If You’re Poor and Black in Baltimore, Help Isn’t Coming (on the Limits of Politics)

By Roberto E. Alejandro, editor-in-chief

Baltimore, currently in its third year of attempting to push its per capita murder rate beyond historical limits, finds itself trapped between a Black political structure smothering a Black community struggling for air, and a Black community whose frame of reference equates struggle with life.

In the spring of 2015, at the time when kingz go off to war, and one day after Freddie Gray had been arrested and fatally injured in West Baltimore, I was reporting on the community’s sense of what, by then, was a homicide rate outracing the pace established the previous year. I could have produced a story on this topic by the journalistic equivalent of “sampling different parts of Nautilus” (see Nas’s “Carry on Tradition,” on Hip Hop Is Dead), simply reaching out to community “leaders” and activists, collecting their thoughts, and organizing them into a narrative. But so could anyone else. Hip-Hop being what it is in my life, I felt the need to “flip it,” to do something different that could be distinguished from prevailing norms in Baltimore journalism.

I decided telling this story required going to the source, to parts of Baltimore where I knew violence was a more common occurrence, and where the drug activity that is generally presumed to be at the heart of so much of the city’s violence was actively taking place. But I did not want to simply speak to persons living in a place where violence might occur, I wanted to speak to members of the community who were themselves involved in activities related to that violence. Among my stops, I went to an intersection in Park Heights that is, during much of the day, not unlike many other places around Baltimore, an open air drug market. I knew there I would have access to a mix of what we might describe as combatants and non-combatants.

At that intersection, I spoke to a couple of employees of a hair products store, the kind that along with liquor stores, corner stores, and barbershops/beauty salons tend to populate the commercial landscape of inner cities. The women I spoke to that day were certainly aware of the uptick in violence, but largely casual about it. While there are certainly victims of violence in the city who simply suffer the misfortune of place and time, generally speaking, violence in Baltimore is an activity subsisting on the voluntary participation of combatants. Further, after so many decades of struggle, violence is normal in much of Baltimore, especially inner city Baltimore, and persons tend to shrug it off, as one man did who gave a passing comment while I was interviewing some people on the sidewalk at the intersection: “When it gets hot it gets stupid.”

It was not that hot yet in Baltimore, but, as in many warrior societies, the Spring is the beginning of the killing season, and it was at least hot enough for killing. At that intersection, I met a young man trying to make a dollar. There were holes in the clothes he was wearing, and he told me he had not managed to finish high school, so you can imagine the limited employment options he faced in a city that struggles to provide for those who have.

By nine years of age, this young man had joined a gang, in need of a family and food, due to a mother who was spending all of the family income on her addiction (an addiction, he told me with a measure of pride, she had since overcome). From his perspective, now in his early 20s, he should never have joined a gang, realizing that what you learn there about making it in the world are mostly the wrong lessons, and acknowledging that selling drugs only left you with enough money in your pocket to eat that day.

To this young man, the solution to Baltimore’s violence problem was simple: jobs. Pretty much everyone I spoke to for that story, whether near the intersection of North Ave. and Aisquith, or Park Heights, or North and Fulton, gave the same prescription.

But herein lies one of the problems that neither the center-left nor the far-left, the binary of Baltimore politics, ever honestly acknowledges: government has limited means for producing jobs. Other than hiring people directly–and city and state government are already among the major employers of Baltimore City residents–there is very little a city or state can do to provide actual jobs to residents specifically.

That might not be the case in a different economic system, but in our economic system, private enterprise generally creates jobs, while governments attempt to provide incentives either for new companies (and thereby jobs) to be created, or for existing ones to remain in place. Which is to say, beyond staffing the bureaucracy, the tools governments possess in the economic (or job creation) sphere operate at the periphery. They can fund training, but cannot produce jobs. They can cut taxes or give other incentives, but they cannot make someone open a business or hire locally. They can set a wage, but they cannot automatically qualify you for it.

What Marx Can Tell Us about The Limits of Policy in the American Politco-Economic Context

In Marxist thought there is a concept known as the alienation of labor (for more on this, see the chapter “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness). There are various aspects to this concept, but one of its basic premises is that, once upon a time, goods were produced by a person with a story. The artisan or craftsperson was born into this or that historical situation, overcame particular obstacles while developing their craft, and all of these personal elements were built into the value or price of what they produced, and therefore into the value returned to that artisan in any transaction. Put another way, the value of the good would be determined on the basis of what the person who made it thought it was worth in light of the personal experience it took to produce it.

