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The Baltimore Uprising and the Civil Rights Movement of the Millennial Generation

05/06/2015 06:31 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

There are multiple reasons as to why the Baltimore Uprising took place on the night of Monday, April 27, after the funeral of Freddie Gray. The brutality of the city's police culture -- coupled with the routine (historical) denial of black personhood and economic opportunity, exemplified in predatory policing practices, hyper-surveillance, mass incarceration, extreme unemployment (currently estimated at 24 percent) and substandard housing -- are the core causes for the conflagration that has become known as the "Baltimore Uprising." In fact, if one considers historical circumstances, Gray might as well have been shackled, chained, and thrown into the boat hold of a slave ship while he screamed for reprieve.

The racial state formed as a result of the institution of slavery, as predicated on white supremacist beliefs illustrated in segregation after 1896, has been transformed into a structural crisis faced by urban black communities today. Inequality persists in employment, housing, and schooling faced by African Americans across the country. African Americans did not simply choose to live under the worst conditions when they migrated to Northern cities by the millions after emancipation; rather local, state, and federal practices facilitated through block-busting, red-lining, and unequal lending schemes targeted black communities and contributed to urban rebellions of the 1960s and the Baltimore Uprising.

Historical illiteracy within U.S. society prevents most from understanding the legacy of race, racism, and, more specifically, events in Baltimore. First, race has long not been considered a biologic category of human difference by social scientists and historians; rather, it is a made-up category that emerged from historical socio-economic circumstances used to sort humans into social categories for exploitative purposes. There is only the human race.

Further, racial slavery emerged here during the 17th century as planters began to distinguish between black and white servants, leading to ideas about white superiority against unfounded notions of black inferiority that were later explained as "science" by the mid-19th century. The Jim Crow system that emerged after racial slavery ended in 1865 was a new racial state, still based on white supremacist beliefs and negative perceptions about blackness. A third racial state that emerged by the late 1960s is a reconfiguration of "Jim Crow," argues Michelle Alexander, as defined by mass incarceration and structural inequalities.

At the same time, racism is a complex phenomenon, including intentional, unintentional, unconscious bias, institutional, racial indifference, and white privilege -- not to mention racism tinged with homophobia or sexism. The person who treats another person of a different race with indifference, coldness, disrespect, rudeness, unfairness as compared to how one might treat another person of the same race "better" under the same conditions -- or one who seeks to leverage his/her white privilege for gain -- is practicing racism.

This phenomenon persists because ideas about black inferiority are embedded into our nation's cultural and social institutions. The video of Gray's arrest seems to suggest that he was in the process of being denied human status because of his race. Within the last five years, more than 100 people have won settlements against the Baltimore police for civil rights violations and allegations of racism, suggesting a pattern of institutional racism and creating the backdrop for the Baltimore Uprising.

The #blacklivesmatter campaign is the civil rights movement of the Millennial Generation. This freedom struggle understood by historians as "the struggle for black equality" has many phases, which started with Ida B. Well's anti-lynching campaigns in the late 19th century, expanded in the first four decades of the 20th century with mass boycotts, reached a zenith in the late 1960s, and now reinvigorated as a result of excessive police brutality and the mass incarceration of men of color, who make up some 60 percent of those currently jailed the United States. In fact, imprisonment of black men has nearly destroyed black urban communities. The young faces of Ferguson, New York, and now Baltimore are the faces of fear and despair. These faces are black, brown, and white. This movement is noticeably interracial and very much a movement of youth.

As Martin Luther King Jr. once lamented: "Where do we go from here?" We need lessons about the history of race, racism, and structural inequality. Freedom Schools must be reconstituted. All U.S. citizens need cultural competency training as our country becomes less white. In fact, I'd argue that the best way to train police officers is through a broad-based liberal arts college education. In other words, a sustained engagement with understanding the human condition through an expansive humanities curriculum, leading to a B.A. degree, should be required for all police officers. The humanities teach us something about being human and provide a foundation of personal ethics that could be used for public good.

Social scientists at both Harvard and Yale universities have demonstrated that humans have innate biases that are shaped or enhanced by socio-cultural conditions. These same researchers have demonstrated that bias can be unlearned. Collectively, we have a long history to unlearn in order to exist as the single human race we are, but education and a peaceable dialog are key components of today's conversations, public and private.