Former Baltimore Mayor and current Port Covington enthusiast Kurt Schmoke got a lesson in systemic racism at the National Urban League conference Thursday.
The civil rights group is meeting at the Convention Center in downtown Baltimore this week.
It happened during a forum titled "#BaltimoreRising: Making Change in the Aftermath." Schmoke, along with local activist Tawanda Jones, author Wes Moore, Democratic nominee for City Council Kristerfer Burnett, and a few others, were panelists.
Burnett started the panel by talking about the importance of communication. He said that all the door-knocking that he did to earn his District 8 seat taught him that he had to connect with all kinds of people. Sometimes, he said, even though they are black, they might not be on the same page as he is. The little old lady on his block might be concerned and want more police because she sees police as a solution to crime, he explained. Burnett said he is a little more progressive and doesn't see police as the sole solution.
Schmoke challenged this. Black women are consistent voters, he said, and you can't get into office without making them feel safe.
"So, you can't really escape that issue and dealing with it, and the one, big problem that we haven't talked about that is the plague of our community, that is the thing that is holding us down so much is not police abuse, it is black-on-black crime."
He went on: "If we continue to address that issue as being caused by somebody else rather than dealing with it internally, we are going to continue to miss the boat on this and more communities will simply say give me more police rather than trying to address the internal issues that have led to [these] young men shooting the young men. That's our problem."
The room, filled mostly with young professionals, reacted audibly.
"You have just opened up a can of worms," the panel moderator, journalist Jeff Johnson, told the former mayor.
"Is this an either-or proposition at all?" Johnson asked. "And do we have to bring up black-on-black crime to talk about police brutality, especially when, in every city in America, I can point to people fighting to reduce crime in our community?"
"Secondly," Johnson continued, "why do we allow the narrative of black-on-black crime to persist, when the reality is people kill the people they live with? White folks kill white folks, Asian folks kill Asian folks."
"Not in those numbers," Schmoke interjected.
"I'm not talking about the number of homicides, I'm talking about the consistency with which people of a certain classification commit violent crimes against people that either look like them or don't look like them, and I think the numbers are pretty consistent to show that white folks are likely to kill other white folks and Latinos are more likely to kill Latinos."
Johnson gave activist Tawanda Jones a chance to speak.
"So basically that's the whole box of this corrupt system," Jones said. "We're basically blamed for our own pain. First of all, get us out of that box, black-on-black crime, because we don't call it white-on-white crime when white folks kill each other, so that's the first thing we're gonna do is step outside that box."
"And then, when we're outside that box…you can't even hold that conversation and put it together because, at the end of the day, I'm not calling Lil' Black to come kill somebody but I'm paying Officer Friendly to keep us safe so we not gon' mix the two."
The audience applauded.
Johnson brought the conversation back to Burnett's original statement—that police aren’t the only solution when looking to improve communities.
"At what point, in your opinion, do we begin to have the conversation…to say look, we can have more police on this street but it doesn't change the anger, the frustration, the disenfranchisement, the lack of opportunity, the lack of elevation and evolution of this entire community as a result of lack of investment, poor schools, lack of health care?" he asked Schmoke.
The former mayor said that things like lack of schools and proper health care aren't the reason that young men commit crimes.
"We have a lot of young men who are in those communities, the communities where Freddie Gray lived, who grew up, who become Wes Moores, who are out here being teachers, who are doing a lot of other things. You're acting as though these forces that press upon the community inevitably lead these young men to that particular action, and I'm saying that’s not the case," Schmoke said.
"Because you set it up as though I was saying this is an either-or proposition, I'm not. I'm just saying that when you were talking about violence, when we're talking about safety in our communities, we cannot ignore this issue that, for this community and many other communities in other big cities, in order to make them better, we have to address that issue of the disproportionate impact of young black men killing other young black men."
"You said we can't ignore when the vast majority of people aren't ignoring," Johnson shot back. "Furthermore, kids in places that have more opportunity, like in Roland Park and Guilford, aren't committing crimes."
"You said earlier that there are whites killing whites," Schmoke said.
"No, no, no, I said white people kill white people. Let's be clear on what we're saying, Mr. Mayor, we're not gon' twist this. So what I'm saying is, so we can be clear, that there are communities in Roland Park and Guilford and other areas of Baltimore that as a result of education, opportunity, resources, don't view violence as a first or second option.
"And so while we have kids in West Baltimore that aren't choosing violence as a first option, there is a culture because of the lack of opportunity that says that, 'It makes more sense for me to pull a gun then go home 'cause what the hell should I go home for, because me pulling a gun gives me validity in a space where three miles up the road it says don't do it because you're going to risk opportunities within this community I don't have.'"