What Freddie Gray Says About Exclusion

Every few weeks it seems, police kill a black man: Ferguson, New York, South Charleston, now Baltimore. Rapidly, our national debate swings from police brutality to mass incarceration, to racism, and back to inequality, poverty and the quality of democracy.

In West Baltimore, where Freddie Gray lived, unemployment reaches almost 50 percent, life expectancy is only 68 years, and lead poisoning is commonplace. Just a few weeks before the riots, I saw Stevie Wonder perform in Baltimore -- his grief in the 1970s over black living conditions, and his critique of the general neglect and abuse by the state, was amplified, but also hugely offset by his musical genius and joyful celebration of resilience, pleasure, parenting and even the progress embodied by Barack Obama's election to the American presidency. And his grief and celebration were amplified too by the response to Stevie of a stadium filled with mostly African-American fans, middle class professionals, most of whom grew up on his music and on the protest and polarization of the era that defined him.

But Stevie's grief is not limited to or by race. Freddie Gray has become a martyr, for his neighbors of course, but also one whose death, and the reaction to it, is compelling all of us to think and talk deeply about our nation's collective past, present and future.

Unlike Ferguson, Baltimore's tragedy is not a story of white on black police abuse. Baltimore's is a story about class, demographics and geography, as well as race. Having a running start matters: The stories of something from nothing are few and far between. And where we live matters to our ability to seize opportunity. The economic conditions around us -- white, black or brown, matter even more.

Baltimore, only a 40-minute drive from the nation's capital, compels us to hone in on the fundamentals of inequality. Here's a stunning data point from Sarah Anderson, who tracks executive pay at the Institute for Policy Studies (where I had my first job in Washington D.C.):

Earlier this year, she reported that in 2014, "Wall Street bonuses were double the earnings of all full-time minimum wage workers in 2014." In the United States, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. There were 167,800 members of the Wall Street bonus pool, who together received $28.5 billion. And 1.03 million workers paid somewhere between $14 and $15 billion dollars during the same period. And remember, in West Baltimore, and likely other enclaves of economic exclusion, minimum wage jobs barely cover half the working-age population.

The broader point is one that Brazilians have confronted for years: Inequality is bad for democracy. When inequality tracks with racial divides, even worse. Politicians and presidents, most recently Barack Obama, remind us that while progress remains excruciatingly slow, progress is also very real. Ok. But the human cost is also very high.

This post was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is available here.