The Problem In Ferguson Goes Deeper Than Racism…

A horror story lies within this map.

A horror story lies within this map.

….and focusing only on race just makes understanding and dealing with the real problems impossible. Nonetheless, activists, the news media and the government intentionally ignore the complexities involved, which collectively define a human tragedy and a failing of U.S. governments at all levels.

Washington Post writer Radley Balko has delivered a shocking, disturbing, depressing and eye-opening investigative report on how small municipalities in St. Louis County operate, and how demographic, political and economic trends inevitably cause the tensions and distrust we saw burst into conflagration in the wake of the Mike Brown shooting. If Balko does not win a Pulitzer for this marvel of reporting and analysis, then the awards should eliminated.

You must read the whole piece here. It’s unethical for a responsible citizen not to; I really believe that.  I was originally going to post some excerpts,but I’m not going to, because I know many will just read them and skip the whole, long report. This is a significant and brave work, and attention must be paid.

I considered several possible titles, “Ethics Hero: Radley Balko” among them. One term I wanted to find a way to fit in, but failed, was “Bizarro World Ethics,” because that is what Balko is describing here. The systems of municipal funding, justice and law enforcement are virtual dictated by the poverty and demographics that make an ethical system impossible…indeed, any ethical system would be irrational and guaranteed to fail. Balko describes a toxic, horrific recipe for social dysfunction composed of poverty, ignorance, conflicts of interest, desperation, incompetent city planning, unethical police work, law enforcement quotas, white flight, distrust, public apathy, exploitation and more. Nothing makes sense, except the fact that the system doesn’t work, because no such system could.  The living conditions Balko describes make those condemned to them angry and on the verge of a breakdown or  violance. I felt like I was risking my sanity just reading about what they must live through.

How do you fix Bizarro World? I don’t know, but I know this: an honest and  responsible national government and news media would not pretend that the primary problem is racism. Combating racism is the easy part…and I don’t know how to do that, either.



56 thoughts on “The Problem In Ferguson Goes Deeper Than Racism…

  1. I’m going to read it, and very likely make it part of class discussions this week. Thanks for posting. I’ll post on content later..

      • So I wasn’t just imagining it ;-). By the time I tried again it was fixed.

        Very long but very enlightening read. 10 years ago I worked with a guy that moved from from St. Louis. He was a white guy but said that it was the deeply embedded racism that made him move. He relayed much of what this article said. A lot of it was hard to comprehend for me. This article does make some of it easier to understand.

        Unfortunately I don’t see this ending anytime soon. To those outside St. Louis, this is simply a “local problem” that others aren’t going to care about. I also see little incentive for those living there to fix it.

  2. You are correct, it is an excellent piece of journalism. The problem is not isolated to Missouri, I would also suggest taking a look at Get Out of Jail Inc. in the New Yorker as a companion piece to this article.

    It is just completely horrifying how we as a society turn a blind eye, and are actually complicit in preying on our weakest and most vulnerable citizens, and contributing to the cycle of poverty that we decry. It is quite illuminating to how our society really works, rather than the way that we pretend that it does.

    The people who can change this unjust system the easiest have no incentive to do so, and indeed, every incentive to keep it exactly the way that it is. It would take a groundswell of unprecedented proportions to effect real change in these areas, and I fear that the same people and industries who profit from the current system would just insinuate themselves into the new one, corrupting that one too.

    • No, I think public illumination on this would go a very long way to prompting solutions. Never underestimate the power of facts, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” being the most sparkling example. Nobody sane and caring can read Balko’s piece, for example, and say, “Eh. Who cares?” That presumption that the majority of those in power revel in evil is self-defeating, and also untrue.

      • I doubt anyone involved in coming up with this system, or administering the system thinks of themselves as evil. They are simply coming up with a very flawed solution to some pressing problems or just “doing their jobs.” Given that most of the solutions to fixing this system would cause considerable loss of status, income, and power for many of them means that they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and minimizing the problems of the current system. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” That quote very much applies here.

