Empathy is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t work when you try to wave away how other people’s circumstances differ from your own. “If I can make it, so can anyone” is a sentiment often peddled as moral clarity and tough love. When outsiders apply it to a place like the Sandtown section of Baltimore, it can seem more like a willful blindness to other peoples’ disadvantages.
That brings us to Jeb Bush’s attempt at solidarity with Toya Graham, the Baltimore woman caught on video slapping her son and pulling him away from an anti-police protest after she saw a brick in his hand. (See Valerie Schultz’s dissent to the lionization of Graham.) “My mom and that woman who was bringing her child back home have a lot in common,” the son of former First Lady Barbara Bush said in an interview last Wednesday.
Toya Graham and Barbara Bush may be similarly committed to raising children right, but Graham has fewer tools than Bush did. She’s probably not in a position to get her son a summer job or to reward good behavior with an allowance. Even if slapping your child in the head is a good idea, it doesn’t get you very far in getting him to college or steady work.
Bush isn’t the only one reacting to the tensions in Baltimore with an idiosyncratic approach to empathy. The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby feels for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, not because she has to govern a city scarred by racism and poverty, but because she was criticized for describing rioters as “thugs.” He complains that “amid all the violence and ruin,” it was the mayor’s word usage that drove “the chattering class into a froth of indignation,” part of its “ruthless determination” to “silence opposing points of view.”
This doesn’t jibe with my monitoring of chattering-class output—there’s still a lot of indignation about the violence and ruin after the “thugs” comment was forgotten without any sign of a boycott or recall campaign. But I guess if your empathy is limited to imagining what it would be like to imitate Spiro Agnew, the offense taken at “thugs” would be your takeaway from the entire past week.
Similarly, National Review editor Rich Lowry, the interviewer who elicited Jeb Bush’s comment on mothers united in corporal punishment, used the week as an opportunity to imagine how the editor of a conservative political magazine might feel if suddenly forced to live in Baltimore. Writing in Politico, he points out that the city hasn’t had a Republican mayor since 1967 and has raised property taxes 21 times between 1950 and 1985.
“Baltimore is a hostile business environment and high-tax city,” he writes. “It has been misgoverned into the ground. It is a Great Society city that bought into the big-government vision of the 1960s more than most, and the bitter fruit has been corruption, violence and despair.” (The biggest Great Society program is Medicare, which provides health coverage for those over 65. Not coincidentally, the poverty rate for Americans over 65 is only half the rate for those under 18, both nationally and in the state of Maryland. Physical stamina is not the only reason young adults are more likely to join street protests.)
The “misgoverning” charge may have some merit. Baltimore has had its share of corruption, much of it involving law-enforcement officials. It has a relatively large municipal workforce: one public employee per 43 residents, according to some number-crunching by the Washington Examiner in 2013, a lower ratio than any major city but Washington, San Francisco, and New York. Those cities, it should be noted, are attracting upscale residents and doing well economically. (At the other end of the scale is Las Vegas, with one public employee per 225 residents.)
The legacy of redlining and “white flight”
But municipal governing practices are not the reason for the decline of the manufacturing sector in the United States. Local elected officials in Baltimore are not to blame for federal redlining policies that encouraged “white flight” from older cities and prevented African-American households from gaining financial stability through homeownership. Nor are they responsible for federal transportation policies that encouraged the dispersal of business activity from central cities. Even if you think that rapid and massive suburbanization in metro areas like Baltimore was a good thing, you can’t blame big-city mayors for not figuring out how to re-invent private-sector employment in the neighborhoods left behind.
“The imperative in Baltimore should be to think and act anew,” Lowry writes. “But the left’s take-away will be that there’s an urgent need for more of the same, as Baltimore and places like it continue to rot.” No one wants “more of the same,” especially if that means the aggressive police tactics and mass-incarceration policies that both political parties have enthusiastically promoted for decades. But there’s reason to be skeptical that Baltimore can save itself by slashing property taxes (and risking its slight budget surplus, one of the few encouraging signs for the city this year) or cutting government services.
Boston and San Francisco, like Baltimore, are older cities that have lost their manufacturing base and have little remaining land to develop. They have much lower crime rates, as well as lower unemployment and poverty rates, and they outperform Baltimore on educational attainment and participation in the workforce.* They are also staunchly Democratic cities in Democratic states, and neither is known for low taxes or a lack of business regulation. They have particular strengths that may not be replicable in Baltimore, but they make more sense as models than cheap-land, warm-climate cities like Phoenix or San Antonio.
But Boston and San Francisco also have golden reputations. When white neighborhoods in those cities go through economic downturns and crime spikes, they are not characterized as pathological or insufficiently faithful to American values. If you lived in Baltimore, you might wonder why you don’t get the same respect.
*Baltimore had a homicide rate of 34.9 per 100,000 people in 2012, second only to Detroit among cities between a half-million and a million people. Boston and San Francisco had far lower rates, at 9.0 and 8.4. In 2014, Baltimore had an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent, notably higher than Boston’s 5.3 percent and San Francisco’s 4.4 percent. The Census Bureau estimates that 62.1 percent of Baltimore residents over 16 are active members of the workforce (employed or looking for work), below the national average and below Boston’s 68.8 percent and San Francisco’s 69.2 percent.
According to the Census Bureau, 23.8 percent of Baltimore residents live below the poverty line, compared with Boston’s 21.4 percent and San Francisco’s 13.5 percent. Only 26.8 percent of Baltimore residents over 25 have graduated from college, compared with 43.9 percent in Boston and 53.4 percent in San Francisco.