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A Reply to Both David Brooks and N. D. B. Connolly Regarding the Baltimore Crisis

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) May 1, 2015: As I write, news reports say that Baltimore's state attorney, Marilyn J. Mosby, will prosecute six police officers involved in Freddie Gray's death. So the one person in Baltimore who has the legal authority to take legal action against the police officers involved in Freddie Gray's death has acted. Of course it remains to be seen if she can persuade a jury to convict them on the charges she has brought against them.

Not surprisingly, this morning, the New York Times featured two competing op-ed commentaries about black poverty centering on Baltimore, which align approximately with movement conservatism, on the one hand, and, on the other, political correctness:

(1) "The Nature of Poverty" by conservative columnist David Brooks and the author of the new book THE ROAD TO CHARACTER (2015), and

(2) "Black Culture Is Not the Problem" by N. D. B. Connolly in history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of the book A WORLD MORE CONCRETE: REAL ESTATE AND THE REMAKING OF JIM CROW SOUTH FLORIDA (2014).

(1) In his op-ed column, Brooks reviews the per-student expenditures for students in black areas of the country that can be accurately described as areas of poverty. Of course Brooks is here advancing the well-known conservative critique of liberals who like to throw money at problems. Throwing money at problems does not always result in the elimination of the problems. In any event, throwing money at schools in poverty areas that enroll large numbers of black students has not resulted in eliminating poverty. Perhaps we do not yet know how to eliminate poverty.

Dear Reader: I am going to discuss formal education below, but without referring back to Brooks' op-ed piece.

(2) In his op-ed piece, Connolly advances the well-known theme of the political correctness police not to blame the apparent black victims of poverty by analyzing black culture and offering a critique of it. In short, black culture is not the problem involved in "[t]he death of Freddie Gray [or the deaths] of Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Rekia Boyd and so many other unarmed African-Americans."

With all due respect for Connolly, I want to examine his thesis that black culture is not the problem involved in Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore.

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My thesis is that we should not overlook black sub-culture(s) as part of the problem, just as we should not overlook white culture(s) as part of the problem involved in our contemporary male identity crisis in American culture.

You see, black culture in Baltimore and elsewhere does not exist in a vacuum, as it were. As a result, we should see black culture in Baltimore and elsewhere as a sub-culture, or perhaps sub-cultures, interfacing with the dominant American culture out of which white police officers have emerged.

As I will explain below, the dominant American culture today is not as white as the dominant American culture was in the Jim Crow era. For this reason, I do not stereotype the dominant American culture today as white.

But I am well aware that whites today tend to dominate the ranks of police officers -- and not just in Baltimore.

Dear Reader: In what I say below, I will be drawing extensively on the thought of the American cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English from Harvard University, 1955) and less extensively on the thought of the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980; Ph.D. in English from Cambridge University, 1943), most notably on his book THE GUTENBERG GALAXY: THE MAKING OF TYPOGRAPHIC MAN (1962). Perhaps I should spell out here that both Ong and McLuhan were white Roman Catholics. McLuhan converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1930s. Ong was a cradle Catholic, whose father was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

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Now, you could argue that American culture, both historically and today, has involved a network of sub-cultures. No doubt this is an accurate way to look at American culture past and present. For example, we can speak of an American Catholic sub-culture and of an African American sub-culture, and so on.

In the past, the prestige culture in American culture has been dominated by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). Historically, competing sub-cultures in American culture constructed prestige systems in their own sub-cultures that paralleled the dominant WASP prestige's culture in placing a certain value on formal education. So formal education has been a way to acculturate people in the values of the historical print culture that emerged after the Gutenberg printing press emerged in the 1450s in Western culture.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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