David Brooks on Freddie Gray: 'Not on the Path to Upward Mobility'


David Brooks, one of the world’s preeminent professional bloviators, is an expert on just about everything: How to Fight Anti-Semitism, for one (“deterrence and force, at the level of fear”), and also Goodness and Power (“Of course, private morality is not enough. You have to know how to react to unprincipled people who want to destroy you”). Now, David Brooks has turned his impeccably clear moral eye to the issue of Freddie Gray and Baltimore, in a column titled none other than “The Nature of Poverty.”

Right on, David Brooks. If there’s anyone who knows the nature of poverty, it’s a white guy whose first educational institution was Grace Church. I cannot wait to learn about the Nature of Poverty—from David Brooks! Let’s get right in there at the beginning:

Lately it seems as though every few months there’s another urban riot and the nation turns its attention to urban poverty. And in the midst of every storm, there are people crying out that we should finally get serious about this issue.

He’s like a college freshman starting their essay on poverty with “From the beginning of time, there have been people, and some of them have been poor.” He goes on to mention that Jon Stewart called out our trillion-dollar defense budget, asking why we couldn’t spend more money on our own infrastructure and schools as a way to deal with the poverty that underlines every bit of Baltimore’s anger about their own. But, says Brooks:

The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money.

I’m no David Brooks, but: I’d venture to say that the problem absolutely includes a lack of attention—of the right kind, the kind that doesn’t write off the poor as another type of person, the kind that doesn’t come swarming in a crisis then shove happily off. Listen to the pain in this guy’s voice, talking about the media attention on the riots and not their causes.

But whatever. Brooks points out that the federal government spends $14,000 per poor person, and that “if you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.” That’s a great idea in my book, actually, David Brooks. But that’s not what he’s saying, really, nor does he acknowledge in any way that anti-poverty spending inevitably intersects anti-poor structures in terms of wage laws, food access, criminal justice, and essentially everything else that shapes the American city.

Brooks goes on to use a case study of Freddie Gray’s own neighborhood, saying that, in the mid-1980s, Baltimore’s then-mayor put more than $130 million into the area, for job training programs, health care centers, affordable housing.

The money was not totally wasted. By 2000, the poverty rate in the area had dropped by 4.4 percent. The share of residents who lived in owner-occupied homes had risen by 8.3 percent, according to a thorough study by The Abell Foundation. But the area was not transformed. Today there are no grocery stores in the neighborhood and no restaurants. Crime is rampant. Unemployment is high.

Is the lesson that it takes a lot of time and money to alter the legacy of a historically segregationist city? That, as Jamelle Bouie writes at Slate, it’s no coincidence that the “Negro slums” of a century ago are the projects of today?

Not according to David Brooks, who is basically like, “Despite all the money a bunch of taxpayers and good rich people tried to spend on you, Poors, you are still doing things like getting lead paint poisoning and not being able to read.”

Despite all these efforts, there are too many young men leading lives like the one Gray led. He was apparently a kind-hearted, respectful, popular man, but he was not on the path to upward mobility. He won a settlement for lead paint poisoning. According to The Washington Post, his mother was a heroin addict who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read. In one court filing, it was reported that Gray was four grade levels behind in reading. He was arrested more than a dozen times.

“Well, the police snapped his spine out of sociopathic whimsy, but he wasn’t going anywhere good anyway.” Actually, that’s an unfair representation of David Brooks’ thinking, because there’s not a damn word in this column about police. There’s no direct reference to how Freddie Gray died, or, besides the word “led,” an acknowledgment that Freddie Gray died at all.

That’s the real nature of poverty, it seems—that you’ll be black and you’ll be murdered in police custody and a white New York Times writer will still see you as an arrest record, a symbol of your own failure and your families, rather than the writer’s, and all of our own.

Here’s the final paragraph in this steaming pile of diarrhea.

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

Is there a greater hack in America than David Fucking Brooks?

For more on him, I recommend Sarah Miller’s perfect impersonation:

In the interest of playing devil’s advocate, I also read another fascinating book. This one, written by Yale professor philosopher Finn Coates, is called I Couldn’t Really Tell You, I Was Kind of Hoping You Guys Knew. This exhaustively researched work, which began in 1982 as Coates’ Stanford dissertation, looks at a bunch of unrelated events—a Pee Wee hockey tournament in East Winstead, CT in 1994, a riot at a Maryland prison that same year, the sinking of a friend’s Boston Whaler moored at a slip in Fort Myers, FL—and decides that no one had any idea why the one team won, or why the riot started, or why the boat sank, because when no one is watching, there’s no witness to the account, and thus, no story. It raises a lot of fascinating questions about our eyes and how they work, and leaves us with the unsettling sense that if we’re not actually in front of something, looking at it, we don’t see it. I myself read it with one hand over one eye, as if to slowly acclimate myself to a shattering reality.

Image via AP

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