“We’ll recover—and be better than ever.” That’s the pretty common response made to the TV camera in the aftermath of disaster. Whether it’s a small town or a big city that’s been hard hit, the public face nowadays is bravado—big talk. But whether Baltimore’s bravado continues depends to a great extent on the outcomes of the trials of the six police officers indicted in the police-custody death of Freddie Gray.
So it felt good to see a recent story in The Baltimore Sun about some action. The story told of volunteers renovating an empty building that would become a joyful place for kids, a refuge from the inner city’s dangerous streets. The story said the building being worked on was in Bolton Hill. Bolton Hill? The white enclave adjacent to African-American West Baltimore?
In Baltimore, Bolton Hill is synonymous with professionals who, despite the risks, care enough about the welfare of their city and country that they choose to live close in. To me, that meant some of the hard work in fixing up the recreation center would be done by doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals who live in this lovely community.
Bolton Hill kids would be among those taking advantage of a modern, up-to-date facility. In doing so, they would mingle with African-American kids. Such integration would be a big step forward in slowing down the shooting sprees, which at the worst, so far, led to a weekend in early July when there were at least 20 shootings, 11 of them fatal. White kids and black kids mingling might temper the urge to settle petty grievances with guns.
Upon further investigation, however, I realized that such an integrated youth center existed only in my mind. The references to Bolton Hill in the story were geographical, not sociological. I had been wondering what could be done to stop a young person from growing up ready to put a bullet in the brain of a human being very much like himself. There wouldn’t be much of middle-class white values at the new Bolton Hill youth center.
Very disappointing. I had concluded that the only way to end the daily shootings was to expose inner-city children to value systems different from those many have now. Neither firing the police chief nor new police strategies nor new technology would end the shootings. It would take a full generation of exposure to different values.
Every day in the Baltimore area, I see clear progress in ending the racial segregation that still exists here. I see integration of employment in banks, schools, department stores, hospitals, entertainment, the professions, and all levels of government, including the police department. Most whites react favorably to the competence and character they observe in blacks in the workplace. White people are accustomed to working with black people. In the workplace, usually, all employees follow the same rules and expectations of behavior.
Learning social skills by age 5 is associated with absence of criminal activity later in life."
The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education had as its purpose ending racial segregation in public schools. But in big cities across the country, by and large, that hasn’t happened. While white parents are accustomed to working with black people, many do not want their children going to school with large numbers of black kids. When my own children were in middle school in New Haven, Conn., and large numbers of black kids were bused in from the inner city, the character of the school changed. The inner-city kids brought with them inner-city values, and white parents sought alternatives to city public schools.
Integration has worked, for the most part, in private schools, because private schools have been able to control who attends. Private schools want black kids—but only to an extent. They want to avoid the tipping point at which the dominant values in the school become those of the inner city. Whites, as well as blacks who can afford to, choose to live in suburbs because the schools are better. Classroom decorum and behavior are not the major problems in suburban schools that they are in most inner-city schools. Few shootings occur in suburban neighborhoods.
Baltimore public school officials have put together a 17-page student code of conduct. The topics in the code undoubtedly are there because administrators hope to head off future instances of the kind described. Among the topics are attacks on students and school personnel, and other behavior that could cause death or disfigurement. Significant attention is paid to classroom disruption, defiance of authority, extortion, and robbery.
In suburban Baltimore County public schools, the emphasis is not on warnings and punishments but on character development. The student handbook focuses on ways students can grow and improve themselves. They are expected to have self-control, show good judgment, and have a sense of justice. They are encouraged to show compassion and empathy and behave toward others with kindness.
Most of the violence in the inner city is carried out by what Orlando Patterson, the well-respected African-American sociologist at Harvard University, calls the “inner-city problem minority.” The problem minority is made up mostly of alienated, aggressive, gun-toting black males between the ages of 16 and 35. This problem minority has been the main source of the fear many whites—and law-abiding blacks—have of young black men. Most law-abiding people want to keep their negative influence out of their schools and out of their lives generally. One effect this problem minority has is that a large part of the law-abiding African-American community in the metropolitan area feels unwelcome in their own country and city.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, which has a rate of violent crime similar to Baltimore’s, says there is an epidemic of black-on-black violence in inner cities across the country. He pleads for action to be taken to deal with it. But thus far there is no successful solution. Political correctness is so deeply rooted that white people are reluctant to publicly say anything negative about any part of the African-American community.
The kind of action needed is long-term prevention. In a recent study by the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University, a direct connection was shown between the environments of young children and their behavior 20 years later. The researchers found that learning social skills by age 5 is associated with absence of criminal activity later in life. Attending kindergarten led by teachers concerned with generating a spirit of cooperation and caring seemed crucial for later behavior that was not anti-social.
Education begun at an early age that gives priority to character development is necessary if Orlando Patterson’s “problem minority” is to wither away. Suburbanites will need to take chances with their spiritual comfort and find ways of taking down the walls that prevent city children from mingling in school with their own. For the good of the country, local politicians and school administrators must find ways to bring that about without sacrificing the character and quality of their schools. It can be done.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Education, Not Political Correctness, Is the Answer