All week long, people have discussed how black Americans citizens should respond to the death of Freddie Gray. I’ve seen very little discussion of how white Americans should respond … but any practical theory of change must begin there. (More)

The Baltimore Uprising and Theories of Change (Non-Cynical Saturday)

“Theory of change” has become a popular phrase among progressives. It its formalistic sense, a theory of change is a detailed action plan with some key features:

  • it shows a causal pathway from here to there by specifying what is needed for goals to be achieved[.]
  • it requires you to articulate underlying assumptions which can be tested and measured.
  • it changes the way of thinking about initiatives from what you are doing to what you want to achieve and starts there.

Ideally, both the actions to be taken (“interventions”) and their desired effects (“outcomes”) are measurable, making the theory itself testable. If an intervention is being done but it doesn’t yield the desired outcome, then that part of the theory of change should be revisited. People may not be performing that intervention correctly, or enough. Or you may have met unexpected problems. Or maybe that part of your theory was wrong, and that intervention simply won’t yield that outcome after all.

More broadly, a theory of change is a set of long-term goals and a plan that everyone agrees will be revised as necessary. In theory of change methods, it’s not enough to simply Follow The Plan. Everyone involved should also be asking: “Is this moving us toward our goals?”

“They’re violent, they’re brutal”

Toya Graham may not have had a fully-developed theory of change when she looked at the TV and saw her 16-year-old son throwing rocks at Baltimore police, but she definitely intervened. She went out and found him, then started beating and cursing him. It was captured on TV, and conservatives dubbed her a hero:

Actually the ‘gangs’ did more to keep the peace and protect bystanders than the police or the National Guard, but set that fact aside. The conservative theory of change is that young black men aren’t being beaten enough. If their parents won’t do it, the police must. And if young black men resist, the government should starve their families:

In audio obtain by First Look’s Lee Fang, a caller on a Baltimore radio program asks [State Del. Patrick] McDonough why the government could not “take away benefits from families, from like the parents who are collecting welfare” if the protesters were “too young.”

“That’s an idea and that could be legislation,” McDonough volunteers. “I think that you could make the case that there is a failure to do proper parenting and allowing this stuff to happen, is there an opportunity for a month to take away your food stamps?”
“These young people, they’re violent, they’re brutal, their mindset is dysfunctional to a point of being dangerous,” he says. “We have got to study, investigate, and really look at what this is all about.”

“He gave me eye contact”

Like Geraldo Rivera’s, McDonough’s theory of change focuses solely on what black Americans should do differently. Yet consider what Toya Graham told reporters:

“He gave me eye contact,” Toya Graham told CBS News. “And at that point, you know, not even thinking about cameras or anything like that – that’s my only son and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray. […] At that point, I just lost it. I was shocked, I was angry, because you never want to see your child out there doing that..”

Graham eerily echoes the Baltimore police, who arrested Freddie Gray because he made “eye contact” with them and then refused to submit. The bitter irony was not lost on the Washington Post’s Stacey Patton:

In other words, Graham’s message to America is: I will teach my black son not to resist white supremacy so he can live.

The kind of violent discipline Graham unleashed on her son did not originate with her, or with my adoptive mother who publicly beat me when I was a child, or with the legions of black parents who equate pain with protection and love. The beatings originated with white supremacy, a history of cultural and physical violence that devalues black life at every turn. From slavery through Jim Crow, from the school-to-prison pipeline, the innocence and protection of black children has always been a dream deferred.

The problem is that Graham’s actions do not assure that her son, and legions like him, will survive childhood. Recall the uncle who in 2011 posted a video recording of himself beating his teenage nephew for posting gang messages on Facebook. Acting out of love and fear for his life, he whipped the teen, but months later he was found dead anyway.

“The lives of black people in this country have been violent for a long time”

In his commencement address to graduates at Johns Hopkins University this week, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates highlights the evidence contradicting the More Beatings theory of change:

But I have a problem when you begin the clock with the violence on Tuesday. Because the fact of the matter is that the lives of black people in this city, the lives of black people in this country have been violent for a long time. Violence is how enslavement actually happened. People will think of enslavement as like a summer camp, where you just have to work, where you just go and someone gives you food and lodging, but enslavement is violence, it is torture. Torture is how it was made possible.[…]

Violence is not even in our past. Violence continues today. I was reading a stat that the neighborhood where the “riots” popped-off earlier this week is in fact the most incarcerated portion of the state of Maryland. And this is not surprising. We live in a country where the incarceration rate is 750 per 100,000. […] And as bad as that national incarceration rate is, the incarceration rate for black men is somewhere around 4,000 per 100,000. So if you think the incarceration rate for America is bad, for black America it’s somewhere where there is no real historical parallel.

