May 05, 2015

How Can Sociology Help Explain the Civil Unrest in Baltimore?

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

On our last day of class for the spring semester, I asked my classes this question, in order to apply what they learned during the semester to help understand the civil unrest in Baltimore in late April.

The events were triggered by the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody on April 12, leading many citizens to public protests. After his funeral on April 27, demonstrations took place, and not all of remained peaceful. The news filled with vivid imagery of clashes with police, destruction of property, fire, and looting. In a video that went viral, a mother shown hitting her son and dragging him away from the crowds received praise nationwide.

What was this all about?

While there are many explanations that can help us understand these events, here are some of the connections my students made, drawing from what they learned about social inequality as well as the criminal justice system:

1.       A sense that there are no consequences for police brutality

Police officers are alleged to have given Gray a “rough ride” in a van while he was handcuffed and without a seat belt, possibly severing his spine. While the officers were eventually charged with causing his death, they had not been before the unrest took place. Having heard many examples over the past year of people who died at the hands of police, frustration had been rising throughout the country. My students suggested that a pervasive feeling that the justice system had abandoned young men of color was the main instigator of the events in Baltimore.

2.       The recent history of mass incarceration and the criminalization of low-income people

Part of the anger many communities feel towards police is a result of feeling like they are routinely treated like criminals and must demonstrate their innocence on a regular basis.

The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world, largely as a result of the “war on drugs.” According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the incarceration rate was fairly steady at 100 per 100,000 Americans (or 1 in 1,000) between 1925 and 1975. The rate quintupled to over 500 per 100,000 before starting to decline in recent years. (Remember the rate controls for population changes, so we can compare rates across time even as the population has grown.) The vast majority of those incarcerated are there for non-violent offenses, many of them for drug-related offenses as mandatory minimum sentences have required longer stays in prison.

While whites comprise the largest percentage of the nation’s prison population, African Americans are overrepresented relative to their proportion of the population. According to The Sentencing Project, the likelihood of a white man ever serving time in prison is 1 in 17; for Latino men it is 1 in 6; and for Black men it is 1 in 3.

Sociologist Victor Rios points out that young men of color living in low-income communities are treated like criminals from boyhood. In his book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, Rios details how boys are criminalized in schools and in their neighborhoods from the time they are in elementary school. In his ethnographic study, he found that police routinely harassed, humiliated, and degraded young males in Oakland. Their peers often did the same to one another, and in order to save face they would fight back, often leading to further scrutiny by police. School police would arrest young people for infractions that might otherwise lead to a visit to the principal’s office or a note to a parent. But within the community he studied, Rios found there was almost a self-fulfilling prophesy from early on that many of the boys in the neighborhood would be in prison someday.

My students noted how this process of criminalization also likely contributed to the frustration of community members in Baltimore, particularly because it is unclear exactly why Gray was in police custody at all. (For more on this, see a recent article in The Atlantic.)

3.       Joblessness, poverty, and limited economic opportunity

Students in my Social Inequality course discussed how persistent poverty likely plays a role in the frustrations felt by many in Baltimore. The city’s poverty rate is 24 percent, compared with 14 percent nationwide. As CNN reported, the city’s black majority earns about half as much in household income as white residents of Baltimore.  Young black men in the city have an unemployment rate of 37 percent, compared with 10 percent of white men of the same age.

The unemployment rate is likely high partly because of the decline in manufacturing and shipping industries, once central to the city’s economy. As these jobs went away, due to globalization and the shift towards an information-based economy, so did many opportunities for people living in Baltimore to find work. As sociologist William Julius Wilson explains in his book More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, the shifts in the economy hit African American communities particularly hard. Without quality schools to provide training for higher education in the new economy, many of these residents were left behind by the job market in communities with limited attention by politicians.

This was likely compounded in Baltimore by a recent threat to shut off the water of low-income residents who were behind on payments. Nearly 25,000 residents had received such a warning just weeks before the death of Freddie Gray, likely exacerbating the sense of frustration and despair.

4.       Coverage of violence drowns out legitimate grievances

Unfortunately, violence erupted during the protests in Baltimore, and quickly became the main focus of news coverage. This can dilute the message of the majority of people who peacefully took to the streets to call for change.

In my classes, we learned to think critically about news coverage of social issues and recognize that they are representations, not just unfiltered images of what is happening. We read books like Diana Kendall’s Framing Class: Media Representations of Wealth and Poverty and Gary W. Potter and Victor E. Kappeler’s Constructing Crime: Perspectives on News Making and Social Problems. Students pointed out that other events, such as the recent demonstrations in remembrance of the centennial of the Armenian genocide, included some arrests for disorderly conduct but these events were not framed as violent riots. Likewise, others mentioned that violence following the win or loss of a sports team was seldom used to characterize all fans as violent, but instead are often attributed to rowdy, and perhaps drunk, individuals.

The tendency of the news media to focus on violence is likely a big part of why Martin Luther King’s marches were so successful: in adopting a tactic of non-violence, even when facing violence from detractors, marchers in the movement gained sympathy of television audiences.

5.       Racism hasn’t disappeared

The reactions of some people on Twitter and Facebook can remind us that racism is still with us. My students noted with sadness that it is likely that racism helped trigger the many issues noted above and thus the protests, and that unfortunately the unrest that took place justified some people’s existing racism.

In order to address the underlying causes and reactions to what has happened in Baltimore, several students suggested that more people need to become aware about the persistence of inequality in the U.S.


It was gratifying to see how students were able to take a very upsetting and complicated series of events and apply sociological concepts from the semester to make sense of it. I hope that they felt like their sociology courses were more than just academic requirements but tools to better understand the world around us.

What other sociological concepts can help us understand the events in Baltimore?


Equal opportunities should be available to all in the society.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Extreme Inequality: Workers vs.CEOs | Main | Surrogacy: An International Birth Market »