Mogk: Urban issues demand Obama’s attention

Dear President Barack Obama:

The country needs stronger leadership from you in addressing the root causes of the civil disturbances in Baltimore and Ferguson. The causes were clearly documented by President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) after riots in Detroit, Newark and other American cities nearly a half century ago.

Like Baltimore and Ferguson, police action in Detroit and Newark triggered the disturbances. Rioters burned and looted and military force was needed to restore order.

The Kerner Commission identified: (1) police practices, (2) unemployment and underemployment, (3) Inadequate housing and (4) inadequate education as the principal underlying problems. Clearly, racism is a contributing factor to all them. While progress was made in the early 1970s in addressing some, as cities quieted later in the decade, the nation’s attention and priorities turned elsewhere.

Surely, as a community organizer on Chicago’s south side in the 1980s you realized that the problems continued to persist. As a state senator and, later, a U.S. Senator in the decades that followed it must have been clear that no effective solutions had been found for the gap in equal treatment and opportunity for those locked in America’s distressed neighborhoods.

No one doubts your concern for their plight. However, many are beginning to question whether you are doing enough to address their problems. You have suggested that your hands are tied by a recalcitrant Congress. But your lips are not sealed. It is not good enough to say that these problems have no clear answers and will take time to resolve. If the president is not laying out a path forward to equality for those being denied, then who?

We know that money alone is not the answer. As David Brooks pointed out in his New York Times column on May 1, Baltimore spends more than $15,000 per pupil annually, but only half of its high school students attend school daily. There are deeply seeded social and psychological factors inherent in these problems. As the president, you have access to the best sociological and psychological minds in the country. Have you asked them to work with you in charting a course for the nation to follow?

Mr. President, the nation needs to hear from you and it needs a plan to address the problems brought into focus once again in Baltimore and Ferguson.

John E. Mogk, professor, Wayne Law School