But with industrialization, and the reduction of work into standard quantities like labor-hour, the personal aspects informing a person’s ability to produce disappeared from the equation. On an assembly line, where you might find yourself doing the same thing over and over, it is irrelevant whether you were born with privilege, and that your presence on the line speaks to the ways you wasted that privilege, or whether you had to overcome poverty and a lack of education, and that your presence on the line speaks to your hard work and perseverance.

This is, in part, because the owner of the assembly line needs someone to turn that bolt, for instance, over and over (see “Modern Times,” directed by Charlie Chaplin), and so the question of the personal path the worker took to end up in that factory is irrelevant. You simply get paid by the hour, and the price paid for that labor does not include anything of the path you took to arrive at that employment opportunity, or at the set of skills you apply to your work on the assembly line. Thus, your life story becomes alienated, or separated, from your economic value, once that value is reduced to the time (labor-hour) you can sell to someone who owns the means of production.

Put another way, and taking the hypothetical owner of our assembly line as an example, the owner of the assembly line is not responsible for the path your life took, and she did not start the assembly line to save people with sympathetic stories, but to grow whatever initial investment it took to create the line. Though government manages the context in which that initial investment took place, it has no way of making the owner pay, for instance, one rate to a person whose path to employment was arduous, and a separate rate to someone whose path was easy.

In this, any American government (whether federal, state, or local) is encumbered by certain theoretical commitments, and namely Enlightenment commitments to a definition of freedom that often reduces the notion to its economic definition (on this, see section 8 of Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political). The commitment to this version of freedom has generally meant, even for progressives in the American political context, that government keeps an arm’s length from economic arrangements, in order to ensure that economic agreements are made freely (hence, progressives propose college access and job training, allowing persons to make free arrangements concerning whom to sell their skills to or what to study, but do not propose that jobs simply be provided). This commitment to not interfering too directly in economic agreements means neither side of American politics is likely to propose forcing an assembly line owner to determine the value of labor based on the backstory of the laborer. But even if one were, we would have to admit that it would be rather impossible to set up a system that enabled such a valuation of labor.

After all, an employer would need all sorts of detailed information about one’s life and background, information they would have to collect through invasive questioning of a potential employee (or, shortly, their Google history), information a potential employee might not want to entirely divulge. But even if we were somehow able to collect all of that information from every employee, it would further require that we place a value on every conceivable type of experience and decision, and build that into our model for how XYZ life path should equate to a specific wage.

Human experience is too complex to effectively eliminate the problem of the alienation of labor in our current information and industrial context, an economy that still follows the basic outlines of a traditional industrial economy (you give me labor hours, I give you a wage), even as that economy has been giving way for some time to a new system defined by information technologies, but that is still in a stage of fetal development.

Somewhere deep down, Baltimore’s political leaders understand this, but they do not communicate it to those they represent. And so as the community asks for jobs, like the young man I met in Park Heights in 2015, our leaders talk about training programs, and public-private partnerships, and local hiring requirements, and minimum wages. Note that while all of those things are related to jobs, none of them are actually jobs, the one thing the community has asked for.

But our politicians are rarely honest about the limits of their power. Rather than be honest and explain that government can provide incentives to industry but not actual jobs to citizens, our leaders obscure the fact that they cannot address the principal need of their constituents behind long-winded policy accounts few of the struggling completely understand. Making matters worse, politicians talk about their love for Baltimore, the charm of the city, the generosity and willingness to work hard possessed by the citizenry, the fight demonstrated by the willingness to struggle for so long, convincing persons who have little choice but to hope what they are hearing is true that factors from which labor considerations have completely been alienated will prevail upon investors considering where to open their businesses. That is, our politicians talk a lot of shit, but none of it has anything to do with actually improving people’s lives, and a lot of it is utterly disconnected from the things that might improve those lives due to the broader context in which both our politics and our community operate.

Unawares, the community is promised something outside the purview of government to meaningfully deliver, and, indeed, the community ends up with very little. The result is a populace disengaged, we might say ‘alienated,’ from politics, and that, having concluded that no help is coming, seeks to help itself.