        • For that same reason, I doubt that anyone thinks of the system as racist either. That first story is classic. She DOES speed. She IS stopped. Race is NOT why she gets a ticket. She is poor, and not showing up out of fear and lack of knowledge of the legal system DOES make things worse, not better. The community has so many poor people that it uses devices like minor fines to pay the bills, speed traps, and silly, trivial laws. That’s not racist either. The police are given quotas in many towns. Was Wilson’s stop of Brown for walking in the street because he was “walking while black,” because Wilson had a quota of tickets and fines to make, or a combination of the two, or neither?

          • So are you really implying that race hasn’t played a significant part in the amount of times she’s been stopped? Or that she’s been “caught up” in a system designed to do this to her? Or that the lines of people circling these kangaroo courts are 90% minority? Do you speed Jack? I do. It probably the most commonly broken law ever. The punishment should be the occasional ticket. Not having your very existence dangle in the balance because you’ve been speeding. And unless I’m mistaken, she’s not been getting in accidents, getting her insurance canceled, then getting arrested for that. So we can assume that she’s no more a driving threat than anyone else. Yet because of the profiling, her exposure to the legal system is many more times what it should be. Regardless of her personal actions, illegal as they might be.

            • The only issue is “does she speed”? From her standpoint, that’s all that matters. She admitted that she had a “heavy foot” and speeded. Whether others speed and get away with it doesn’t make her less guilty, or the choice to speed any less reckless or self-destructive. Was Brown walking in the middle of the street? Was it an infraction, trivial or not? Do we know a white man wouldn’t have been similarly stopped? That there is race bias in the decision to arrest or stop, and especially make investigative stops, is beyond question. Someone breaking the law, however, is gambling, and the best way to avoid misfortune by gambling is not to play when you can’t afford to lose.

            • The problem with just throwing out statistics on race and rates of stops, tickets or arrests is the presupposition that there is no racial bias on crappy driving.

              Without taking a UNBIASED looked at the differences in driving and adjusting for that, it’s a fallacy to draw conclusions from the differences in rates alone.

              The problem is going to be getting that UNBIASED look at the numbers. It can be done if somebody tries (things like RAW data from red light cameras and speed radars that aren’t rigged). I just haven’t come across someone doing that.

          • As an example for the municipalities in question: In Ferguson, black people make up 63% of the population, but 87% of traffic stops.
            In Hazelwood, west of Florissant, blacks make up 28% of the population and 50% of traffic stops.
            And in Florissant, black people make up 25% of the population, but over 70% of traffic stops.

            In contrast, for the state as a whole: Blacks in Missouri make up 10% of the population.
            Blacks in Missouri make up 8.7% of traffic stops by Highway Patrol.

            Deciding who to stop and why is obviously not as racially neutral in this situation as you would like to think. How many people aren’t stopped for speeding, and of those stopped, how many are given a warning instead of a ticket? A lot of things are left up to an officer’s discretion.

            • Who says it’s racially neutral, or that I “like” anyone to believe it is? That still doesn’t mean that any one stop, arrest or incident can’t be or wasn’t justified, or/and racially neutral.

              • Missouri has red light cameras and, on some state roads, speed cameras. I’ll wager that blacks get a disproportionate number of photo enforcement tickets, too. The state Police focus on highways and rural enforcement, so it makes perfect sense they would see fewer black motorists overall, and thus stop fewer blacks for speeding. Not a matter of bias, but rather a matter of disparate *offending.*

                What’s more, in Ferguson, data posted by the (state) Attorney General’s office show that fully 3 of every 4 arrests pursuant to a traffic stop are for OUTSTANDING warrants—yes, pre-existing arrest warrants for someone in the vehicle. Hard to accuse police of bias when they are not usually conducting discretionary arrests. This fits with Balko’s overheated tale of injustice.

