A few weeks ago​ , I took my daughter to MoMA, where the sixty panels in Jacob Lawrence’s 1941 Migration series have at last been assembled in their entirety. As a 23-year-old black painter in Harlem, Lawrence chronicled the experiences of black Southerners who fled the Jim Crow South for the cities of the North. The North was far from the promised land: the slums where blacks settled were overcrowded and unsanitary; working conditions in Northern factories were often harsh; and de facto segregation was nearly as effective as the de jure segregation they had known down south. But at least the North wasn’t a zone of unbridled terror. Lawrence captures this terror in the image of a noose, and a black figure in mourning. More than three thousand blacks were lynched between the end of Reconstruction and the 1960s, often for such crimes as daring to look at a white woman.

Black bodies no longer swing in the Southern breeze, as Billie Holiday sang. Instead, they are victims of chokeholds, bullets and other ‘restraining’ measures inflicted by the police, and not only below the Mason-Dixon line. Police killings of young black men, along with the mass incarceration of poor blacks in US prisons, have become the symbol of a national disgrace that is no more hidden than the concealed weapons that far too many Americans carry, and which is a symptom of the same faith in violence as a means of social control.

Few white Americans remember their names, but few black Americans – and no black parents with sons – have forgotten them: Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old in Florida killed by a ‘neighbourhood watch volunteer’ who claimed to be ‘standing his ground’; Eric Garner, a 44-year-old in Staten Island killed in a police chokehold; Michael Brown, an 18-year-old shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; Walter Scott, a 50-year-old father of four in North Charleston, South Carolina, who was Tasered and then killed by a police officer who had stopped him for a nonfunctioning brake light; and now Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray was killed by a novel method: he was driven while black. Three police officers on bike patrol saw him at 8.30 a.m. on 12 April. It’s not clear why he was a person of interest, other than that he was a young black male. They made eye contact, and he ran, for reasons unknown. The officers arrested him and placed him face down. Unable to breathe, he asked for an inhaler, to no avail. The officers found a sliding knife on him, which is legal to carry, but charged him with possession of a switchblade, which isn’t. He was then shackled, placed in the back of a police wagon and driven without a seatbelt, as required by department regulations. By 8.59 a.m., he had suffered a major injury to his spinal cord. Again, he said that he couldn’t breathe and asked for medical assistance. The police waited another 25 minutes before calling for a medic. Gray died in hospital a week later.

This account of Gray’s killing was presented, in riveting, clinical detail, by Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, at a press conference on 1 May. Toward the end of her 16-minute speech, Mosby, a 35-year-old African-American woman, did the unthinkable: she charged six police officers with crimes ranging from murder to involuntary manslaughter. She promised justice to Gray’s parents and pleaded for peace so that she could do her work. Her press conference was as swift as it was bold. When someone dies in their custody, the Maryland police are not required to say anything until ten days later, a law that has been widely criticised by local politicians. Mosby beat the police to it, and made plain that it was unacceptable for them to leak details of the investigation. Black Baltimore, expecting an official whitewash, was electrified.

Mosby grew up in Dorchester, a poor, predominantly black neighbourhood of Boston, and has spoken about her experience of police harassment. She is well aware that while the events that followed Gray’s arrest were extraordinary, there was nothing unusual about the arrest itself. But Americans are not supposed to say what they know about police treatment of black men, especially if they hold high office. New York’s police nearly went on strike after Bill de Blasio, the new mayor, described the ‘talk’ that he and his African-American wife had had with their teenage son about how he should conduct himself with officers in uniform. (When two police officers were killed by a deranged man angry at the death of Eric Garner, Pat Lynch, the bullish head of the New York Policemen’s Union, accused de Blasio of having ‘blood on his hands’.) Fifty years after the defeat of legal segregation, millions of black parents across the United States have that talk with their children, but it sometimes seems as if the only place where Americans are permitted to speak openly is in dramas like The Wire, set in Baltimore.

Most white Americans simply don’t understand why blacks distrust the police; some secretly think that poor blacks get what they deserve when they fail to show the police proper deference. I’ve heard liberal-minded whites arguing that the Gray case isn’t about race but class, as if it couldn’t be about both. Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, her police commissioner and three of the officers charged in Gray’s death are African-American, they point out, as though that were proof the city has entered a kind of post-racial era. This is an updated version of an argument that blamed black mayors for white flight to the suburbs in the 1970s: one could hardly blame racism if cities like black-run Newark were growing poorer and more violent. But the abandonment of the inner cities, deindustrialisation and deepening poverty were hardly the race-neutral effects of impersonal market forces. Nor is the fact that thousands of people found alternative sources of employment in the underground drug economy, or got trapped in the expanding archipelago of American prisons. As the Washington Post recently reported, 15 Baltimore neighbourhoods – guess which ones – have lower life expectancies than North Korea.

A growing black middle class and greater black political representation may suggest a measure of racial progress. But progress doesn’t preclude regression, and the changing colour of the personnel is no remedy if the system is otherwise rotten. It can even work to conceal the system’s worst aspects. Jean-Michel Basquiat satirised this problem in his 1981 painting The Irony of the Negro Policeman; in a recent interview in the Marshall Project, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, noted that black police officers in Baltimore are sometimes more brutal than white officers, as if their skin colour makes them immune to racism against poor blacks.

A vivid indication of how far – or how low – we’ve come is the slogan around which the movement against police brutality has rallied in recent years: ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Not black power, as in the 1970s or late 1960s, but life itself. Most black Americans believe that in the eyes of the law, to be black is to be guilty before being proved innocent; that to be a young black man in a hoodie or baggy trousers is to be a potential ‘thug’. That was the word that both Obama and Rawlings-Blake used to describe Baltimore’s rioters. (Rawlings-Blake later apologised.) It’s true that some protesters in Baltimore exploited the rage over Gray’s death to loot and destroy property. But the violence was also an expression of despair among those who are all too accustomed to being treated as if they were thugs. This suspicion isn’t confined to the black poor, either, as Obama’s friend Henry Louis Gates discovered when he was arrested while trying to get into his own house, after a phone call to the police from a white bystander.

America has undergone a significant racial transformation since the 1960s, but it has bred both black affluence and an even more entrenched, disenfranchised and ghettoised black poor. The existence of the former makes it easier for whites, as well as some blacks, to accept the latter as a permanent underclass. But the racial identity of the urban poor shouldn’t be obscured by class analysis, because no black person is unaffected by it. Whatever their income or professional status, blacks are still susceptible to the assumption that they belong to a lower, potentially dangerous class, and are therefore unworthy of the treatment other Americans take for granted, especially in their encounters with law enforcement. The racial progress that many whites are fond of invoking – a black man in the White House; the mega-stardom of Oprah, Jay-Z etc – is no guarantee that black lives actually matter.

In the antebellum era, slavery in Maryland was said to be milder than in the deep South, partly because of Maryland’s closeness to the free states, and partly because of its substantial population of free blacks. But as Barbara Jeanne Fields argues in her classic study, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground, slavery in Maryland was by no means benign, and free blacks could never feel secure under its shadow. According to Fields, ‘the middle ground imparted an extra bitterness to enslavement’ and ‘set close boundaries on the liberty of the ostensibly free’. Slavery was a ‘strong dye that, even as it faded, tinted freedom in sombre shades’, leaving free black people all the more liable to have their rights infringed, or even to be re-enslaved. Slavery and legal segregation are dead, but their tortured legacy continues to tint American freedom in sombre shades.

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