On Monday the 27th of April, the streets of Baltimore erupted into violent riots. Cars were destroyed, shops were looted, a pharmacy burned into the night. According to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, firefighters responded to 144 vehicle and 15 structure fires that Monday night. The spark that ignited this powder keg was the funeral of 25-year old African American Freddie Gray, which was held that morning. Gray died of injuries sustained during his illegal arrest, in which a number of Baltimore Police Department general orders were ignored by the six police officers involved. They have since been charged with offences associated to the incident, including manslaughter. A spate of high profile deaths of African Americans at the hands of police in Ferguson, North Charleston and elsewhere have brought to the fore racial tensions in the United States many naively thought buried.
In 2010, according to statistics published by the US Bureau of Justice, one in thirty-three adults were incarcerated. One in forty-eight were on parole or some other form of judicial supervision. That amounts to 3% of all adults in the United States, a country with more than 300 million residents. Why is that number so staggeringly high? Data in 2012 suggests that nine out of ten defendants in district courts were convicted. Largely because of no-tolerance policies designed to make politicians appear tough on crime, eight out of ten convicted persons received a prison sentence. As a result of those same policies, the median federal prison sentence was 33 months (just over two and half years). But besides those, there is one more, particularly horrifying statistic.
According to 2009 data published by the US Bureau of Justice, the ratio between incarcerated adult males to total adult males is highest amongst the African American population, sitting at nearly seven times that ratio amongst white adult males. The important corollary question to this information is this: what is the cause of this disproportionate incarceration?
The Gini coefficient is a widely used measure of economic inequality. It ranges from zero (a scenario in which everyone has the same income) and one (a scenario in which a single person receives all income). In 2011, the OECD Gini Coefficient average was 0.32. In 2012, OECD data records the United States Gini as 0.39, and for reference, the Australian Gini as 0.32. As a baseline, this establishes that the United States has higher income inequality than the OECD average. This is borne true by other data as well. Relative income poverty is measured as a share of population with an income lower than half of the national median. In 2011, the OECD average relative income poverty was 11.7%; the US, by contrast, recorded a figure of 17.4%. Effectively, that data suggests that nearly one fifth of the US population earns less than the median wage, after taxes and transfers. As if this picture wasn’t stark enough, in 2012, OECD data reveals that the top 10% of earners in the US earn a wage that is 16.5 times higher than the bottom 10%, adjusted for taxes and transfers.
In 2002, a study conducted for the World Bank by economists Pablo Fajnzylber, Daniel Lederman and Norman Loayza concluded both that there is a positive correlation between income inequality and crime, and that this correlation is also demonstrably a causation. Pew Research Centre analysis of the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances in late 2014 contends that the income inequality is not just mildly skewed along racial lines, it is exorbitantly so. The median net worth of white households in 2013 was thirteen times greater than the median net worth of black households, and ten times greater than that of Hispanic households. That same analysis highlights that “the current gap between blacks and whites has reached its highest point since 1989, when whites had 17 times the wealth of black households.”
Both of these startling inequalities speak to an undercurrent of racial difference in the United States, where African Americans have less opportunity and are punished for it. In the case of Freddie Gray, and many others, needlessly. Whatever analysis is made of this data, one truth remains. The African American population believe that racism is not just alive and well, but entrenched in the very institutions that ought to defy it. They are right.
Like the fires that rioters lit in Baltimore, the riots themselves were extinguished fairly quickly. But the fuel that started them certainly hasn’t burned away, and there’s no reason to suggest that it won’t catch again.