The Justice Department’s stunning report on Ferguson, Missouri, has so far resulted in the ouster of the city manager and the resignation of the police chief. If you’ve followed the news, you’ve probably heard some of its twisted tales. In his press conference on the report, departing Attorney General Eric Holder told the Kafkaesque story of how a poor and sometimes homeless African-American woman endured a seven-year odyssey of harassment after receiving a $151 ticket for parking her car in the wrong place. She spent a week in jail and paid fines totaling $550 to the city — and she still owed $541 as of December.
“Inexplicable,” Holder remarked.
But is it? Perhaps not when you consider how racial tension and economic hardship feed off each other. According to a Brookings Institution report, Ferguson, like so many communities in America, has been hit with multiple economic shocks in recent years, including a skyrocketing unemployment rate, average earnings falling by a third and increased concentrations of poverty in poor neighborhoods. These trends have been driven by policies of austerity and deregulation that have created economic instability in the U.S., resulting in more severe and frequent economic downturns that suck public coffers dry, increase inequality and heighten insecurity — all of which tend to stoke racism.
Researchers have recently shown just how a bad economy can exacerbate racial biases. New York University psychology professor David Amodio and his colleagues set out to study whether economic hardship affects how people perceive race. They ran experiments in which whites responded to images of faces that ranged in color from very light to very dark and found something disturbing: When people think about economic scarcity, they are more likely to see African-American faces as darker and more “stereotypically black.” That’s exactly the kind of subconscious bias that heightens discrimination. In the Amodio study, scenarios in which white participants were asked to divide money between a white and a person of color resulted in less money being given to the individual perceived as darker.
It’s not difficult to imagine how this kind of phenomenon might influence decisions made in policing, policymaking, hiring and so on. Sure enough, since the Great Recession, we’ve seen plenty of alarming signs that suggest heightened biases: Schools have been resegregating in many areas, citizens of color face undue hurdles to vote, and affirmative action policies have been rolled back. An all-out war against public-sector jobs, mounted in the name of austerity, has disproportionately affected African-Americans. In 2010 black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated, yet little has been done to address this. These factors have synergistic effects that, collectively, shackle African-Americans from access to political and economic power. One recent study showed, for example, that for African-Americans who have been incarcerated, even for a brief period, the probability of voting declined 22 percent.
Politicians who play on public fears by brandishing their tough-on-crime credentials find their ploy rewarded at the ballot box. This results in more harassment and arrest for African-Americans, which, in turn, contributes to reduced political interest and greater poverty.
Ferguson is in the news, but it is no anomaly in the U.S. Racializing crime to fill municipal and state coffers emptied by the Great Recession has been happening across the country. The ACLU has highlighted cases from Georgia to Michigan in which poor people, disproportionately African-American, are subjected to fines and draconian punishments meant to extract fees. In the town of Ferndale, Michigan, an ACLU study reveals that African-Americans accounted for 60 percent of traffic stops, even though they make up less than 10 percent of the town’s population. Poor people of color are finding themselves targeted for the pettiest of offenses, such as failure to mow a lawn, and the pattern is the same: Stop, ticket, fine, jail, rinse, repeat.
Obviously, correctives such as reforming the courts and reducing fines and jail sentences for people who can’t pay them are urgently needed. But the dysfunctional economics that contribute to these abuses also demand action.
Any politician in America who professes to care about racism needs to be asked a few simple questions: Will you demand that America’s wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share of taxes? Will you work to end harmful austerity programs that drain city and state budgets? Do you support serious penalties for Wall Street fraudsters who have plundered public finances and hoodwinked taxpayers into handing over billions to bankers? Would you recommend fiscal policies to create jobs, offer educational opportunities and repair deteriorating infrastructure? Will you push for better financial regulation?
If these actions are not taken, inequality will continue to widen along racial and ethnic lines, and ultimately the whole economy will suffer, because victims of discrimination can’t contribute to the economy and their diminished earning capacity costs the U.S. billions of dollars per year. Social unrest will surely escalate.
If we want less racism, we need less talk and more economic justice.