                Unfortunately, it is a fundamental obligation to go to court, even if you can’t pay the fine. Many Missouri jurisdictions allow payment plans, and some even have community service options. So if you think failing to pay tickets you’ve earned, for example, by speeding, or driving WITHOUT a license or registration or insurance, and then NOT even going to court is acceptable or trivial conduct, then you have a pretty weak commitment to the rule of law. Which is exactly the problem in metro Missouri—scofflaws abound, not police profiling of any kind.

                But why pass up a chance to racialize law enforcement and divide the nation? And Balko is a central figure in the campaign to erode race relations and, especially, trust in the law. His lop-sided screeds against basic law enforcement ought to earn him the title of villain, not hero.

                • I think you are the one who is over-heated. If someone is poor and thinks that not paying a fine will land them in jail and their children in foster homes or out on the street, categorizing their mistaken belief that that they should avoid court as a lack of commitment to the rule of law is excessively uncharitable. They need to know their rights, that’s all, and it is the job of the government to help people know their rights. Cops in such locales should inform those they ticket that if they can’t pay the fine, arrangements can be made, but not showing up will be a big mistake.

                  Balko is a libertarian and like most libertarians, unreasonably suspicious of police. I don’t detect any unfairness in this article, though.

            • While there are racists out there, and racism exists, it does not mean the whole legal structure is based upon race. The examples show enough of a margin that, yes, race is probably a contributing factor in some of those cases. However, after a slight margin, it seems demographically consistent.

    I read the above article on 22 August and was aghast. The Balko article is way more in depth and more troubling. My question is does race not play a role in this? From the way these municipalities were founded to the people who work and game the system to the largely poor and black people that literally pay for all of this, race is the root cause. Sure, we have failing government, misspent tax dollars, and at least two instances of largely black municipalities engaging in the same type of behavior. And I’d be willing to bet that at least as many of these crappy towns are run by democrats as by republicans! The issues go far beyond Ferguson, Brown and Wilson. But these issues are smack dab in the racial sweet spot. And I don’t know what to do either. But we must accept the role that race is playing, and not be defensive. Understand that black folks are telling the truth, and have been for a long time. We have to start the racial conversation all over again…..

    • I read Jack’s assertions in regards to the race angle with some puzzlement as well. But I don’t think intersectionality is really part of his vocabulary. The poor, black populace is preyed upon, both because they are poor, and because they are black. The two factors make them vulnerable, harder for them to defend themselves, and easier for their concerns to be dismissed and discounted. Not even to get into how race and poverty are intertwined in this country.

      But, I think it is important for people to read the article. Even if they feel it has nothing to do with race, it is still an important article to read. It might even be better if people think that this system of corruption has nothing to do with race. Ironically, it might make it easier to dismantle.

      • In complete agreement with you. On the last point especially. The end result of dismantling it will be the same. It would just be unfortunate that the fact that this happens in large part, because of race wouldn’t be dealt with. But for those being systematically preyed upon, it hardly makes a difference. Something simply must be done…..

    • Of course race is a part of this, a big part, a major part, but even eliminating that part won’t solve the problem…that’s my point. And those who are victims of it, who are black, naturally simplify the problem into race…which makes the problem harder to take apart. Race does not equal poverty. It seems clear to me that poverty is the more overwhelming factor of the two, along with many others that contribute. The scarcity of legal assistance is crippling, for example.

      • While poverty is a major factor in this, poor whites are not caught up in the legal system at anywhere near the rate of poor blacks. So it’s hard for me to understand how poverty would be more of a mitigating factor than race.

      • Undoubtedly, some systems are racially biased and others are not. But it doesn’t matter — it all comes down to disparate treatment — a well known legal test. Poor blacks and latinos have a right to be mad because these laws affect them the most because they mostly live in urban areas and surrounding suburbs. Poor whites still tend to live in rural areas where there is a smaller government structure to support — hence, fewer fines, penalties, fees, etc.

