President Barack Obama condemned rioters who looted and set ablaze several businesses in Baltimore Monday night following the funeral for Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who died of a spinal cord injury in police custody this month. But in remarks Tuesday afternoon, he also urged federal, state, and local governments to put a priority on programs to eradicate the root causes of such incidents—programs often grounded in education.
“Without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities,” Obama said, incidents like these have been occuring in “impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born into abject poverty.”
“They’ve got parents, often, because of substance abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves, [who] can’t do right by their kids,” he continued at the White House in a joint press conference with Japan’s prime minister, who is visiting. “It’s more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead than that they go to college.”
The president underscored that his administration has put a priority on several programs specifically aimed at helping communities plagued by chronic poverty, crime, and low graduation rates.
“If we are serious about solving this problem, then we’re going to not only have to help the police, we’re going to think about what can we do, the rest of us, to make sure that we’re providing early education to these kids to make sure that we’re reforming our criminal justice system so it’s not just a pipeline from schools to prisons,” Obama said.
He alluded to one specific program, My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative launched last year to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color. So often these conflicts arise, he said, “in communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men.”
“I’m under no illusion that out of this Congress we’re going to get massive investments in urban communities,” he added, “and so we’ll try to find areas where we can make a difference around school reform and around job training and around some investments in infrastructure in these communities and trying to attract new businesses.”
Indeed, just Tuesday the U.S. Department of Education announced eight new winners of the administration’s Promise Zone grants, which are distributed to some of the country’s most vulnerable communities and can be used for a variety of programs aimed at turning around neighborhoods.
Philadelphia, for example, a winner in the first round of grants issued last year, used the money in part to provide career training for youths who have been involved with the justice system. This year’s winners include St. Louis and St. Louis County, Mo., which covers the community of Ferguson, where protests and rioting took place last summer after an African-American man who had just graduated from high school was shot and killed by a white police officer.