Black Voices

The Connection Between Racist Google Searches And Black Mortality Rates

A new study shows a chilling correlation between the number of racist Google searches in an area and the long-term mortality rates of the black people living there.

Pervasive racism is "a social toxin that, over time, leads to premature mortality,” David Chae, the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post.

"Racism gets under the skin and becomes embodied," he said. "It chips away at you."

Chae, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, determined how racist a geographic area was by how frequently an epithet for African-Americans appeared in area Google searches. Internet searches are a good way of measuring societal attitudes, Chae said, because people don't self-censor in their own homes.

Areas with the most searches for the epithet "n*****" had the highest mortality rates among African-Americans, found the study, which Chae and seven coauthors published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. The result of racism was noticeable even when the researchers adjusted for the size of the black population and for the fact that black Americans tend to be poorer and suffer more from chronic diseases.

African-Americans living in areas where many people are Google-searching for a racial epithet are 8.2 percent more likely than whites to die of any cause, the study found. Controlling for other social factors, black Americans are still 5.7 percent more likely to die. They are especially susceptible to ailments that kill the most people: cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Chae has a few possible explanations for blacks' higher mortality. De facto segregation pushes blacks to live in "health-damaging environments," he said: areas with higher crime, poor health care and low-paying jobs. In poor neighborhoods, healthy food is more expensive and there are fewer places to exercise, he added.

Frequent Google searches for a racial epithet serve as another indicator of racial attitudes and the prevalence of discrimination in an area, the study said. What's more, Chae added, continued disrespect and micro-aggressions that black Americans experience create physiological problems over time, like accelerated cellular aging and inflammation, which in turn increase mortality.

Chae got the idea for the study from a New York Times article that compared the prevalence of racially charged Google searches in certain areas with Barack Obama's performance in the 2008 presidential election. The article found Obama underperformed in the areas with the most racially charged search terms.

“I was really intrigued by the study because it’s an indirect way of researching attitudes," Chae said. After reading the article, Chae emailed its author, Harvard economics professor Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, to suggest they collaborate on a study comparing Google searches with black mortality rates.

Of course, not everybody who searches for a racial epithet is racist. Chae concedes that some people might be looking for the historical origins of the word, for example. But Chae is certain that aggregating millions of Google searches yields a high signal-to-noise ratio.

Conversations about racism in America tend to focus on violent events, most recently the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray in police custody and subsequent protests and riots. But Chae finds racism is akin to an environmental hazard like pollution.

"I view racism as being a social toxin that over time leads to premature mortality," he said.

“Racism kills people," Chae said. "That’s not breaking news at all."