And herein lies a truth that is rarely expressed to the poor: people who can be defined as upper middle-class or above, the well from which most political leaders are drawn, even in Baltimore, lead lives that are almost completely and utterly isolated from the impacts of policy. Professionals get salaries, not wages, and so wage debates for them are just an opportunity, if the relevant professional is on the left, to participate in the theology of the left. They demand $15 an hour, and head start, and free access to college. They ignore the data that suggests these programs make no difference in the lives of impoverished minorities, because they probably had an experience of early education, went to college, and would never get off their asses for $15 an hour, let alone less than that, so these must be the objective secrets to success. But the progressive commitment to these ideas are equivalent to the religious commitment that a wafer turns into the flesh of Christ when placed inside your mouth. The willingness to assert that wafer becomes flesh is not driven by whether that is a factually accurate statement, but whether the culture of one’s faith requires that particular confession.

“These Are Our Heroes” (see Nas, “Coon Picnic,” on Street’s Disciple)

Most policy ideas are theories about what will help toward this or that end, and the poor and working classes are the field in which such theories are applied experimentally. If their lives improve, great. But the upper middle-class theorists of the left will see little change in their own lives whether such policy theories work or fail, which is why progressives can fail so often and yet be so convinced of their fundamental rightness. Their rightness is not driven by the on the ground success of their policy ideas, their rightness is a theological given and their policy prescriptions are their confessional statements: We believe in One God, who created heaven and earth, and pre-K education, and that human labor is worth at minimum $15 an hour.

To give an unfortunate example of the disconnect between the lives progressive professionals live and their supposed principles, let us take former Maryland Delegate Jill Carter, referred to by many as “the people’s champ” for her willingness to sponsor and fight for criminal justice reform measures in Annapolis, Maryland’s capital, even when that meant butting up against a Democratic power structure that rarely had any interest in addressing the concerns of poor Blacks decimated by the state’s criminal justice policies, and which championed many of those oppressive policies in the first place. Towards the end of the 2015 legislative session, Carter was upset after an episode in which she drew the ire of Democratic leadership for retweeting an editorial produced by a prominent activist group in Baltimore. The group, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, had written a piece on their website accusing the Democratic power structure in Annapolis, a structure that was largely White, of racism where a number of criminal justice reform efforts were concerned, especially the attempt to reform the state’s law enforcement officers bill of rights (LEOBR), which gave police officers accused of misconduct due process rights beyond those guaranteed to private citizens by the U.S. Constitution.

By way of context, Freddie Gray was fatally injured by police officers the day before the 2015 legislative session ended on April 13, the day I was speaking to the young man in Park Heights. Freddie died less than a week later. At the press conference held by city officials on April 19, hours after Freddie had died, it was admitted that none of the officers involved in the arrest had given statements to the police about what had occurred on the day he was injured, shielded from doing so by the LEOBR.

Carter, still trying to secure passage of a number of reform bills in the waning days of the 2015 session, was hurt because no one had really come to her defense as Democratic leadership seemed to turn their backs on her, including the authors of the editorial, whom she had mentored politically for a number of years, but also, it must be said, the very community members who had most benefited from Carter’s years of advocacy in Annapolis, disconnected from politics as they tend to be, justifiably or not. But she was also growing tired of being among the lone Black voices from Baltimore truly fighting for these issues, and one of her favorite examples of a Black Baltimore politician who had never fought for such issues was then Senator Catherine Pugh, who had risen to the position of Democratic majority leader in 2014 by trading away the opportunity for members of the Black Caucus to hold more committee chairpersonships, or so it was whispered among the connected.

Understand that, in Annapolis, Democratic committee chairs make or break legislation. In a legislature where Democrats tend to hold veto-proof majorities, a committee chair’s willingness to let a bill reach the floor of one of the legislative chambers is generally all that determines whether a bill is passed. Pugh, it was said, had traded away the opportunity for more of those chairs to be Black, and, some would assume, rightly or wrongly, for more bills benefiting the Black community to pass, in exchange for becoming majority leader. In September 2015, about four months after the riots that followed the funeral of Freddie Gray on April 27, Pugh announced her candidacy for the mayoralty of Baltimore City. Assuming she won the mayoralty, which she indeed eventually did, her announced run meant that she was prepared to abandon a post she had received after the 2014 election and just before the start of the 2015 legislative session, at the cost of not only seeing more Black faces in committee chairpersonships, but supposedly keeping a Black senator, then-Senator Lisa Gladden of Baltimore City, out of the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee chairpersonship, the very committee whose White chair, Senator Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, killed the LEOBR reform efforts in the days prior to Freddie’s death on April 19, 2015.

