Black Lives Matter activists protest in Berlin.
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Black Lives Matter activists say America’s justice system profits from racism. Are they right?

As the BlackLivesMatter movement spreads around the world, Natalie Fiennes looks at the economics of America's justice system to assess whether it really is structurally skewed against black Americans

The #BlackLivesMatter movement started in 2013 after the murder of 17-year old Trayvon Martin. The movement is calling for an end to racism and police violence, but they’ve also succeeded in drawing our attention to the scale of racial inequality in America.

How bad is racial economic inequality in the US?

Is racial really getting worse in the US? It’s true that the gap in income along racial lines has closed over the last 20 years. In 1989, for example, research shows that non-white families earned around half of what white families did. By 2010, this was up to around 65%.

But income inequality alone doesn't give us the full picture when it comes to the division between the white and black population, especially as the reduction in inequality in the stat cited above could be down to changes in the economic situation of other ethnicities such as Hispanics or Asian Americans. If we look at the divide in overall wealth between white and black households, the situation looks very different. We can understand wealth inequality as the unequal distribution of assets (things of value that you own), rather than income (the amount of money that you receive over a given period of time).

In 2013 it was shown that the median wealth of white families is 13 times greater than black families. And the gap is only increasing. The billionaires who make the 'Forbes 400' list of the richest Americans have more wealth than all African-American households put together - that means the 400 richest have the same wealth as around 16 million people.

The stats don’t stop there. Glaring disparities exist between races in terms of infant mortality, unemployment, neighbourhoods, access to education and quality of schooling. Shockingly, the infant mortality rate in African-American communities is almost double that of white counterparts.

So what’s this got to do with policing?

Exact figures on the use of force by police in America are extremely difficult to find. A recent report in the New York Times revealed that “many departments, including large ones such as those in New York, Houston, Baltimore and Detroit, either said they did not know how many times their officers had used force or simply refused to say," which made “any meaningful analysis of the data impossible.”

To combat this problem, last year the Guardian released ‘The Counted’, an independent investigation into the number of Americans killed by the police. The figures show a disproportionate number of black victims. In 2015, the total number of young black men killed by police officers was five times higher than that of white men of the same age. Despite being 2% of the population, African American men between the ages of 15-34 amounted to 15% of deaths at the hands of the police. Why is this happening?

BLM says the police force actually profits from arresting people. Is this true?

One factor might be related to how American police system profits, and in some districts actually depends upon, stopping, ticketing, arresting and incarcerating people.

Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of assets are taken by the police from individuals. Under civil law, the government (i.e. the police) are able to seize the property if it suspects it to be connected to a crime (called federal forfeitures). This has increased massively in the last two decades. In 1986, the assets they seized were worth $93.7m. By 2014, this had reached $4.5bn – over 40 times more.


The billionaires who make the ‘Forbes 400’ list of the richest Americans have more wealth than all African-American households put together

The same goes for arrests. This was particularly apparent in Ferguson, after an investigation by the Institute for Justice (IFJ) revealed that Ferguson Police Department (FPD) funds a lot of its expenditure by handing out tickets, mostly from traffic stops. The department receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees... and black people were 68% less likely to have their cases dismissed in court.

As another NYT report points out, “In Ferguson last year, 86% of stops, 92% of searches and 93% of arrests were of black people - despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22% versus 34% of whites). This worsens inequality, as struggling blacks do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites.”

And why does this disproportionately affect black communities?

Ever heard of the 'Broken Windows Theory'? It's an aspect of policing that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been highly critical of, and has been massively discredited as an effective policing tactic. But BLM maintains that it’s still dominant within far too many law enforcement teams in the States.

The theory goes: in order to keep general crime levels low, law enforcement should focus on monitoring urban environments to prevent small crime, such as graffiti, public drinking, etc. The idea goes back to 1982, from an article in The Atlantic Monthly:

“Consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

BLM argues that because of this theory, there’s an over policing in communities of color for minor offences like drug possession, petty theft, or even just ‘looking suspicious’. In other words, there’s a tendency towards racial profiling that’s leading to the targeting of black people. You only have to look at the numbers of African-Americans that are pulled over for traffic violations that far outweigh the share of African-Americans among the driving population to see racial profiling in action. It seems that officers are more likely to pull over black drivers for no reason. They're also more likely to use force.

So what can we conclude?

It’s clear that racial inequality is a pressing issue, and that economics plays a part in explaining where it comes from. There’s a toxic combination of economic incentives for increasing rates of arrest; racial profiling and racial bias; a heavily militarized police force; and structures of racial inequality that all need to be radically reassessed to be able to address tensions and civil unrest we're seeing week on week in America for the country to stand up to its claim to being a fair and just society.

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