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BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Demonstrators climb on a destroyed Baltimore Police car in the street near the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, who was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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A man dances in an intersection, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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A Maryland Transit Authority patrol car burns at North and Pennsylvania Avenues on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: People run as smoke and tear gas is thrown during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: People stand with their hands up as officers move toward them near a CVS pharmacy near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man throws an object at officers during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A protestor yells as a CVS burns near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man runs in front of officers during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Officers pepper spray people near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Officers look for people throwing objects at them near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man who was pepper sprayed has his eyes washed out near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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A man, center, shields himself after being struck after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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A protestor, left, fights with a bar patron outside of a bar near Oriole Park at Camden Yards after a rally for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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Police detain a man after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Two men are on the ground after being struck after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Men carry items, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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A man dances in an intersection, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: Fire Fighter attempt to put out a building that was set on fire during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Looters empty the CVS at Pennsylvania and North Avenues during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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An injured police officer is carried away by his fellow officers on Westbury Avenue in Baltimore during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015. Photo by Erica Green/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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A member of the Nation of Islam stands between protesters and police at North and Pennsylvania Avenues where riots broke out on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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A protester with a stolen police vest taunts Baltimore police officers on Pennsylvania Avenue during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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Police with shields face a man near the subway station at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD, USA, on Monday, April 27, 2015. People threw rocks at police and members of the media near the mall during riots Monday afternoon. Photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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In this frame from video provided by WJLA, people gather near a store Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Rioters plunged part of Baltimore, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (WJLA via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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Baltimore police officers detain a demonstrator after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
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Baltimore police officers respond to demonstrators after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
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A police officer walks by a blaze, Monday, April 27, 2015, after rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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A demonstrator raises his fist as police stand in formation as a store burns, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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A boy throws a brick at police, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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In this frame from video provided by WJLA, smoke rises from a store Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Rioters plunged part of Baltimore, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (WJLA via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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A man throws a brick at police Monday, April 27, 2015, following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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Members of the Baltimore Nonviolent Movement march toward Pennsylvania Avenue to prevent protesters from clashing with police on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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Demonstrators throw rocks at the police, after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on Monday, April 27, 2015, at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
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Baltimore police officers detain a demonstrator after clashes with police, after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
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Men clean up during a protest, Monday, April 27, 2015, following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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A man cleans up during a protest, Monday, April 27, 2015, following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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Police maintain a line at Liberty Heights and Reisterstown Road in Baltimore during protests on Monday, April 27, 2015. Photo by Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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Looting and rioting broke out at North and Pennsylvania Avenues where a CVS was set on fire on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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A protester rides his bike in front of a police line at North and Pennsylvania Avenues on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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Baltimore firefighters battle a three-alarm fire at Gay and Chester Streets on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA It was unclear whether it was related to ongoing riots. Photo by Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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Damage to stores along Centre Street in Baltimore after protesters clashed with police around the city on Monday, April 27, 2015. Photo by Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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State troopers and police line up in protective gear at Monroe and Gwynns Falls Parkway in Baltimore during protests on Monday, April 27, 2015. Photo by Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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BALTIMORE, USA - APRIL 27: Police interfere to the protesters during a riot over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, on April 27, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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BALTIMORE, USA - APRIL 27: Police interfere to the protesters during a riot over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, on April 27, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Firefighters battle a blaze, Monday, April 27, 2015, after rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: A protestor during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: A protestor throws a rock at police during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Protesters throw rocks at the line of police in riot gear on North Monroe Street near Bryant Avenue during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
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BALTIMORE, USA - APRIL 27: Policemen rest during a riot over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, on April 27, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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BALTIMORE, USA - APRIL 27: Protesters clash with police during a riot over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, on April 27, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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A protestor gestures before riot police on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Violent street clashes erupted in Baltimore after friends and family gathered for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose death in custody triggered a fresh wave of protests over US police tactics. Police said at least seven officers were injured -- one of them was unresponsive -- as youths hurled bricks and bottles and destroyed at least one police vehicle in the vicinity of the shopping mall not far from the church where the funeral took place. AFP PHOTO / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: Smoke from a burning car set on fire by protestors rises over the Baltimore skyline during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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A man throws a wood board at police on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Violent street clashes erupted in Baltimore after friends and family gathered for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose death in custody triggered a fresh wave of protests over US police tactics. Police said at least seven officers were injured -- one of them was unresponsive -- as youths hurled bricks and bottles and destroyed at least one police vehicle in the vicinity of the shopping mall not far from the church where the funeral took place. AFP PHOTO / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: Fire Fighter attempt to put out a building that was set on fire during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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A protester wipes his eyes after police used pepper balls on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Violent street clashes erupted in Baltimore after friends and family gathered for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose death in custody triggered a fresh wave of protests over US police tactics. Police said at least seven officers were injured -- one of them was unresponsive -- as youths hurled bricks and bottles and destroyed at least one police vehicle in the vicinity of the shopping mall not far from the church where the funeral took place. AFP PHOTO / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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A youth throws a rock at police on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Violent street clashes erupted in Baltimore after friends and family gathered for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose death in custody triggered a fresh wave of protests over US police tactics. Police said at least seven officers were injured -- one of them was unresponsive -- as youths hurled bricks and bottles and destroyed at least one police vehicle in the vicinity of the shopping mall not far from the church where the funeral took place. AFP PHOTO / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: A protestor taunts police during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: A man crosses the street over burning debris between police and rioters during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: A rioter runs for cover as police fire non-lethal rounds at him during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: Police retreat from the hulks of burned out cars in the middle of an intersection during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: Police retreat from the hulks of burned out cars in the middle of an intersection during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: Police for a line in front of burned out cars during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: A man crosses the street over burning debris between police and rioters during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: Police retreat from the hulks of burned out cars in the middle of an intersection during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: A protestor throws a liquor bottle at police lines during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Police stand guard Monday, April 27, 2015, after rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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Firefighters battle a blaze, Monday, April 27, 2015, after rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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An officer stands near a blaze, Monday, April 27, 2015, after rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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Police stand outside a shuttered store, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Rioters plunged part of Baltimore, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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Firefighters battle a blaze, Monday, April 27, 2015, after rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)