Carter, after being courted by the Baltimore Green Party to run as their mayoral candidate in the 2016 election, an offer staked on her reputation as the people’s champion, went on to endorse Pugh for mayor, a politician whom Carter had often disparaged of being among those who never did anything meaningful to push progressive ideas benefiting poor Blacks in Annapolis. Carter gave Pugh the progressive street cred Pugh lacked on the strength of her own record, and which Carter possessed in spades, all in exchange, we would find out after Pugh’s victory in the mayoral race, for the largely ceremonial position of Director of the Mayor’s Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement.

Carter had long since tired of the hypocrisy of Maryland’s Democratic party where the concerns of poor Blacks were concerned, and so, as a way out of the legislature that did not cut off future political opportunities, she lent her credibility to a mayor who has since vetoed an increase in Baltimore’s minimum wage (after promising during the campaign to support a $15 minimum), and who, among her first official acts as the Black female mayor of a majority Black city, presented a letter to president-elect Donald Trump, a man who had run a campaign largely defined by racism and misogyny, expressing her hope that they could work together on infrastructure projects. Currently, Pugh is supporting a push for mandatory minimum sentences, the main driver of America’s racialized mass incarceration crisis, and a version of what came to be known in Baltimore as “zero tolerance,” as a response to the city’s ongoing and increasing gun violence.

Granted, Pugh also, after initially hesitating, moved with much greater haste than her Democratic predecessor in the mayoralty, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, to remove the Confederate statues that dot the Baltimore landscape, and so it cannot be said she is completely deaf to the petitions of Black or progressive Baltimoreans. But this was an obvious action back when nine Black church members were murdered in a terrorist attack in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015, let alone after a second terrorist incident in which a White supremacist demonstrating against the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, VA, drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one, Heather Heyer. And while the removal of the statues is symbolically important, symbolic measures do not address the actual legacy of racism, which is found much more in the hundreds of murders and crushing poverty that dot the Baltimore landscape, and for which no real solution will be forthcoming, than in the Confederate statues many had never noticed until they became a cause celebre.

Indeed, at the first press conference in which a group of citizens called for the removal of the statues back in June, 2015, Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, one of the principal organizers of that press conference, admitted having driven by the monument to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson various times, unaware of who the statues memorialized, but which now needed to be removed, because, after all, what type of politics should Baltimoreans practice, with the few policy tools for addressing actual problems at their disposal that they are also willing to use, other than the symbolic—read: bullshit—variety? And it should not go unnoticed that, in Baltimore, a majority Black city, Confederate monuments were not ordered down until a White woman died in Virginia. Nine Blacks dying in a terrorist attack was not enough, because, you know, Black lives matter.

But the removal of Confederate statues was not about racial justice, but about affirming the sensibilities of middle-class African Americans, the principal constituency of Baltimore politics, and one that generally prefers tough on crime approaches where their poorer brethren are concerned. This is the main reason progressives are so often disappointed in Baltimore’s political outcomes, and the main reason so much of what Baltimore is willing to do on the racial justice front rarely moves beyond the symbolic.

Hence, a symbolic position in the administration of Mayor Pugh, so clearly concerned with matters of racial justice over the course of her career, was the 30 pieces accepted by Carter, “the people’s champ,” a title that—and this cannot be denied—had been earned, but has since been squandered. Prior to that, I think it fair to say, Carter was poor Black Baltimore’s greatest hope for a meaningful advocate. She is now far from that, and, it must be admitted, that her life has not actually changed as a result. Like I said, the professional classes are not impacted by policy, politics, or any other vagaries of life the way the poor are. Carter sold away the persons she had long fought for, and in exchange received a title that communicates to others that she
still fights for them, which is all progressives ultimately care about, the appearance of still being members of the faith.

So if you are poor, and especially if you are poor and Black, just remember that the people assuring you of how “woke” they are, and how much their policy prescriptions will help you, have absolutely no skin in the game that they did not put there by choice rather than necessity. They are not one of you, and their engagement in progressive politics is always, at its core, driven by the conceit that THEY are somehow the solution to YOUR problem (in our largely Christian context, it is fair to call this a tendency towards messianism; see also “The Positive Functions of Poverty,” by Herbert Gans, for a discussion of how the poor are needed to sustain the do-gooderism of other social classes). Granted, most poor people seem to understand this implicitly, it’s the advocates and activists who seem unable to grasp this truth.

