Breaking Brown

June 27, 2016

The Engine of America Runs on Black Failure: Issuing Fines to Poor Blacks Keeps Cities Afloat

The Engine of America Runs on Black Failure: Issuing Fines to Poor Blacks Keeps Cities Afloat

 The tension that led to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was gunned down by then-officer Darren Wilson had been boiling for some time. Like many communities in America, Ferguson city leaders had decided to increase revenue by over-policing residents.

According to a 2014 report on Ferguson by NPR, “city of 21,135 people —issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.”

According to a report in Priceonomics, this was no coincidence. An email uncovered by the city’s finance director revealed a plan to fund the struggling city on the backs of poor African-Americans.

He warned: “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year.” “Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall..”

“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs” the DOJ wrote in its report on the city’s leadership.

Priceonomics analysis found that “Ferguson has a population of just over 20,000 that is 67% African American, and it raised over $2 million from fines and fees in 2012.”

This only happens when citizens become targets. And what’s worse, this isn’t just happening in Ferguson. Keeping blacks at the bottom is a lucrative business in many cities:

We found one demographic that was most characteristic of cities that levy large amounts of fines on their citizens: a large African American population. Among the fifty cities with the highest proportion of revenues from fines, the median size of the African American population—on a percentage basis—is more than five times greater than the national median.

The more African-Americans there are in a city, the more likely that city is to target residents for increased revenues:

African Americans make up less than 4% of the population in the median municipality. But in the 50 cities with the highest proportion of revenues from fines, African Americans make up nearly 19% of the population. This is a difference of 15%, which is mirrored by the 14% lower proportion of Whites in cities with substantial fine revenue. If we look at averages rather than medians, a similar pattern emerges.

fine rates

The cities that rely heavily on fines for revenue are poorer and blacker:

It seems unlikely that the connection between fines and large African American populations—a connection that cannot be explained by poverty—is the result of African Americans across the United States committing more finable offenses.


A more likely explanation is that they are more highly policed and that, as has been acknowledged by the Director of the FBI, African Americans suffer from heavier legal penalties due to the implicit bias of police officers.


Charging individuals with minor infractions is highly discretionary and influenced by where law enforcement choose to direct their attention. Although African Americans and Whites report smoking marijuana at the same rates, African Americans are 3.7 times more likely get arrested for marijuana possession.


Other research shows that while African Americans are less likely to sell drugs than Whites, they are more likely to be arrested for it. An analysis of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 6.6% of White people between the ages of 12 and 25 have sold drugs compared to 5.0% of Blacks. Yet Black people are 3.6 times more likely get arrested for selling drugs.


Given this evidence, it seems likely that police officers often fine African Americans at higher rates, even if Black people do not commit more infractions.

Black poverty isn’t something that ‘just happened’ in America. It’s not a mistake or anomaly. Black failure is the gasoline on which the American engine runs. It not only keeps cops and municipal workers employed, but it keeps payday loan companies in business and liquor stores on the corner. African-Americans exist in this country to be used and exploited. If we actually began succeeding in mass numbers, whole industries would crumble.

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