BALTIMORE. Ferguson. Detroit. Watts. Harlem. Philadelphia.

The through line for the protests sparked in these and other cities, in a history that spans well over 50 years, is not civil rights, or racial tensions.

It's police brutality.

Questionable arrests, mistreatment or killing of blacks in the past year by police officers in Ferguson, New York and Baltimore were the same sparks that launched the seminal protests of 50 years ago in Detroit, Watts and other places, which fed the larger civil-rights movement.

No one thought, even back then, that civil rights had been resolved. But it was tempting to think that our 21st-century enlightenment pointed to real success. A black man serving as president is the prime example of racial progress.

Major cities like ours - and Baltimore - have a black mayor and black police chief. But progress is more selective. Poverty and joblessness are still the reality for too many blacks, and police mistreatment adds further insult to injury.

Yesterday, gang members stood with Baltimore City Council to plead for an end to the rioting, according to a report in the Baltimore Sun. One gang member said: "I need a job. Most of the youths need a job. We need help. It ain't right what people was doing, but you have to understand. Some people are struggling."

One mainspring of the civil-rights movement was, and remains, police mistreatment of blacks, especially black males. And that isn't limited to white officers shooting black men. What was missing then, and what's missing now, is the acknowledgment that police brutality is a proxy for social and economic brutality.

Nothing will change unless we admit that police are just the actors we employ in the systematic erasure and marginalization of black males that society has tolerated - if not encouraged - for far too long.

Consider the study released last week by the New York Times with the provocative headline, "1.5 Million Missing Black Men."

Examining census and other data, the Times concluded that more than one out of every six black men between ages 25 and 54 is missing from everyday life, lost to disproportionate death and incarceration rates. Incarceration rates - with one in 12 black men in jail - counts for almost 600,000 of the missing. Mortality may account for about 900,000 - including homicide, the leading cause of death for young black men. The result: There are 83 black men living out of jail to every 100 black women.

And while the Times interprets the impact of these data, such as lower family formation and low marriage rates, a more brutal truth seems clear: A societal aversion to black males that is tacitly complicit in their deaths, and overtly complicit in their imprisonment.

While police behavior may be at the center of these events, and we can and must respond with better leadership and training, it's also true that police are not a special class of racists running the streets. Police are simply proxies for the larger society. We are Michael Brown. We are Eric Garner. We are Freddie Gray.

But we are also Officer Darren Wilson. We are Officer Daniel Pantaleo. We are the police.