And incarceration is, even in and of itself, a kind of euphemism, a very nice word, for what actually happens when they cart you off and take you to jail for long periods of time. Jails are violent. To survive, you use violence. To be incarcerated in this country is to be subjected to the possibility of sexual assault, is to be subjected to possibility of violence from fellow inmates, to be subjected to violence from guards. And the saddest part of this is that this mirrors the kind of violence that I saw in my neighborhood as a young man in West Baltimore.

Whites have been beating black Americans – or demanding that black parents beat their children – for centuries. But the More Beatings theory hasn’t worked.

“You are enrolled in this”

So maybe the challenge for white Americans is to stop discussing what black Americans should do differently … and start discussing what white Americans should do differently. Coates laid that out to the Johns Hopkins graduates:

My words, particularly here at Johns Hopkins, and since I’m here at Johns Hopkins – and I’m not out in West Baltimore and I’m not on North Avenue and I’m not at Mondawmin Mall – my words for Johns Hopkins is that you are enrolled in this. You are part of this. You are a great institution here in this city. And I know that the president of Johns Hopkins didn’t ask for this. None of us individuals asked for this. Nobody asked to be part of it. But when you are an American, you’re born into this. And there are young black people who folks on TV are dismissing as thugs and all sorts of other words (I know the mayor apologized, I want to acknowledge that), but people who are being dismissed as thugs – these people live lives of incomprehensible violence.
So when we label these people those sorts of things – when we decide we’re going to pay attention to them when they pick up a rock, and we’re going to call them “violent” when they act out in anger – we’re making a statement. Again, being here in a seat of power, being here at Johns Hopkins – where I’m happy to be, thank you for hosting me – it’s a very influential institution! You’re a part of that! There are powerful people here sitting in the audience who can talk to folks and say, “Maybe we need to change our vocabulary a little bit.” What are we doing to actually mitigate the amount of violence that is in the daily lives of these young people? Let’s not begin the conversation with the “riot,” let’s back up a little bit. Let’s talk about the daily everyday violence that folks live under.

“The seeds of a so-called ‘American Spring'”

One approach might be to step outside our bubble of whiteness and imagine the stories we might read if these events had happened in another country. The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah offered one such vision:

International leaders expressed concern over the rising tide of racism and state violence in America, especially concerning the treatment of ethnic minorities in the country and the corruption in state security forces around the country when handling cases of police brutality. The latest crisis is taking place in Baltimore, Maryland, a once-bustling city on the country’s Eastern Seaboard, where an unarmed man named Freddie Gray died from a severed spine while in police custody.

Black Americans, a minority ethnic group, are killed by state security forces at a rate higher than the white majority population. Young, black American males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white American males.
A statement from the United Nations said, “We condemn the militarization and police brutality that we have seen in recent months in America, and we strongly urge American state security forces to launch a full investigation into the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. There is no excuse for excessive police violence.” The U.N. called on the United States to make a concerted effort to make databases of police violence public to improve transparency and cut down on corruption in the justice system.

International analysts predict the seeds of a so-called “American Spring,” fomented by technology. “It’s amazing what social media is doing for the cause of justice in America,” said a political rights analyst based in Geneva. “The black youth of America are showing what 21st-century civil rights activism looks like, using technology, social media and a decentralized organizing strategy to hold authorities accountable and agitate for change. These kids represent what modern-day freedom fighting looks like. The revolution will be tweeted, Periscope-d and Snapchatted.”

Local leaders in the American township of Baltimore imposed a state of martial law this week after peaceful protests turned violent. In response, countries around the world have advised darker-skinned nationals against non-essential travel to areas noted for state violence against unarmed people of color, especially in recent hot spots such as New York, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Ohio, California, Michigan, Virginia and now Maryland.

How would white Americans feel if the western media described the U.S. in such terms? Yes, some would resent it. But is it possible – just possible – that many would feel the same horror that followed after Birmingham police turned police dogs and fire hoses on the Children’s March, an event that documentary filmmaker Miranda Jessup called “the turning point of the Civil Rights Movement?”

For now, as then, the real challenge is not how black Americans protest racial injustice … but whether white Americans continue to accept and enable racial injustice. Any theory of change whose outcomes do not include changing white Americans’ attitudes and behaviors – such as reflexively blaming young black men when police kill them, and denying policies of racial plunder – is a theory of change doomed to failure.

This week President Obama and others rightly criticized our media for ignoring the conditions in Baltimore until the protests turned violent. We can deplore the violence … but only if we commit to paying attention, and working for change, when the violence ends.

Otherwise we are, as Coates wrote earlier this week, simply “the aggressors calling for a time out.”


Happy Saturday!