Over the past year, we have witnessed several high-profile cases in which African American men died in altercations with police. What started in Ferguson, Mo., last summer with the death of Michael Brown seems to have escalated even further in Baltimore, with the recent death of Freddie Gray.

As we watched the protests and rioting in Baltimore this week, we started to think about some of the bigger, underlying issues that may be related to social and political unrest within a community. While no one can argue that the unfortunate deaths of Brown and Gray have acted as catalysts for this unrest, we know that these are not isolated incidents, and we find ourselves asking two simple questions: Why here and why now?

Discrimination or Demographics?

What has so far played out as discrimination in law enforcement can be seen more clearly in Baltimore as larger social inequalities impacting entire communities. Over the past week, news reports have underscored the striking demographic differences between Gray’s West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park and other, more affluent neighborhoods of Baltimore.

A recent article in The Washington Post illustrates some of these disparities in a series of charts, highlighting elements such as unemployment, education, housing, poverty, and even rates of death among young adults (ages 15 to 24). For example, the socioeconomic gap in median household income between Gray’s neighborhood and the Baltimore average is greater than $15,000. Similarly, the education gap for residents with a high school diploma is greater than 20 percent, and the unemployment gap for residents who are not working is greater than 10 percent.

Socioeconomic disparities extend far beyond the justice system and have a great impact on an individual’s and community’s health. Some of the issues we can see in West Baltimore are classic examples of destructive social determinants affecting too many Americans: unsafe neighborhoods, unemployment, poor education, and food deserts, just to name a few. All have negative implications for health and community wellbeing. By looking at Baltimore’s disparities in infant mortality and life expectancy alone, it’s plain to see why these systemic issues need to change.

Focus on the Big Picture

In the wake of the Baltimore riots and a year of powerful protests against police brutality, let’s choose to see these events as agents of change. What we initially thought was a problem in law enforcement is now being seen for what it is – a larger, more complicated issue related to the impact of social determinants on the health of a community.

Revitalizing neighborhoods and addressing larger issues of socioeconomic inequality leads to improved individual health outcomes, better quality of life, and a more harmonious and healthy community.

This post was jointly authored by Principal Research Associate Sneha Rangarao,