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Baltimore: The divided city where Freddie Gray lived and died

How racial disparities in employment, housing and education contextualize Baltimore's unrest

Payton Cross, a 50-year-old day laborer, remembers a quieter Sandtown-Winchester. The West Baltimore neighborhood — home to Freddie Gray, whose death after being detained by police has led to widespread unrest — was safe and economically sound during Cross’s teenage years. It was the kind of place where families scrubbed their front steps and looked after one another.

Until recently, Cross lived with his wife, Janet Stewart-Cross, and three young sons on Sandtown’s Division Street, just blocks away from the protests that erupted Monday, hours after Gray’s funeral.

It’s a tough neighborhood — inadequate housing, few jobs, aggressive policing — Stewart-Cross said but, “even though the people are poor, it doesn’t mean they’re animals. I felt camaraderie and togetherness. Everyone was in the same situation.” People need material help, she said, but neither the mayor nor the police commissioner ever “showed their face down here.”

What’s happening in Sandtown isn’t just about Freddie Gray. It’s about the racialized poverty and dearth of opportunity in parts of Baltimore. The numbers — related to income, housing and education — tell some of that tale.

Mapping inequality by numbers

Income and employment

Baltimore has long experienced high poverty rates. But those figures soar when filtered through the prisms of locality and race.

“Only six miles separate the Baltimore neighborhoods of Roland Park and Hollins Market, but there is a 20-year difference in the average life expectancy," Jonathan Bagger, a vice provost at Johns Hopkins University, said at a social policy conference last year, illustrating the geographical divergences in two distinct neighborhoods.

The city's jobless rate stands at 8.2 percent, nearly 3 percentage points higher than Maryland — and U.S. — figures. The city's median household income is $42,266, a number well under the U.S. average of $52,250 and the Maryland average of $72,483.

But inequality increases in the predominantly black neighborhoods of West Baltimore that have witnessed this week's unrest.

In Freddie Gray's Sandtown neighborhood, whose population is 96.6 percent African-American, joblessness stands at 24 percent and more than half of the households have a median income less than $25,000, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute (BNIA-JFI), housed at the University of Baltimore.

Overall, some 28 percent of Baltimore’s African-Americans live below the federal poverty line — nearly double the rate among whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the median African-American household income is nearly half that of white households. 

Among black youth, unemployment shoots up markedly, to nearly 37 percent in 2013 among 20 to 24 year-olds, according to the American Community Survey (2011–2013), an ongoing survey produced by the U.S. Census Bureau.


Baltimore’s predominantly African-American inner city has endured historic housing discrimination, the foreclosure crisis and flight from poor neighborhoods. The number of abandoned houses swelled from 7,000 in 1970 to 40,000 in 1998. Vacant homes now make up 13 percent of total housing stock.

Despite this and an ever-shrinking population, many still find it difficult to find housing they can afford. Almost 53 percent of rent-paying households between 2009–2013 spent over 30 percent of income on housing-related expenses in the city (PDF). 

Adam Jackson, a local civil rights activist, told Al Jazeera that a combination of factors like white flight and informal segregation in Baltimore "cause a lot of destablization all over the city."

Today, according to BNIA-JFI, the vacant homes in many black neighborhoods contrast sharply with areas that are mostly white and where economic development has been focused, including the touristic Inner Harbor.

In the Sandtown neighborhood, 34.3 percent of homes are vacant, whereas in the Inner Harbor/Federal Hill, which is 79.5 percent white, the number is 0.5 percent. 

The median home-sale price in those two neighborhoods also reveals a sharp divergence: In Sandtown, the figure in 2013 was $32,000, a decline of 7.2 percent from 2012; whereas in the Inner Harbor neighborhood, it was $314,000, an increase of 10.2 percent from 2012.

Schooling and education

The city’s public schools are "hypersegregated" by race, according to a 25-year study led by Johns Hopkins University sociologists called "The Long Shadow." But since the 1960s, the overall student population has been overwhelmingly black — and poor. According to BNIA-JFI education data (PDF), black individuals make up 64 percent of the city but 85 percent of K–12 classrooms, with the vast majority of these public school students qualifying for free or reduced meals. Many young people attend schools in underfunded and decaying facilities. 

High school dropout rates, too, are particularly high among African Americans, though they have improved significantly since the early 1990s. In the 2006–07 school year, city schools had nearly equal numbers of black men graduating and dropping out. By 2010, only one in four black men failed to graduate, according to the Baltimore Sun

For black residents, a high school diploma can make all the difference: In the 25-year study of 790 Baltimoreans, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that black men who had failed to graduate were much less likely than their white peers to find stable work. White dropouts, the study found, could draw on broader social networks. 

“Many more African-American [young adults] said they were on their own,” said professor emeritus Karl Alexander, one of the authors. “To be on your own when you’re poor and black in a city that doesn’t have abundant opportunities isn’t an easy place to be.”

Additional reporting by Joanna S. Kao.

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