        • Disparate treatment is a systemic offense, and addressed that way. Nobody who knowingly breaks a valid law has any grounds for complaint that someone else who also should have been punished gets away with it. We may free X to teach the disparate enforcer a lesson, but that’s not justice for X. X still should be punished.

            • Beth, when the woman says she has a “heavy foot,” and when she admits that she speed to get to work when she is late, it’s knowingly breaking the law. Many are not knowingly broken; most are. Did Mike Brown know he was breaking the law by walking down the middle of the street? How about after the cop TOLD him he was, and to get on the sidewalk?

              When I speed, I know it.

              • Well, I don’t always notice when I am speeding, and I normally drive as slow as a little old lady. I also don’t know EVERY law. I recently thought it was illegal to ride a bike in DC on the sidewalk. Turns out that I was wrong, well at least partially wrong. In some areas of DC it is legal and in other areas it is not. I doubt that a casual bike rider looks up these laws from street to street.

                I’m not addressing this woman specifically, just in general noting how easy it is to fall into this trap.

                I recently got pulled over for expired tags. They had been expired for 2 days. I didn’t knowingly allow this to happen — I just had been to busy with kids and work to pay attention. (Of course, I didn’t get a ticket. I never get tickets.)

            • Not to mention the number of times that a police officer will let you go with a warning to slow down and get home safely. When the issue is safety, this is a fair response. When a father with a pregnant wife is speeding, he rightfully gets an escort instead of a ticket. As it relates to traffic laws, it’s not uncommon for there to be a certain leeway, and an immediate way to make the roads safer without issuing a ticket or summons. Unless you’re black. We rarely are the beneficiary of such treatment, and that is racist element to this. To say that X has no right to expect anything but punishment may be correct in the strict sense. But only one group is consistently held to this standard…..

  4. The system is working the way it’s supposed to.
    That’s the problem.

    At the moment, it’s only the poorest who are affected. As fees rise, and incomes don’t, the proportion is creeping steadily up. This is by design.

    • You are sounding like Blameblakeheart.

      There is no design. Hanlon’s Razor never applied more exactly than it does to this crap. Sloppy thinkers barely hanging on themselves making life unbearable for people who have no margin for error…

      • I must disagree. There’s a common pattern in the UK, US, Canada, now Australia. I doubt there’s a “designer” as such, more of a self-organising and quite pernicious principle.

        It Steam Engines come Steam Engine time. Too many are seeing the benefits of not so much tearing up the social contract, but being given the power to use corflu and write in what they want.

        Sloppy thinkers barely hanging on themselves making life unbearable for people who have no margin for error…

        Well put. The game is to make sure you’re high enough in the pyramid to keep your position. That means climbing over others as the pyramid sinks. Dog eat dog keeps the masters safe.

        That’s what happens when median income shrinks. We’re in the midst of an unprecendented transfer of wealth and power upwards.

        The ballot – and the voice of the mob – is supposed to counteract this. But there have been nothing like the Watts riots, despite more provocation, and the most common feature of the underclass is political apathy.

        You must have seen it. How “ethics” is something no-one in politics, government administration or the media practices any more. There’s no sanction against corruption when all sides are guilty.

        • I hate seeing “ethics” in quotes.
          Brecht wrote, quite correctly, “First feed the face, then talk right and wrong.” That’s always the challenge. It hasn’t changed, and it certainly hasn’t gotten worse. It’s just that “deep water hides all stumps.”

          [Note: I just looked for the origin of that phrase, which I heard several times in the deep past…somewhere. But online, the only recorded source for it is…me.]

      • Precisely Hanlon’s Razor. I think a lot of these problems are issued from a culture (bureaucratic, essentially) that consistently evades responsibility and shows an unwillingness to admit mistakes or punish malfeasance.

      • I don’t think there is a design to put as many blacks in prison as possible — although I’m sure some assholes want to see that happen. I think the plan is to make as much money as possible. That’s why we have such a prosperous prison lobby. Private prisons = big money. More fines and penalties = more money for cities, but all the politicians get to brag that taxes aren’t being raised.

