A glimmer of progress in Baltimore's crisis

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Calls for urban reform and the swift Freddie Gray murder prosecution are positive signs
  • He says the Baltimore riots were a sign of the need for change on many fronts

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)When riots broke out in Baltimore last week following the funeral ceremony for Freddie Gray, most Americans were dismayed as they watched the images broadcast on their television screens and through the Internet. Seeing young African-Americans square off against the police, and against one another, brought back horrible memories from the riots of the mid-1960s in Watts, Newark, and Detroit, when the progress of the civil rights movement came to a halt.

The events in Baltimore likewise rekindled the feelings of frustration when riots shook Los Angeles in the wake of not-guilty verdicts for the police who had assaulted Rodney King.
Julian Zelizer
But a glimmer of positive news came out of last week's riots: Some politicians have actually responded to this crisis by calling for concrete policy responses to the conditions fueling the outrage felt by residents of West Baltimore.
    President Obama, in one of the most powerful moments of his tenure in the White House, insisted that this was the outgrowth of a "slow-rolling crisis" where entire communities have lost access to jobs, education, drug-free environments and accountable police forces. The President called for a series of reforms such as the use of video cameras on officers and more federal funding for education.
    Repudiating the policies of her husband's administration, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton likewise argued that the rioting in Baltimore was a product of deep structural problems in our criminal justice system as well as a result of the deepening economic inequality that plagues the nation.
    She too called for reforms such as changing the sentencing for low-level crimes and more transparency in relations between police and the community. Republican Jeb Bush called for a thorough investigation into Gray's death so as to give residents confidence in the system.
    Political rhetoric is a good start, but it is much more urgent that the next president and Congress follow through on dealing with policy solutions that are crucial to addressing the conditions that have afflicted disadvantaged communities across the nation. While some conservative commentators like Rich Lowry have blamed the Great Society for the riots, they get the story wrong.
    One of the greatest tragedies of the 1960s was that following the riots, there was a conservative backlash against stronger domestic policies to address the urban crisis. As the riots unfolded, President Johnson found little opportunity to deal with the issues, like unemployment and adequate housing, that he knew were essential to solving the problems.
    Today, there is a series of important policies that must be debated if the nation is to make progress.

    Police Reform

    This is the most immediate area in need of change.
    The problems with policing have become apparent over the past year. It is essential to rebuild confidence in the police forces whose job it is to protect our communities. There are a number of viable reforms on the table, including the use of body cameras, more stringent and enforced punishments for police who violate the laws and act violently without cause, and funding for programs to improve relations between the police and the communities they serve.

    Criminal Justice Reform

    This is an area that received some attention when Republican senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul made it an issue, though it has faded.
    In Clinton's remarks, she touched on one of the biggest problems with the criminal justice policies that incarcerate such high numbers of African-Americans, often for low-level crimes. The result has been what has been called an era of "mass incarceration." These policies have huge budgetary costs and, more importantly, devastating effects on African-American populations.
    Changes in sentencing laws that do more to differentiate between kinds of risks would lower the rates of incarceration that undercuts the social fabric of areas like inner-city Baltimore.

    Job Growth

    Everything starts with jobs. Good manufacturing jobs have been fleeing cities like Baltimore since the 1950s. The abandoned steel plants in the eastern part of the city are a symbol for what has been lost.
    The result is that for many younger African-Americans, there are few opportunities for stable employment. This has created opportunities for the drug trade to seize on young men and women desperate for money and without any hope. Government funding and tax incentives to bring manufacturing jobs, combined with job training and work support programs that help adults to enter and stay in the workforce, will go a long way toward creating healthier communities.
    At the same time, improving mass public transportation systems is essential to providing access to jobs elsewhere.

    Affordable Housing

    This must be a major frontier, not just to help the poor, but to bring back into the cities middle-class Americans who can strengthen community and provide for a different kind of economic base besides very rich and very poor.
    The public housing stock has plummeted since the 1990s. The destruction of older public housing projects reduced the availability of cheaper forms of housing. While the intentions were good, the failure to compensate residents with better places to live has ended up creating new problems. Gentrification brought middle- and upper-income class residents into the city, squeezing out space for those without sufficient means.

    Education Reform

    Unfortunately, federal education policy has not been working well.
    Since No Child Left Behind (2001), federal policies have focused almost exclusively on the imposition of testing standards. Many experts believe that the tests have had detrimental effects on the quality of curriculum in schools and sometimes resulted in closing schools in impoverished communities. The shift in emphasis has done little to improve the kinds of educational experiences available to poorer children. More federal funds are needed to shore up the quality of education in the cities, including money for the recruitment and retention of teachers.
    The government also needs to provide adequate financial resources to ensure access to higher education for young residents of these areas. Finally, other cities need to build on the universal pre-K program that Mayor Bill de Blasio has put into place in New York City, which aims to reduce the discrepancy in opportunities for children from different economic backgrounds before they reach school.
    During the 1960s, the government failed to address the conditions that were at the heart of the rioting that shook that decade. A conservative backlash set in before Lyndon Johnson and liberal Democrats could extend the reach of the Great Society into these areas.
    Now, in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, we will see whether the nation's politicians will make the same mistakes again or instead, seize the moment to improve policies that that can help communities which have been suffering for too long.