Ferguson’s Fault Lines: The Race Quake that Rocked a Nation (ed. Kimberly Jade Norwood)

Review of Christopher Alan Bracey’s “Michael Brown, Dignity, and Déjà vu: From Slavery to Ferguson and Beyond”

 “The events in Ferguson, Missouri, reveal a police culture trafficking in the ritual denial of equal dignity and equal humanity to African Americans.”

As a critical law and economics scholar, I tend to discuss racist circumstances in terms of how such exacerbates racial wealth inequality, impedes the functioning of the so-called free market, and demeans American claims to a meritocratic system.  To the extent a perfectly free and meritocratic market efficiently and fairly distributes the worlds’ resources, I describe racial circumstances in terms of asymmetrical market imperfections relating to race.  

In economic terms, racist circumstances can be described or categorized in terms of asymmetrical profit maximization, asymmetrical market competition, asymmetrical information, and asymmetrically distributed transaction costs.

Ordinarily, I discuss racist policing and law enforcement in terms of asymmetrically distributed transaction costs. In other words, our society tends to heap upon black people a disproportionate share of the externalities and other burdens of society from taxes to crime to pollution.  However, Christopher Bracey’s focus on “racial oppression as dignity expropriation” leads in another direction:

“[R]acial oppression, including racially discriminatory law enforcement, is at its core a dignity expropriation enterprise.”  Moreover, “the act of expropriation is understood, from the perspective of the taker, as entirely justifiable on political, social, or moral grounds.”

Bracey’s focus on ‘dignity’ translates in economic terms to asymmetric commitment to profit maximization, because to make Blacks feel less than citizens at best or less than human at worst will likely significantly discourage Black people from engaging with our market system at all.  Bracey invokes “the infamous Dred Scott decision that the rights and protections of the Constitution extended only to members of the relevant community.”

Beyond an external constraint on Black social-economic life, Dred Scott internalized fosters the belief that this land ‘is not for us’, even if others consider it the land of opportunity.  It and racist law enforcement encourage otherwise talented Black people to withdraw from that which could benefit themselves and the country as a whole.  Bracey gets it: 

“[T]hese dignitary implications are not purely symbolic, but also have distinctly materialist effects as well. That is, dignity expropriation through racial repression is both symbolically stigmatizing—marking someone as an outsider, an “other—and economically debilitating.  The lived experience of the Scotts and generations of black families before and after reveals that dignity expropriation through racial repression leads to inequality in educational and employment opportunities as well as a diminishment of the full range of wealth-generating and life-sustaining activities.”

Bracey extracts damning statistics from the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.  He finds “an eerie resemblance to disparate law enforcement of the late 19th century that was explicitly designed to oppress Negro slaves and newly emancipated blacks.”  From the amount of citations issued, to the types of activities sanctioned, to the discriminate yet indiscriminate use of force, Bracey tells the tale of personal dignity destruction as well as the furtherance of market incapacity.  

Beyond these practices causing direct and indirect financial losses to those who can afford it least, beyond them discouraging participation in the society, these tactics hurt black people economically simply by driving people crazy!  “the Ferguson Police department issued four or more citations to African Americans on 73 occasions, but issued four or more citations to non-African Americans only twice.”

Economically speaking, these tactics reach far beyond Ferguson, as “the sad truth is that we have been conditioned over the years to expect and, to some extent, accept the sorry state of affairs produced by decades of efforts to deprive blacks of their dignity—the reality of racial disparities reflected in virtually every index of socioeconomic well-being.”

Yet, Bracey is a bit ethereal on a solution, suggesting only that “affirmance of equal dignity and equal humanity also demands that we take seriously the task of examining and dismantling existing barriers to social inclusion.”  How to accomplish this has been the crux of the matter for a long time.


Ty Fellenberg