Reflections on a meme photo
Black, praised, and positioned by Johns Hopkins University
First-up, props to Stephen. This meme is funny and, thankfully given the depravity of memes these days, tasteful. That said, you can imagine my surprise when it popped up in the mini-feed.
For those not from Baltimore, Poly (Baltimore Polytechnic Institute) and City (Baltimore City College) have been rivals for over a century . Indeed, it’s one of the oldest football (and everything else) rivalries in the country. Very recent history notwithstanding , I look forward to Poly trouncing City in a couple weeks (4 Nov 2017, M&T Bank Stadium, 12–3 pm ).
Dog and Pony
The photo itself was taken a dozen years ago for a Johns Hopkins Magazine feature named “Locally Grown” .
I’ve been ambivalent about the article, and related “dog and pony,” since it was written. On the one hand, it’s nice to see young African-American men recognized for STEM, rather than sport or art.
On the other hand, my story was taken by a variety of institutional actors for their own gain: Johns Hopkins University (JHU), Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS), and the Maryland Department of Education.
The other hand wins.
What Hopkins doesn’t tell you
You’ll be met with entrenched institutional racism from the moment you step on campus. Outside the very nurturing bubble of my research lab, I’d experienced some slights as a high school student; but, it only gets worse when you live among the hate, or worse — condescending apathy.
From racist Halloween parties that drew national attention (Halloween in the Hood” ) to being stopped by campus police,¹ to racist graffiti in the bathrooms, to folks refusing to study with you, to being the only African-American in a class of 100+ Biomedical Engineers.²
You’ll be met with the very Baltimore Scholars program , that could help kids from the city, but was co-opted by affluent parents (sometimes suburban) placing their kids in (the best) city schools for 3–4 years to get the free tuition — part of the reason they revised the scholarship program to account for family income.³
It is no secret that the Baltimore Scholars program does not reflect the demographics of Baltimore City public high schools. They’ll pass the buck to BCPSS for not preparing students, and BCPSS will pass the buck to any number of other systemic causes — rampant childhood poverty, residential segregation, under-funding, mass incarceration , a dissolution of the “traditional” black family, etc. In any case, it’s the children of Baltimore who pay the price.
On the hill negro
The saddest thing about my Hopkins experience was realizing how good I’ve had it— far better off than your peers because you’re light-skinned, a man and had been around the Hopkins environment long enough to learn to talk and act white when in “mixed” company.
Far better than the kids you played with at state-subsidized pre-K at the center on the corner of Rutland and Federal, a couple blocks from the house grandma rented for decades. When that meme photo was taken, the center was boarded-up and had so many needles strewn about that the badly neglected “playground” was unusable (dirty cracked asphalt with weeds). The opportunities that allowed me to appear in that photo, are so very far out of reach to most children in Baltimore.
The best and worse thing about being from Baltimore is knowing — viscerally knowing — injustice from a very very early age. From stumbling across a man bleeding-out in the gutter while playing with your cousins as a child, and having his family wait an hour for the ambulance, dispatched from Hopkins Hospital 1/2 mile away. To being pulled over and harassed by police with your father. To the background noise of gunshots and sirens outside your window on weekly stays with grandma. To having “the talk” with your folks about what it means to come of age as black man in America.
My well meaning white friends learned about injustice, oppression and state-violence in the classroom. I was fortunate to have a taste first-hand, yet have a privileged enough home environment so the many ills of the city wouldn’t consume me (raised in northeast).
The ills of our city, including educational injustice, are not an accident. They are a direct consequence of willfully unjust policy decisions inflicted upon generations of city residents. To the great benefit of the affluent and white. To the great detriment of everybody else.
The city’s institutions are not the people’s institutions. Hopkins, BCPSS, BCPD, the Mayor, etc. will give platitudes and scramble for “quick fixes”. But they all choose comfort over courage.
Real solutions are neither short-term nor politically “palatable” to the altars of whiteness and capital. Solutions are, however, simple: empower the disempowered.
Of the many areas of systematic injustice visited upon communities of color in Baltimore, economic injustice and educational injustice are among the most damning.
As a first step on redressing economic injustice, implement a city-wide basic income (preferably state-wide, preferably national, preferably global…but gotta start somewhere), indexed to growth, so that all residents share in the economic gains of the region’s booming economy. As a basic income, it should be paid to all residents, including children, unconditionally and absent paternalism. It should be funded by progressive taxation, ideally including land-value and wealth taxes.
As a first step on redressing educational injustice, ensure that every child, regardless of accident of birth or parental zip code, is provided a quality public education as their birth right. That means state-wide busing, state-wide funding of K-12 schools,⁴ and tuition-free attendance to state universities.
So long as the establishment, including Hopkins, attempt to place a quick-fix sticker on a deeply sick city, the state-sanctioned physical and economic violence against our children and families will continue.
Only measures of magnitude, measures that strike at the very heart of injustice and inequality, may temper in time.
- Hopkins would rather pay campus security (the blacker, the more likely to be contracted rather than employees) to enforce the boundaries of white, upper-middle class privilege than address the systematic causes of poverty in the city. Hopkins would rather sit on or next to blighted property waiting for state or Federal money to build a landmark gentrification hub than to meaningfully co-develop with the community. Better to change (read: whiten) your neighbors than to share prosperity. Better to perpetuate racial and socioeconomic segregation, than to “make waves.”
- Started with 4 black (some African, some African-American) students. All but me left by the end of freshman year. When I graduated, I believe I was the only African-American undergraduate Biomedical Engineer (~400 students); I recall one kindly African-American BME graduate student.
- The dirty secret of every university is that for every $1 spent by the endowment, $20 are working hard perpetuating capitalist oppression via the public markets, private equity, real estate, etc. Hopkins has $3B+ endowment dollars working hard every day towards oppression, as opposed to solidarity. A very small set-aside of the endowment funds the Baltimore Scholars program. Similar to your personal investments in oppression, just on a much, much larger scale. The good news is that it doesn’t need to be this way, either on an individual  or institutional level.
- Rather than local property taxes that form an entrenched link between housing and educational segregation.
To those not from Baltimore, the meme proper is funny on a lot of levels. To understand the references you’ll need a bit of context:
Poly: Baltimore Polytechnic Institute
Team: The Engineers
School colors: Orange & Blue
LaQuan Williams: Former Baltimore Ravens (football) wide receiver, who attended Poly.
I-83: Is a major highway that runs past the school. Incidentally, the route and termination before connecting with I-95 is a result of “community backlash”, i.e. the mostly white residents of Fells Point and Canton stopping construction. Fast-forward 50 years, and those two neighborhoods are some of the most gentrified in the city. From I-495 to downtown, I-83 forms a neat racial and socioeconomic boundary between several neighborhoods (from north to south):
- Cylburn/Pimlico (black) — Cross Keys/Roland Park (white)
- Greater Mondawmin (black) — Charles Village/Hopkins Homewood (white)
- Latrobe (black) — Mt Vernon (white)