Those advocates and activist are not, at day’s end, there to help the poor, they are there for validation of their self-evident centrality to the rest of the universe. This is made most evident by the number of participants in Baltimore’s political debates that seem to be utterly ignorant as to their crushing lack of qualifications for addressing the city’s problems, yet shout down anyone unwilling to utter their confessional slogans. Let this be clear, having an opinion about or reaction to a social or political problem, even a heartfelt one, does not magically qualify you to solve them. It certainly does not provide any insight into a potential solution.

When Centuries of Struggle and Trauma Come to Define Personhood

Baltimore has struggled under the weight of de-industrialization for decades now. The 80s was the last time this city could be meaningfully described as working-class, and so, in our most struggling neighborhoods, we have young persons conditioned by at least three or four generations of struggling, largely in the streets, to survive.

Persons who did not grow up navigating the streets do not always appreciate the intergenerational nature of “criminal” activity (that is, activity defined as criminal by our arbitrary laws, laws which are the products of human arbitration, decision making). It is a knowledge passed down from one generation to the next, sometimes by parents to their children, sometimes by older acquaintances to younger ones, but in any event, when a community has struggled for so long, with only black markets at their disposal, the establishment of and participation in such markets is all some, though too many, are left with to pass down to the generation following.

But the economic struggles of Baltimore have not only brought about black markets, they have also brought despair overflowing into drug addiction, and frustration overflowing into violence. Experience of this violence often begins in the home, where, like all of us, community members first take their frustrations out on those closest to them. The addictions also take place in the home, where many young people, and most young people who end up in the streets (based on my experience interviewing street dealers), are left to largely fend for themselves as their parent(s) feed an addiction to the neglect of feeding their children. Meanwhile, the addiction also exacerbates the frustration overflowing into anger, making domestic violence a rather common occurrence.

Add to this the post-traumatic stress that afflicts so many, and you have a situation in Baltimore where, in our poorest communities, children are born into a world where the symptoms of PTSD are normalized, and where, even before you may have experienced any trauma yourself—to the extent such a thing can be avoided in Baltimore—you are learning how to navigate life on the basis of observing adults or older persons whose behaviors are completely defined by their experience of want and trauma, and whose forbearers imparted little else because they themselves knew little else. You grow up thinking these behaviors are normal, the way you are supposed to act as an adult, and so you learn to sing the virtues of behaviors that exacerbate, if not perpetuate, the challenges in the community.

I recall riding a bus in Baltimore a few years ago and listening to a young man, who could not have been older than 14, chide a friend for making an inadvertent double entendre that “was not nigga.” Describing something adjectivally as “nigga” is not uncommon, especially among men, in poor Black spaces, though it is little more than a reference to behaviors that might fall under, in other spaces, the umbrella of “toxic masculinity” (is there any other form?). And so this term should not be cause for scandal, nor is it necessary to first adjudicate the appropriateness of its usage in light of one’s understanding of race and American history, as it is really little more, in this context, than a term many poor Blacks use to refer to males. Since those males and the poor Black community they belong to are also part of the American and Western landscape, “nigga” takes on the same sort of problematic content that “man” or “bro” might take on, centering antisocial behavior as part and parcel of masculine identity (for a simple illustration, consider our current president and his apparent interpretation of masculinity).

But in poor Black spaces in Baltimore, “antisocial” is not informed only by the innocently boorish (think urinating in public), or the retrograde homophobic (think an inadvertent double entendre), but by decades and centuries—since we cannot ignore America’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism (both structural and interpersonal)—of normalized trauma responses. Masculinity, ensconced in the term “nigga,” especially among the poorest of our young men, has thus become defined by behaviors that are the obvious consequences of a long history of racial violence and trauma (the most obvious example being physical violence as an acceptable response to slights or insults, itself an extension of the emotional exhaustion induced by trauma that is both humiliating and invariably leads to outbursts). But more problematically, at least for the lives of poor Blacks themselves, and especially poor young Black men, that definition of “nigga,” with all its wonderfully self-destructive aspects (self-destruction being one of the most common reactions to trauma) is now being policed by the very persons who will find themselves oppressed on the basis of that term’s historically conditioned self-definition.

