They were called ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals,’ with many of the young men and women who engaged in looting in Baltimore accused of being ‘outside agitators.’ The demonization of young Black Baltimoreans was swift and deeply personal with leaders from Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake to President Obama unleashing invectives toward the protesters. And if you listened to the account of television news journalists, you would have thought the entire city of Baltimore was under attack and in flames. After considerable pressure Mayor Rawlings-Blake backed off the labeling game and redacted her early characterization of her city’s disconnected generation.
What is being overlooked is that these are Reagan’s children and their offspring; the progeny of disastrous public policy that was championed by President Ronald Reagan, extended under George H. Bush and in many ways, fulfilled under William Jefferson Clinton. The raging generations are those that grew up during the greedy and self-indulgent 1980s, and embraced the excesses of that period and the lack of empathy for others. Their sense of detachment and disinterest in the welfare of others is reflective of an era when one of the top cinema releases of the period was “Wall Street” that sent the message ‘greed is good.’
Baltimore residents born when Ronald Reagan was elected are now 35, old enough to have children of their own, and many do. Those born on the back end of the Reagan years, at the end of his term in 1988, are 27 years old. This is the cohort that was victimized by the ‘government is the problem’ message of the Reagan era and the embrace of market solutions for social problems. These are the young adults, who, as children, were demonized as the offspring of ‘welfare mothers’ and who were deemed so insignificant that the Reagan administration determined ketchup as being worthy of classification as a ‘food’ in their diet. Their development was considered such a low priority that early on, and even as part of his campaign platform, President Reagan proposed to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.
We forget the viciousness of the 1980s and the impact it had on Black youth who are now young adults, some not far from approaching middle age status. A few years before Ronald Reagan’s election, a 35 year-old, white medical student named Allan Bakke, decided that his inability to gain admission into medical school was because undeserving Blacks were being admitted due to affirmative action. It was a Hail Mary pass by Bakke after having been rejected twice for admission to the University of California Medical School at Davis. A more conservatively configured U.S. Supreme Court sided with Bakke in 1978 and gave Reagan and the political right the ammunition to launch a decades-long assault on affirmative action that continues to this day. “Reverse discrimination” was a new tool to distract from real discrimination and racism, and the news media gleefully cooperated. It was not enough to embrace malnutrition to erode the health of Black children or walk away from the principles of Brown v. Board Education but in the slight chance that a Black child slipped through the cracks and earned a high school diploma, Reagan loyalists saw Bakke as a way to cut off the higher education pipeline.
Demonization politics became the weapon of choice during the Reagan era and often the target was Black youth; in particular, Black males. As ‘welfare queen’ was racial code for Black women during the Reagan presidency, the ‘war on drugs’ ushered in the wholesale attack on young Black men as crack flooded the nation’s urban core. White resentment was fueled by the likes of Lee Atwater and the National Conservative Political Action Committee that birthed a generation of right-wing activists and political operatives committed to undoing the gains of the civil rights movement. The atmosphere was further poisoned by the resuscitation of the Ku Klux Klan by David Duke, who used the political climate to disguise the hate laden message of the Klan as political speech; made possible because the language mirrored that being heard on Capitol Hill and in the Reagan White House.
It was clear during the 1980s that the goal of the conservative movement was to cut off the pathway to opportunity for Black youth and to use the criminal justice system to permanently dispatch as many as possible under the guise of fighting a drug war. It was not coincidental that programs like CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) and community block grants were eliminated as every effort was made to crush people at the grassroots. This agenda was supported by a new breed of Black racial apologists like Clarence Pendleton and Clarence Thomas, and Roy Innis, all of whom served as race shields for the new right. While the poor were certainly in the crosshairs of the Reagan White House, it was open season on Black people. The gravity of the moment was felt by Black college students as over 64,000, myself included, descended on the nation’s capital in September 1980 for Black College Day over concerns with the higher education policies of the Carter administration but a sense of dread over the platform of candidate Ronald Reagan and the prospects of a Reagan presidency.
The young Black women and men that we see on the streets of Baltimore are the offspring of this toxic era and the policies of Ronald Reagan. During their lifetimes they have known nothing but despair and their status reduced to political pawns. And it just got progressively worse under George H. Bush and Bill Clinton. Whereas it was anticipated that Bush would endorse the Reagan legacy, the omnibus crime bill signed by President Clinton in 1994 was beyond even what Reagan could have imagined signing into law. It is why Senator Hillary Clinton’s recent emoting over mass incarceration confirms the degree to which Black Americans need to re-evaluate the manner in which it engages electoral politics.
Whatever positive affirmation there was of blackness in the 1980s – the Jackson presidential campaigns, “The Cosby Show,” establishing the MLK national holiday, the elections of Black mayors and the founding of a Black cable channel – it was all offset by a deliberate campaign to undermine Black gains from the 1960s. Making matters worse was the sudden shift in youthful music from an upbeat new rap genre to a more foreboding ‘gangster rap’ that, while legitimate in its portrayal of the underside of Black life, also helped embed that imagery in the thought processes of millions of Black youth. The hardcore ‘I’m going to get mine’ edges of gangster rap coincided with the glamorization of greed on popular television shows of the era like “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest.” The message was that if you did not have what you wanted it was likely because you fell short on the ruthless scale. Black youth were bombarded with negative imagery that shaped their outlooks while our government did everything in its power to eliminate civic channels to personal uplift and advancement.
It is why the harsh criticism of the looting that occurred in Baltimore is disingenuous when those on the street experienced childhood and their teenage years when selfishness and greed was celebrated. They are simply acting out that which was cultivated in them by national leadership and championed by popular culture. Every generation is influenced by the tenor of their time and the behavior of the Baltimore residents we witnessed engaged in what we all deem nonproductive activity is no different. What we could use is a little truth in reporting the roots of their behavior.
Walter Fields is the Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.