Deferred and Unheard
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
Like a syrupy sweet
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
When Langston Hughes wrote of a dream deferred in his 1951 poem, aptly titled Harlem, he captured the frustration of a people who had deferred dreams and swallowed hope time and again. Were he writing the poem today, he might have titled it Sandtown, highlighting the neighborhood that was home to Freddie Gray. Sandtown-Winchester is described as blighted and neglected, an urban food dessert (which means that people live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store) with a population that is mostly poor and unemployed. According to the website fusion.net, more incarcerated people come from the Sandtown census tract than anywhere else in Maryland. Freddie Gray and his sisters won a 2008 lawsuit against a landlord that had high levels of toxic lead paint on the walls. Four years later, in 2012, more than seven percent of infants and children under six had elevated blood lead levels.
The data about Sandtown at least partly explain the frustration, anger, and uprisings that have happened in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray. People who are ignored can watch their dreams dry up or sag, or, as in the case of Baltimore, they can simply explode. I won’t make excuses for the destruction of property, but if the young people who took it to the streets were Bostonians during the 1773 Tea Party, they may have been described as patriots. Instead, protesters were described as “thugs and criminals”, with at least one news anchor confusing her news reading work for commentary in describing the protesters as “idiots”.
When I saw the protestors throwing rocks at police officers, and saw flames rising from the streets, I thought of the uprisings that took place after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Frustrated and angry people took it to the streets then, destroying billions of dollars worth of property. Some of the areas that burned in 1968 took decades to recover from the violence. At the same time, the uprisings riveted attention to blighted inner cities and to the poverty and unemployment that too many residents experienced.
More than half of the young African Americans who want to work can’t find a job. The numbers are higher in Sandtown. The situation might be improved if Jobs Corps programs were more available to Sandtown residents. Presently, there are two Job Corps locations in Maryland (and 125 in the nation), but the Jobs Corps has been under scrutiny and constantly being threatened with extinction.
The more than fifty year old Job Corps is a free education and training program that helps low income young people (16-24) earn a high school diploma or GED, learn about careers, and find employment. Established in 1964 as part of the Economic Opportunity Act, it was reauthorized in 1998 as part of the Workforce Investment Act. About 60,000 people are trained by Job Corps each year; sixty percent of them find work when they finish the program; another 15 percent choose to continue their education. Job Corps has cost between $1.5 and $1.7 billion in each of the last ten years, with appropriations rising between 2005 and 2011, then falling after 2012. Congress says its FY 2015 budget will increase defense spending and cut domestic spending by about $14 billion. They’ll cut prekindergarten education, medical research, and job training. Does that mean cuts to Job Corps? What does that mean to Sandtown? Is joblessness a heavy load? Will it explode?
Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) said that the demonstrations after Freddie Gray’s funeral could have happened anywhere. Indeed, in addition to the Baltimore protests, there have been demonstrations in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Washington, DC and other cities. Just as the killing of Michael Brown ignited people who lived hundreds of miles away from Ferguson, Missouri, so has the killing of Freddie Gray reverberated all over the nation as people wait to learn how a man’s spine could break while he was in police custody.
No matter what the outcome of the investigation, people in areas like Sandtown desperately need employment, and the Job Corps can be one way to create that employment. Federal or state employment programs could train skilled crafts workers – painters, electricians, and others – to revive Sandtown. Congress is eager to cut programs like Job Corps, yet these programs provide an important public benefit.
Many will call for police accountability, for body cameras, and for other police reforms. Given the growing body count of young black men (and women) who are too frequently killed by law enforcement officers, such reform makes sense. At the same time, training people for jobs, and finding jobs for them provides a dream instead of deferring one. There should be no conversation about Freddie Gray and Baltimore policing without a conversation about job creation.