How we burned Baltimore

Updated 12:41 PM EDT, Thu May 14, 2015

Story highlights

In Baltimore, after the death of Freddie Gray, riots erupted, cars were set on fire and 200 arrests were made

Eric Liu: Liberals and conservatives react predictably, see the riots as confirmation of their views

It's time to push each other out of our ideological and identity comfort zones and change the status quo, he says

Editor’s Note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including “A Chinaman’s Chance” and “The Gardens of Democracy.” He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

We did it again, in another American city.

We set Baltimore on fire this time. We brutalized black bodies. We turned a funeral into a riot. We let things get out of hand. We looted. We threw stones at policemen. We threw stones at citizens. We created camera-ready chaos, and we replayed the images. We created a culture of such deep distrust and disrespect that violence seemed the inevitable response. We let the violence flow. We let the violence stand for everything that’s wrong with the things we already didn’t like.

By now you may be asking, “Who’s we?” You may be saying with some irritation, “Don’t lump me in with them. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

To which the only real answer can be: Stop kidding yourself.

The word “we” is one of the great American words. We the People. Yes we can. We are family. I use “we” a lot when I talk about our country’s achievements. I like to say we won the Second World War, we put a man on the moon, we invented the Internet, we gave the world jazz.

Well, if I – a son of immigrants whose family had nothing to do with any of those accomplishments – if I get to claim those aspects of American history, then surely I have to claim the unsavory aspects too. “We” cuts both ways.

We enslaved Africans. We cut Reconstruction short and made a mockery of equal citizenship. We supported Jim Crow, then redlined, subordinated, and ghettoized African-Americans. We cut blacks out of the New Deal. We created a polity in which racial inequity and economic inequality magnify each other unrelentingly. We tried to put a lid on it with heavy policing and a War on Drugs. We failed.

We are the authors of every page of Baltimore’s story.

Don’t tell me it’s not your responsibility or mine. About how slavery and its legacy are artifacts of a time past. Someone else’s problem. No, we own them all. And we all have to face that before we can fix anything in Baltimore or beyond.

But there’s another dimension of the story of “we” that matters as well. It’s about progressives and conservatives and their competing stories of how we got here.

Every time protests and violence break out in response to police brutality, the same depressing pattern breaks out. The event becomes simply a Rorschach test for left and right, and each side sees in the rioting confirmation of its prior views.

For the left, it’s about the deep structural root causes of the alienation and violence. Liberals gravitate on social media to commentaries or reactions that reinforce this frame, like the surprisingly astute comments from the Baltimore Orioles executive who spelled out why a long history of racial injustice and economic disenfranchisement made rioting nearly inevitable.

Conservatives gravitate to their own frames, about a lack of personal responsibility or role models among poor urban blacks, about the failures of Great Society and Democratic programs, and about how it all comes back to a president (who happens to be black) who has divided us by focusing so much on race.

What gets lost in this Groundhog Day replay of left-right frames is a simple reality that we all have to recognize: Both longstanding structural racism and personal irresponsibility are on display this week. Both a history of police brutality and a present crisis of street violence. Both an inherited, multigenerational lack of opportunity and a dearth of leaders willing to address it.

We cannot separate out the aspects of the problem that don’t fit our preferred explanation – not if we are sincere about solving the problem. And until more people can see this, we will not see progress.

We can’t judge looters for their antisocial behavior without judging a color-caste structure and a school-to-prison pipeline that has flushed them away like so much refuse. By the same token, we can’t keep opining about root causes without also supporting the parents and pastors and neighbors who, in their own small ways, are organizing each other to break the cycle of brokenness.

I’m of the left. But it cannot possibly be that only those with whom I disagree are responsible for what is happening in Baltimore. It cannot possibly be that only my worldview contains all the solutions.

Whatever our political perspective, we need to open our eyes to what is actually happening in Baltimore and other cities in the United States in the second decade of the 21st century. It is an abomination. We should all be able to say that. It’s time to push each other out of our ideological and identity comfort zones and build unlikely coalitions to create more opportunity. It’s time to act like we are all in charge.

Because we are. And there is no other “we” waiting in the wings.

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