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Racial Wealth Divide

How A Broken Tail Light Leads to Death

Research & Commentary
April 22, 2015

by Karen Dolan

So now we know: A broken tail light can get you killed in America.

By Karen Dolan

The situation that led to the alleged murder of Walter L. Scott by a white police officer in North Charleston SC is indicative

Poor people, especially African-Americans, are targeted and aggressively policed for minor infractions such as a broken tail light.

Poor people, especially African-Americans, are targeted and aggressively policed for minor infractions such as a broken tail light.

of the crisis created by the growing criminalization of poverty in America and the persistent de-humanization of black people.

Poor people are targeted and aggressively policed for minor infractions such as the broken taillight on Mr Scott’s car. Poor black people are disproportionately targeted within this demographic. Once pulled over, other debts or warrants for similar misdemeanors may show up, resulting in arrest and jail time and increased spiraling of debt. Lives are ruined.

When you put that overwrought situation in the middle of racial profiling and aggressive police action against black men, you get the killing of Walter Scott.

According to the Center for American Progress, as of 2012, blacks were “twice as likely to be arrested, and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during police encounters.”

The Bureau of Justice shows that black drivers are about three times more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers.

The tattered bandage was ripped off this gaping sore of injustice in the recent scathing U.S. Department of Justicereport on the city of Ferguson, MO. The damning report found systemic overly-aggressive policing for municipal code violations with blatant racial bias. The investigators determined that citizens of Ferguson had their constitutional rights violated through these processes.

Ferguson, MO and North Charleston, SC are not unique. In high poverty areas nation-wide, the aggressive policing of citizens, with the express purpose of shoring up shrinking local budgets through fines and fees has been happening for decades. We have seen anincrease especially since the recession, when localities and states have had to deal with austerity measures and budget cuts. A 2014National Public Radio investigation found that such fines and fees for misdemeanors increased in 48 states since 2010.

Law enforcement too often views people in low-income and high-poverty areas as suspects and potential sources of revenue rather than residents whose public safety they are to protect. Black people of all income levels, though especially black people living in high poverty areas, have historically been treated as criminals and de-humanized.

Our recent report,“The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty in America,” details more of the many ways in which simply the lack of resources can land you in an endless spiral of debt, incarceration and a lifetime of almost insurmountable obstacles.

We’ve created a perfect storm of poverty, fear, social control and racially charged policing. Thanks to a brave young man with a cell phone, we now have proof that a broken tail light can get you killed if you are poor and black in America.

This piece first appeared at

 Karen Dolan is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and directs the Criminalization of Poverty project there.

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