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OPINION

Alford: Black livelihoods — not just lives — matter

Harry Alford

If there has been anything positive to come out of a string of recent cases involving African-Americans subjected to abuse by law enforcement authorities, it is that more and more Americans now acknowledge there is a systemic problem with the interplay between minorities and police officers. They acknowledge that something must be done.

President Barack Obama is working to tap into the widely shared desire to create a fairer criminal system and build a more harmonious relationship between the public and police with travels to Oklahoma City, where he became the first sitting president to visit a federal jail, and elsewhere.

But no matter how successful we are in demonstrating that “Black lives matter,” we cannot lose sight of the link between economic hopelessness and criminal activity.

Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police officers in Baltimore put a spotlight on the economic despair and hopelessness throughout that city. Where economic prospects are bleak, the lure of money through criminal activity looks bright.

Twenty years ago, an innovative public-private partnership injected $130 million into the troubled Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park section of Baltimore where Gray lived. More than 1,000 homes were rehabilitated, schools were fixed, education and health services were bolstered. All that was needed were jobs.

But those never materialized. In fact, they continued to vanish. With close to half the residents aged 16-64 unemployed, the number of drug-related arrests per 1,000 tops 150 in this section of Baltimore.

It is essential that President Obama continues to focus on the root causes of crime in addition to how it is dealt with by police. His legacy in urban America will be measured more in economic opportunities created, and less in reforming policing tactics and prison sentences.

Cities such as Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia and President Obama’s hometown of Chicago began losing jobs long before he came on the scene, and it has been a challenge to recreate middle-class jobs. Gentrifying a section of a neighborhood or creating art studies in an abandoned factory cannot solve the problem.

In addition, proximity to rail, highway and port operations makes urban areas uniquely suited to establishing new industrial and commercial activities. Of course, this infrastructure must itself be repaired, expanded and rehabilitated in many cases. To President Obama’s credit, he understands the link between infrastructure and economic growth, but he’ll need support from congressional Republicans to move ahead on many of these projects.

With presidential leadership, as a country we may soon be able to embrace the vision of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy...Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.”

Harry Alford is president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.