey atrocity cannot be proven; e) Racial violence doesn’t “justify” the rioting. Although most of these notions have already been challenged by bloggers, essayists, and journalists alike, what are rarely being contested are the roots and antecedents of such stances and misconceptions. Such are buried deep within the confines of the ideological construction of the American Nation.

The United States of America, like many other nations, has endured the construction and preservation of a constitutional republic. An imagery of nationhood followed. With this newly pieced puzzle of a document held high over the head of a newly founded ‘nation’, the stipulation of law and precedent seemed to be the only real binding factor that managed to unite the states in favor of a “national project”.  Its “justifications” looked to address the historical reality of immanent invasion and the accessibility of government to its people. But apart from the constitutions apparent historical legitimacy, the founding fathers or the forgers of this national imagery had no other choice but to depict a revolutionary war that would reflect orderly harmony between the states against a “totalitarian”, all-powerful monarchy ruling over the hard working and well-intended WASPs. With this notion came the ‘justification’ that birthed the traditional narrative of ‘Unity’ in the face of possible defeat. Federalists and Anti federalists however managed to exalt and celebrate such a code by their mere existence, ignoring the deeply imbedded injustices behind the ‘states rights’ debate. These debates will eventually boil into the ‘American’ civil war.

Long after the war and reconstruction however, slavery’s evils still dwell in the south and north alike, taking in the idle for wage labor while milking the poor dry. On both sides of the Shenandoah Valley, African Americans were forced to take the jobs of the meager while being told that they were dispensable. Their displacement, regardless of where it was from, managed to segregate long before the term was coined. As an inherent form of control over an already assimilated society of former slaves and slave masters, the Jim Crow South began to slowly interpret segregation to its own understanding, legitimizing prejudice at the state level.

Come the civil rights movement, a smokescreen is wrapped around the eyes of a segregated nation to breach the well-intended misconceptions of the roots of racism. As an antidote to such growing tensions caused by segregation itself, a historical imagery of peaceful protests that was endeavored during the 1960s helped undermine the violent nature of resistance and imposition alike, thus birthing the myth of a historical break with a “violent” past. With this came the mythical construction of the “end” of racism. “Peace” is then assumed uncritically as the antidote to “violence”.

“Hate and Prejudice” has now taken the form of aggression as to fit the American Imagery’s need for an ideological scapegoat. As a result of such misconceptions, the ballot is chosen over the bullet. Racial violence is then condemned and banned for all “colors”. In doing this, the American historical imagery of “Racism” will assume that the people subjected to law have been magically detached from the institutions that once damned them to servitude. It will also inherently assume that “racism” can go “both ways” thus erasing the historical context of racial repression and its obvious social and economic repercussions.

A segregation of thought:

 Without straying away to the point of nearsighted extraction, racism does not have a viable or contestable antidote that can be drawn from any human study on its own. In the American context, it’s a product of history, buried deep beneath the oppressive structures that first ‘justified’ a forced migration of people. Although the roots of such racism are subjective at best, a fear of otherness can be seen hidden beneath the structural layers of segregated roles that favor exploitation.  Within the confines of sociology however, racism can’t be detached from the social and political scaffolding native to the time period. The peripheral nature of social and economic problems birthed from F.J. Turner’s American Frontier or the wedges between the state driven tentacles of Foucault’s bio-political state could have never been forged to the liking’s of beneficiaries without dabbling with such visible institutions. By acknowledging such a stance, the myth that references racism as an entity derived purely from “hate” and “prejudice” can be dissolved.

As the blood slowly seeps through the drenched, black, statistically sound, body bags, a question is now posed again. When is police brutality against a black man representative of institutional racism? Although statistics uphold a very powerful political point, “a picture says a thousand words.” An imagery of racism is detected through the perceivable injustices that are still prevalent in the confines of the material realities of rampant poverty, a lack of education, and high levels of incarceration among many other things.

The civil rights “break” with institutional racism has managed to condemn the idea of “prejudice” by wielding it over the individual instead of understanding the peripheral complexities of its collective and social dimensions. The death of a black man in Baltimore, in Fergusson or in New York are mere projections of a much more complex problem.  Violence may not be the solution to wielding a solid and viable answer to such complexities, but it’s the only accessible defense that a marginalized African American community bares against a broken and unfair political system. “Justification” of such is absolved by the ability to exercise political power along with the collective acceptance of its legitimacy.

Biografía del autor

Jenaro Alberto Abraham-Childs nació en Huntington West Virginia en el 1988. Después de obtener su bachillerato de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Rio Piedras (UPR-RP), en Educación Musical fue admitido al Departamento Graduado de Historia donde actualmente cursa estudios conducentes a grado en historias del Caribe y América Latina.

Actualmente es maestro de Historia y Ciencias Sociales en el Episcopal Cathedral School donde imparte instrucción en Humanidades, Historia de los Estados Unidos, Historia de Puerto Rico, Sociología y Economía.