Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Maryland Exception

The other day, I went to a talk by Yale Law Professor Akhil Amar, who was promoting his new book The Law of the Land. The conceit of the book is a telling of the "story" of American law and our constitutional ethos via various state-based vignettes (the first one is about Abraham Lincoln and Illinois, the second about Hugo Black and Alabama, and so on). A major theme of the book and talk is an argument about the endurance of America's geographical divides. The list of states that voted against Lincoln in 1860 bears a striking a resemblance to those which voted against Obama in 2012. Of the four states which were genuinely "purple" in 2012 (decided by less than 5 points), three of them were "north-meets-south" states (Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina). The fourth, Florida, is functionally "north-meets-south" as well, due to its massive population of New York and New Jersey transplants (I've often joked that South Florida is essentially a suburb of Brooklyn).

After the talk, I was able to ask Professor Amar about a state that did not receive a chapter in his book -- my home state of Maryland. Maryland, it seems, is a very stark exception to this tale. It is a southern state -- below the Mason-DIxon line. It was a slave state. It didn't secede, but mostly because it was under Union military occupation. It has a large Black population, which in Southern states had historically been associated with extraordinary racial polarization in voting (that is, in Southern states the more Blacks they were the more conservative Whites voted).

Today, Maryland is not Virginia, or North Carolina, or Ohio. It is among the most liberal states in the country. It is Massachusetts, or Hawaii. If you lived in the beltway suburbs (Montgomery County or Prince George's County) in 2006, there was not a single Republican representing any level of government -- federal, state, or local -- except for the President. I think that remained true until the recent election of Larry Hogan to the Governor's office -- only the second Republican to hold that office since Spiro Agnew (and even with Hogan's election, Democrats maintain a 91-50 edge in the House of Delegates and 33-14 advantage in the State Senate). It is a left-wing state.

Right now, Baltimore is awash in protest, initially sparking by the police killing of Freddie Gray, who succumbed to spinal injuries inflicted while he was in police custody. In some sense, this is just the latest chapter of the ongoing, national unrest that results from the continued exclusion of Blacks from the full fruits of the American dream.

But perhaps not. For as Adam Serwer notes, "Baltimore is no Ferguson, Missouri." Baltimore is a city with "a black mayor, black police commissioner, and a police force evenly divided between black and white officers." This is an exception too; Baltimore "is one of very few cities that burned despite substantial black representation in the city government and police force." For Serwer, this gives lie to the notion "that harmony can be achieved by elevating a few blacks to positions of power within a system that leaves so many impoverished. American cities cannot avoid unrest by simply placing black people at the helm, as long as progress for so many is ephemeral. An unjust system remains unjust no matter the ethnicity of its caretakers."

This is, indeed, a bitter pill, and a noteworthy one. Process-oriented liberals (and not all liberals, to be sure, are process-oriented) have sought to channel racial justice into a narrative of democratic inclusion -- the harm stems from being excluded from the levers of political power and self-determination, the solution is to create conditions of political equality and representation. Yet even as Maryland and Baltimore are in many ways exceptions to the rule where such equality is nowhere to be found, they are not exceptions to the social malfunctions and disasters which provoke the current unrest.

Of course, the conservative response to all of this is simple: Blacks should stop being Democrats. What have liberal politics done for you? What has a Black President done for you? Jump over to our side of the fence! The easy retort, of course, is that locales where Republicans are dominant political players are hardly paragons of racial virtue either -- if anything, they're worse than Maryland, but the best you can say is that it is a non-factor. The bigger problem, though, is that the small-d democratic solution -- self-determination, pick your own leaders -- doesn't seem to be sufficient either. It is a bedrock principle of respecting a group that you respect their choices on how to self-govern, even when one might disagree, even when they seem to be off the mark. The self-governance is the critical consideration; anything else has to answer the charge that it is domination in disguise. Yet Baltimore isn't a situation where the process failed. It's a situation where the substance failed.

I think it is to our nation's credit that we are starting to look seriously at the substance of things -- that substantively speaking too many people view Black lives as expendable and substantively speaking too many people don't care what happens in their neighborhoods. But it is a challenge because when it comes to racial justice people are very uncomfortable thinking in terms of substance. Procedural, representational justice is (conceptually easy), and one could argue that Maryland and Baltimore already achieved that. But debates over substance can be significantly murkier and far more intractable. I'm hopeful, and I believe, that Baltimore and Maryland have the right foundations to tackle these hard questions in a way that makes us an exception -- an exceptional leader in resolving these problems right.


David said...

A very interesting post, especially that part about the failure of procedural approaches to achieve substantive improvements.

Just a quibble: How is North Carolina a "north-meets-south" state? Maybe because of immigration of northerners like Florida, but certainly not by pure geography, as its only borders are with former Confederate states. And it has traditionally be considered part of the "deep South" as distinct from, for example, its northern neighbor Virginia.

David Schraub said...

My understanding is that North Carolina was never considered part of the "deep south" (one could absolutely be "sold south" from NC). That said, it is clearly the weakest part of Amar's "north-meets-south" case.