Poverty Crime, Privileged Crime

Policing and Economic Inequality


This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

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Ferguson police

Police violence against Black people in the United States has set off three major waves of protest in the past year. While most analyses of Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore have rightly put the spotlight on race, there is also an important economic dimension we should not forget.

A Justice Department investigation into the Ferguson police found the local apparatus of criminal law—cops, prosecutors, judges, jails—operating like a vast extortion racket, singling out Black people, charging them for minor offenses, and shaking them down for fines and fees, enforced with bench warrants and the threat of incarceration.

In New York, the police approached, and ultimately killed, Eric Garner for selling untaxed single cigarettes by the subway entrance. That is exactly the sort of low-level “public order” offense that Police Commissioner William Bratton built his career on and, like Bratton’s other notable victories breaking up homeless encampments and arresting the “squeegee men” who wash windshields at traffic lights, the “crime” is practically identical with the economic status of the “perpetrator.”

Meanwhile, Baltimore’s riots elicited a surprising analysis from John P. Angelos, chief operating officer of Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles. He wrote via a series of Twitter posts that he was less concerned about “one night’s property damage” than about

the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships ... plunged tens of millions of good hard working Americans into economic devastation and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

Angelos echoed another sports figure, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose commentary on Ferguson, appearing in Time under the title “The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race,” argued that “we have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.”

Racism and poverty may be distinct modes of oppression, but in the United States—with its history of colonialism, slavery, and genocide—they are never fully separable. The complexity is demonstrated by two studies on drug enforcement. In one, New York University researchers found that both crack use and related arrests are statistically more tied to class than race: “Being poor is the true overwhelming correlate,” as Dr. Joseph Palamar summarized, “not being black or a minority.” African Americans, then, are over-represented in crack arrests as a side effect of poverty, which they suffer at rates twice the national average. What that analysis overlooks, however, is the racial bias implicit in the police focus on crack. In a study of drug arrests in Seattle, sociologist Katherine Beckett found that Blacks were arrested for possession at a rate 13.6 times that of Whites, and 21 times that of Whites for dealing. Beckett tested several hypotheses, but the only statistically significant factor she could identify was the police focus on crack. Of all the city’s drug arrests, 72.9% were for crack, and 73.4% of crack arrests were African Americans. Looking at data concerning the frequency of drug sales, calls to police, public health considerations, and gun violence, Beckett could find no rational reason to prioritize crack enforcement. She concluded that “the focus on crack cocaine does not appear to be a function of race-neutral considerations,” and it is possible that “the SPD’s focus on Black suspects explains the preponderance of crack cocaine arrests,” rather than the other way around.

Of course the racial politics of policing are not simply Black and White. Over the last two decades, local cops have increasingly been enlisted to enforce immigration law, often checking the status of those they arrest on minor charges. In many places, the result has been a shift in priorities: According to the ACLU, after the jail in Irving, Tex., started reporting to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, police there began arresting greater numbers of Hispanics for low-level public order offenses. Likewise, attorney Raymond Dolourtch described to the Voice, the digital magazine of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a pattern he has observed in the St. Louis area: Police pull over Latino motorists, usually on some thin pretext. Undocumented immigrants, who cannot apply for a driver’s license, are then arrested for driving without one. In jail, police check their immigration status—leading to possible criminal charges or deportation. In towns like Waukegan, Ill., and Rogers, Ark., police set up checkpoints for the same purpose.

Cops in California seem more interested in impounding vehicles than making arrests. They set up “sobriety checkpoints,” not near bars at closing time, but on the edge of Latino neighborhoods during rush hour. According to California Watch, over a two-year period, 61% of the state’s roadblocks were in areas with a Latino population of 31% or more. In 2009, police in the state made 3,200 DUI arrests at checkpoints, but seized 24,000 cars from unlicensed drivers.

Debates about immigration are raced-coded, but enforcement—like mass migration itself—is also often economically driven. As Christian Parenti argues, American capitalism needs a steady supply of immigrant labor, but needs it cheap. By criminalizing the workers, the state aims to keep them uncertain, uneasy, disorganized, and docile. The attack on immigrants, therefore, is both “[p]olitically. . . an organic expression of nativist hostility and a very useful, rational system of elite-inspired class control.” Meanwhile: What about the crimes of rich White people?