        My husband just got a $100 speeding ticket from a traffic camera for 11 miles over the speed limit. If we don’t pay it within the month, it will double to $200. We can afford that — but that is a ton of money for most families.

        There is another camera near my home that makes millions of dollars each year. Millions! Overall, Maryland makes tens of millions each year off of speed cameras. Here is the depressing list.

  5. Corruption of this type should be expected when towns can set up their own speed traps, employ their own police officers who have quotas to fulfil, employ their own judges who have to enforce these laws in order to keep their jobs, and then the towns keep all the profits themselves. Whatever happened to the concept of separation of justice from the executive.

    • The simple state level answer to this is to pass a law that the state takes the money away from all of the municipal courts. Take away the incentive – the reward – for traffic stops and it will again become about traffic safety instead of revenue generation.

      My state passed a law that municipalities could only generate a maximum of 10% of their revenue from tickets. Anything above that went to the state. Some cities were getting as much as 40% of their revenue from tickets. The worst offenders were small towns that a freeway went through. You could count on seeing a city police car somewhere in the 1/2 mile that went through the city limits every time you went though. Now they’re not there anymore – instead they are focus on actual crime.

  6. Jack, thank you for posting the link to Balko’s excellent article (Balko is a true journalist as well).

    I may be stretching this, but do you think a lot of the confusion in reaction to this article is “post hoc, ergo procter hoc”?

    I would say that because of the demographics, race may be a contributing factor to some circumstances, but lawbreaking is still lawbreaking. Someone above used the statistic that Missouri’s population is roughly 10% black, and 8.7% of all highway violators in MO are black drivers. I think this, coupled with the “X-town is 60% black, and compose 72% of the violations” shows that it’s demographics above (not negating, however) any bigotry at play. If a neighborhood/town were 87% white and 89% of police tickets/arrests were of white folk, then it would just be demographically consistent.

    Also, we tend to forget how vacillating and irresponsible a lot of these urban/social engineers are. While some say it’s a massive conspiracy plot, they ignore how vast bureaucracies will act horribly to hide or justify their mistakes and malfeasance. That’s what a lot of this current system makes me think of – a business culture of continuously passing the buck, evading responsibility, and unwillingness to correct their own mistakes. The more cynical, of course, do this knowingly (Booker T. Washington’s critique of the grievance industry comes to mind here).

    This kind of thing is not an either/or situation. Just because demographics exist does not mean that all actions and intents are racist. Some of the legal entities utilize race as a means to an end and, yes, some of the law enforcement are racist. However, racism is an amorphous idea that is essentially irrational and hard to quantify. That some take advantage of an irrational feeling or idea does not mean that an entire legal or social system is set up based upon it. It’s simply mistaking several parts for a whole.

    • In a word, yes. My late father, a huge and beneficent influence on my thinking, used to say that “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (After this, and so because of this) was the most insidious of all reasoning fallacies, and I’ve probably neglected it here. Thus he loved Frost’s “The Road Not taken,” which notes that in the future a man will be bound to attribute what happened to his life to which fork he took in the road, but in fact, he probably would have ended up in the same place anyway.

  7. Here is a money quote from the article.

    But more racially representative governments in St. Louis County’s majority black towns haven’t diminished the misery that must be inflicted on the residents in order for those governments to exist.

    • Yes. UR and deery either didn’t read that quote, deny it, or would rather not acknowledge it. It was one reason I became convinced that I was reading that rarity, a genuine, unbiased job of reporting.

      • Not true. There are a small number of municipalities that seem to be run by blacks, and engage in the same type of behavior. I also mentioned that I suspected that some of these municipalities were likely run by democrats. I don’t think this qualifies as a failure to acknowledge at all. But in the grand scheme of things, other than continuously trying to minimize the role race plays, what’s the significance? The black townships simply learned their lessons well. They hardly invented this, but should play a role in stopping it. The number of warrants and tickets they right were significantly less than others, but high just the same.

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