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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Brandi Blessett
May 12, 2015
The situation in Baltimore has left me frustrated and angry. It has forced me to question everything that I learned or was indoctrinated with (depending on how you chose to see it) regarding the ‘American dream.’ Is the American dream available to all citizens?
To contextualize this discussion it is important to consider the history of America. At the time of its founding: Black people were still slaves; women did not have the right to vote and could not own property; Native Americans were slaughtered by those who claimed to have “discovered” a new land. Despite the atrocities inflicted upon these groups (i.e. torture, murder, rape, disease), HIStory justified these actions in the name of freedom, democracy and capitalism.
As a result, public institutions and their respective bureaucracies were structured ignoring context, history and politics. The long-standing PA debate on the politics-administration dichotomy enabled administrators to implement policy without a consideration for social realities. In many respects, public institutions operate in a vacuum perpetuating the idea that public administrators do not make policy. They are considered neutral actors, free from personal and professional bias. Yet, every day there are examples of administrative discretion gone right and wrong.
History matters. Context always matters! The reluctance of public administrators specifically, and society at-large, to acknowledge the existence and impact of historical and systemic discrimination not only denies the lived experiences of those oppressed by it, but also enables repetition of the same inequities.
The riots of the 1960s that occurred across the country in urban communities were sparked by outrage over police violence and brutality, purposeful neglect and disinvestment in neighborhoods. Reports indicate there was overall frustration in these communities with being treated as second-class citizens.
In 1992, residents in Los Angeles rioted because police officers were acquitted in the Rodney King trial despite avideo tape of the officers’ beating. Recently, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Walter Scott’s deaths by the hands of law enforcement were also video recorded. In these cases, with the exception of Walter Scott, officers were found not guilty. Is there a pattern here?
When for centuries justice has alluded particular American communities and quality of life indicators reveal racially disproportionate effects (e.g. incarceration, disenfranchisement, health disparities, environmental degradation and the spatial mismatch of people and jobs), what do you expect people to do? Ignorance, feigned or willful, by administrators, politicians and society about how and why such realities exist contributes to distrust and apathy among people of color with the government, its institutions and officials.
In many instances, the same realities exist for people of color in 2015 as they did in 1965. These realities were created by policy, implemented by administrators and reinforced by American society.
The Kerner Report argued in 1964, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The report also identified several grievances: abusive police practices, unemployment and underemployment, discriminatory administration of justice and discriminatory consumer and credit practices.
These grievances are still relevant and serve as contributing factors to the inequalities prevalent in urban communities. Thus, for communities of color, justice is anything but blind. Fairness and civil liberties are abstractions. The difference in treatment, resource allocation, priority, imagery and discourse when dealing with nonwhite populations is astounding.
The article White People Rioting for No Reason demonstrates this fact. Property was damaged, neighborhoods destroyed and college campuses vandalized by rioters over sports. These scenes barely reached national audiences and these rioters were most certainly not characterized as “thugs,” a label assigned to the Baltimore protesters.
Too often, minorities who riot because of systemic marginalization are described as animals, while whites who riot because of a sports competition are not described as anything. Double standards assign a forgiving attitude towards the latter, considering the behavior normal and acceptable. These examples crystalize the pervasiveness of white privilege or the institutional bias that is engrained in our system. The denial or piecemeal approach to addressing social issues that predominantly impact people of color should, in some way, evoke a critical assessment of the environment or better yet of the society that supports injustice.
Baltimore is an example of history repeating itself. Research and specialized commissions tell us what to do to improve the plight of urban communities and enhance the quality of life for urban residents. It is the exact same formula that occurs in the suburbs for white and wealthy populations – investments in education, housing, human capital, infrastructure, recreation, etc. The wants and needs of urban residents are no different. The question is: do the privileged have the will and moral compass to share in the collective prosperity of this country? Or, will rhetoric triumph over reality?
I recognize that these issues are enormous and complex, but as administrators we cannot shy from difficult conversations. Furthermore, we have a professional responsibility to serve all our constituents in a fair and just way. Next month’s column will offer several recommendations to help us move toward a true democracy.
Author: Brandi Blessett is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research broadly focuses on issues of social justice. Her areas of study include: cultural competency, social equity, administrative responsibility, and disenfranchisement. She can be reached at [email protected].
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