In his book The Divide, journalist Matt Taibbi helpfully contrasts white-collar corporate fraud with a paradigmatic poverty crime, welfare fraud. On the one hand, he finds, “Twenty-six billion dollars of fraud: no charges”; on the other, the San Diego County District Attorney’s office conducts 26,000 warrantless, preemptive searches every year to make sure that welfare recipients really are exactly as poor as the poverty bureaucracy demands that they be.

Even when the wealthy face arrests and prosecution—rather than administrative penalties—their punishments are typically weaker. For example, despite the reforms of the 2010 “Fair Sentencing Act,” the cocaine gap persists: 28 grams of crack earn a minimum of five years in prison, as opposed to 500 grams of powder. The difference is the customer base: The NYU study found that some of the variables reducing the likelihood of crack use—full-time employment, higher income, higher education—increase the odds of using powder cocaine.

Similarly, in the mid-1980s, when legislators established harsh penalties for crack possession, they also set minimum sentences for driving under the influence. The juxtaposition is revealing. At the time, drunk driving killed about 22,000 people each year, which was more than all other drug-related deaths combined. But while crack was tagged with a five year minimum sentence, the penalty for drunk driving was typically two days in jail for a first offense, ten days for a second. The difference is that, while 93% of those convicted of possessing crack were Black, at least 78% of those arrested for drunk driving were White. What all this suggests is that the notion of crime has less to do with proscribed behaviors, or with the real consequences of such actions, than with the figure of the criminal—identified, or even defined, by race and poverty. That such a designation has persisted across decades, despite cultural and legal changes emphasizing equality, suggests that these disparities are not a result of simple prejudice, but a structural feature of our criminal legal system, reflecting in turn the basic structure of our society.

is author of Our Enemies in Blue, whose third edition, from which this article is adapted, will be released in August. He is also the author of Fire the Cops! Essays, Lectures, and Journalism (Kersplebedeb, 2014), and one of the editors of Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency (AK Press, 2013).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race,” Time, Aug. 17, 2014; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010); Katherine Beckett, Race and Drug Law Enforcement in Seattle: Report Prepared for the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project and the Defender Association (ACLU: September 2008); Alyssa L. Beaver, “Getting a Fix on Cocaine Sentencing Policy: Reforming the Sentencing Scheme of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986,” Fordham Law Review 78 (2010); Amalia Greenberg Delgado and Julia Harumi Mass, Costs and Consequences: The High Price of Policing Immigrant Communities (ACLU of Northern California: February 2011); “The Fair Sentencing Act Corrects a Long-Time Wrong in Cocaine Sentencing,” Washington Post, Aug. 3, 2010; Ryan Gabrielson,”Car Seizures at DUI Checkpoints Prove Profitable for Cities, Raise Legal Questions,” California Watch, Feb. 13, 2010 (californiawatch.org); Anita Khashu, The Role of Local Police: Striking a Balance between Immigration Enforcement and Civil Liberties (Police Foundation, April 2009); Danielle Kurtzleben, “Data Show Racial Disparity in Crack Sentencing,” U.S. News and World Report, Aug. 3, 2010; Lucy McCalmont, “Baltimore Orioles Executive Defends Freddie Gray Protesters,” Huffington Post, April 27, 2015; Joseph J. Palamar, et al., “Powder Cocaine and Crack Use in the United States: An Examination of Risk Arrest and Socioeconomic Disparities in Use,” Drug and Alcohol Dependence 149 (2015); Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (Verso, 1999); “Powder vs. Crack: NYU Study Identifies Arrest Risk Disparity for Cocaine Use,” NYU News, Feb. 19, 2015 (nyu.edu); Elizabeth Ricci, “D.W.U.: Driving While Undocumented,” Voice, January/February 2011; Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (Spiegel & Grau, 2014); United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, March 4, 2015.

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