The day after Baltimore erupted in another round of riots related to racial injustice and economic inequality, I couldn’t get the tune from the John Waters’ cult classic “Hairspray” out of my head. It’s a snappy ditty from a fun little show that, at least according to its IMDB page, is about “a ‘pleasantly plump’ teenager [who] teaches 1962 Baltimore a thing or two about integration.”
As I read, watched and listened to the stories that surrounded the violence in Baltimore, I kept silently singing “Good Morning, Baltimore.” I listened to the president preach—yet again—that we can’t go back to business as usual. I’m hopeful that Baltimore burning might be a wake-up call for us. You never know.
Shortly after the protests turned violent, Baltimore Oriole’s owner Peter Angelos tweeted that the minor inconvenience of postponing a ballgame “pales in comparison to the plight of the poor.” He went on to note four decades worth of systemic government policies have contributed to the destruction of what once may have been a middle class.
That’s saying something, especially coming from someone that is not likely to go hungry, even if the Orioles play a few more games in front of empty seats. Forty years goes back nearly to the last time Baltimore burned. That was in 1968 after MLK’s assassination.
As I scanned the newscasts and social-media information, one comment really jumped out from Facebook. Someone was ranting, which solicited the response, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” This comment effectively ended the conversation.
The first time I heard that comment was about a dozen years ago when my wife was arguing with one of my radical Republican relatives about women’s rights. He spat, “You just don’t get it. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” That ended that.
Funny thing is: I bet my Republican relative had no idea where the quote came from. For all I know, he thought it was from the Constitution or the Bible. According to Internet sources, which are as infallible as any pope, the credit goes to Eldridge Cleaver—a simple man who makes a simple statement that seems to make a lot of sense. However, Eldridge Cleaver wasn’t a simple man, and his statement may be more of an arrogant absurdity than a wise aphorism.
Here’s a multiple-choice question high-school history students probably hate: Was Eldridge Cleaver an African-American-confirmed-serial rapist of white women, who used political beliefs to justify his violence? A supporter of Malcolm X and the black Muslim movement? A Black Panther and civil rights activist? A Peace Party candidate for president, born-again Christian, Folsom State Prison inmate, and Mormon? Or a conservative Republican candidate for city council? According to the history books, you should check “yes” to each of these blocks for an “A.”
Not such a simple man.
His seemingly simple statement is anything but: It says there is no neutrality. There aren’t 50 shades of gray. There isn’t even one. It also seems too arrogant to assert, “I know what the problem is. You don’t. I know how to solve it. You don’t. Stay out of the way of those of us that know what we’re doing.”
The problem? The solution?
What’s the problem in Baltimore? Is it the hideous shadow of racism that’s rearing its ugly head? Is it antiquated drug laws? Is it unfettered greed and economic inequality? Is it ineffective government? Is it the militarization of our civil-law enforcement? Is it thug rioters not obeying the law? Is it the ingratitude of the poor to live in a “free” country? Is it insulation and lack of empathy of the wealthier among us? Or is it media selectivity, bias and investment, in telling simple, high-conflict narratives rather than exposing complexity?
Again, if you checked all the boxes, you get an “A.”
I don’t see much wisdom in Eldridge’s statement—at least for the complex situations that impact the majority of us. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to be left out, but I like to see myself as part of the problem whenever I can. I figure if my biases, behaviors and poor reasoning are part of problems, then my energy, effort and willingness to learn might be part of solution.
Maybe Baltimore will wake us up and help us flip Mr. Cleaver’s clever conversation-ending statement to a question: “If you don’t see yourself as at least a small part of problems, how can you be part of solutions?”