Communities need to take advantage of this moment to look at the causes of inequality and do something about them.

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Symptoms get our attention, and if we then identify the source of the problems, and fix them, the symptoms go away. Our bodies work that way, and communities do, too.

What’s happening in other cities has opened the door to discussions Americans need to have both nationally and in our individual communities. We need to think ourselves past flash points to an awareness that spurs us to fix the problems caused by poverty and economic segregation.

Our part of the country suffers from some of the same maladies that caused eruptions in Baltimore, and Ferguson, Mo.

How police treat black, Latino and Native American citizens is a longstanding issue, though one largely invisible to the majority of white Americans until recently, but that isn’t the root cause of our troubles. It’s just the most dramatic symptom.

 

Related video: May Day 2015 coverage

May Day demonstrations on Capitol Hill shifted from a protest – with marchers chanting for Freddie Gray and diners thanking Seattle police – to a riot with flash bangs, pepper spray, flag burning and arrests. Read more. (The Seattle Times)

Deaths in custody usually get local attention, but over the past several months, ongoing protests have focused national attention on them.

Most Americans now say race relations in America are bad. The most recent New York Times/CBS News poll found 61 percent of Americans say so. Just two months ago, 38 percent said relations were bad; the change reflects a steep rise in the percentage of white Americans who say relations are bad.

More white Americans now — 37 percent — say police in most communities are more likely to shoot a black person than a white person; for black respondents, the figure is 79 percent.

A ProPublica analysis of police killings from last Octoberfound that young black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white males.

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The phenomenon is not new, but it is news to some Americans because stories about police-custody deaths rarely attract national attention, let alone the sustained attention they are getting now.

Social media and video recordings have made a big difference. Small protests become large protests that attract mainstream media attention, especially when they disrupt life as usual in a community — when they become an irritant. And when some protesters turn violent, coverage and attention soar.

In the absence of information that provides context, many people ask: “Why are they doing this? Why are they burning their community?”

Most reactions I read or heard were all about surface symptoms: police behavior, protest tactics, etc., at least early on. But there are deep problems in the neighborhoods where protests took place, high unemployment, poor schools, dangerous streets and hazardous housing. Some of the neighborhoods where people protested have not fully recovered since they exploded in 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute, wrote this in his blog last week: “Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality — training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on. These are all good, necessary, and important things to do. But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.”

People are protesting being locked in poverty and poorly served by almost every official who claims to represent them.

Rothstein, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley, quoted from the Kerner Commission report on the 1968 riots. The report said the country was moving toward two separate and unequal nations, one black and one white, and that poverty and segregation had created destructive ghettos. And that what “white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Rothstein blames federal and local government policies, especially housing policies, for producing and maintaining segregation and inequality.

Research shows that where a person lives can block or increase opportunities.

In King County, the growing concentration of poverty in a few suburbs calls for responses that can stop those areas from becoming like the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore.

Planners and governments in the region are already talking about the importance of access to good jobs, transportation, housing, education and other services in the areas where people of limited means live. It will take awareness and political support from the whole region to do more than scratch the surface. I hope we can manage that.