This policing requires an insistence on engaging in behaviors normalized over the course of an oppressive history. Once normalized through definition, these behaviors appear less a function of the context, and more a function of what you “are” in your very being, and become what postcolonial theorist Edward Said called “a form of authority before which [all] were expected to bend” (see Said’s Orientalism). That is, once normalized, that definition becomes the rod against which one measures their behavior, allowing that behavior to be policed in a way that ensures persons are conforming to the definition, and behaving in the world accordingly, just as the young boy on the bus policed the behavior of his friend by reminding him that his behavior was not “nigga.”

Herein lies one of the great tragedies of the scene unfolding before me on this bus, where a child was policing a definition of “nigga” informed by a history he was frankly too young to have a full grasp of. Of course, that is how normalization works, by hiding the process by which a conclusion came to be possessed in order to present that conclusion as a matter of fact, not history. And so this scene was an interesting example of how the idea that race defines a person’s essence, thus determining their behaviors, is policed by persons inside and outside the given racial category, and speaks to what the French philosopher Michel Foucault observed about power: that it is not top-down, but diffuse, present in all manner of relationships; and that we all participate in forms of power, are subjected to forms of power, as well as make ourselves subject to power, such as when we police a category like “nigga” that may also oppress us (see “The Eye of Power,” in the collection of Foucault works Power/Knowledge).

My experience speaking to young men who have spent considerable time surviving in the streets is that by their late 20s/early 30s, most of them have concluded that the content by which they once defined themselves did them more harm than good, but by then the consequences of the definition they once celebrated guarantee that their lives will never yield the results they once sought on the basis of the virtues of that definition, virtues that were actually only the scars of long-standing traumas masquerading as conclusions.

And so Baltimore’s poorest communities find themselves trapped between the virtues of the environment, behaviors often defined as vice by our laws and broader social mores and in no small measure informed by a history of trauma, and a political and economic system that is unwilling to use the sorts of tools that might help change the situation, even if they changed some things at the periphery.

And because so much policy operates at the periphery, they only ever truly reach the upper crust of the poor. Not that persons occupying that space have easy lives, but they often enjoy just enough stability that the supplement of policy can offer a plausible path out of poverty, even if not very far out of poverty. But the persons whom we are most talking about when discussing the poor, the folks who drive the aspects of poverty that are most visible, especially the aspects that most make the news, subsist at a lower level of poverty. One generally unseen because it is tucked away in places avoided. But while the poverty itself is unseen, its symptoms are not, and they are what we call “the streets.”

So know that, if you are in the streets of Baltimore, help is not coming. Not from the city, the state, or anywhere else. Not from advocates, activists, politicians, or anyone else. And if the version of community that currently exists in Baltimore’s impoverished neighborhoods is satisfactory, then the virtues accepted as such in the environment should be preserved. If not, they must be rethought and reformed, even if only to reduce the violence we inflict on ourselves.

Some will say this puts the onus on the victim, but the reality is that the onus is on the victim. Human history has never not been marked by injustice and oppression, and yet the life of the oppressed does not stop, nor does oppression. Societies invariably change slowly, and so the oppressed, whose lives are ongoing and short compared to the time frames often required for social change on the level of eliminating a form of oppression (barring violent revolution, though this never eliminates oppression, just rearranges it), cannot wait for society to relieve them of their burden, especially through politics, since, as said above, the players in politics are never affected by the policies they implement the way the oppressed are. History, then, if not life, puts the onus on the victims, since history has never sought to produce a world without them, hence Jay-Z’s assertion, with reference to the victims referred to by the phrase “blood diamonds,” that “that’s life: winners and losers,” (see “Smile,” on 4:44).

Considering that the verse containing this statement itself asserts the need for Black artists to fully own their work-product and its incumbent revenues, Jay is not arguing that oppression does not matter, or that it need not be actively combated, but is simply observing that history has always inflicted violence on someone, and it does not easily let up, save perhaps to impose itself elsewhere. So the most one can control is the violence one inflicts on themselves, like signing away the rights to one’s music, even if we continue in the struggle to transform the processes by which history abuses persons generally, a struggle which plays out too slowly to help most persons living today but can render the future more just.

Thus, if Baltimore’s poor communities expect to see things turn, they will have to turn things themselves. Help is not coming.

Roberto E. Alejandro, editor-in-chief of StayUp.News, covered Baltimore City and Maryland politics from 2014-6 as a freelance journalist, including the demonstrations and unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, during which time his work mostly appeared in the historic AFRO-American Newspaper. He holds a PhD in religion and theology from Durham University, and is a licensed member of the New York State Bar, holding a law degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law.

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