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Freddie Gray’s death was an inexcusable tragedy—the kind of event that alone would justify mass protests and attempts at reform. Yet, sadly, little is unique about what happened last week in Baltimore. Gray is just the latest casualty of an American criminal justice, education, and economic system that breeds inequality and creates a mentality that black lives do not matter.
The citizens of Baltimore did not take to the streets in such large numbers and with such unrelenting passion because of Gray’s death alone. They protested because of what that tragedy reveals about their community, and about our country. After all, Baltimore is a microcosm of the greater racial and socioeconomic inequality that eats away at the fabric of our nation.
In the aftermath of Gray’s death and the ensuing protests, we hope to see reform not just in Baltimore, but also across our country. Policies like body cameras on police officers and better law enforcement training aimed at directly preventing episodes like Gray’s death must be coupled with programs that attack the larger problems that have led to our broken society.
In a country some refer to as post-racial, Baltimore’s black residents still earn almost $30,000 per year less on average than their white counterparts; young black men in Baltimore have a 37 percent unemployment rate (compared to 10 percent for white men of the same age); and the life expectancy of predominantly black neighborhoods like Upton and Druid Heights is 20 years lower than that of nearby white neighborhoods, such as Roland Park.
Furthermore, America remains a country where black unemployment is double that of whites, where the top 20 percent of households control over 84 percent of the nation’s wealth, and where poverty is still very much dictated by race and ethnicity.
We cannot just protest; we must act. It’s time to demand our government implement policies that target the gross racial and socioeconomic inequality that are largely responsible for what happened last week in Baltimore.
We need to listen to politicians like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who are calling on Congress to pass programs like a summer jobs initiatives to provide underprivileged young people with job opportunities. We need to pay equal attention to conservatives like Representative Paul Ryan, whose plans for addressing the vicious cycle of poverty in America center around directing resources to the communities that need them most and empowering residents of those communities to take control of their economic lives.
Regardless of which specific policies we end up deciding to pursue, Freddie Gray’s death is further evidence that the status quo is unsustainable—that it is time for reform. Until we pursue concrete changes in police training and the way wealth and opportunity are allocated in our country, we cannot be surprised when citizens take to the streets and when we lose the lives of unarmed black men like Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and whoever’s loss we will mourn tomorrow.
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