Get Your Money (November 2018)

Feeding The Cycle of Police Violence in Poor Neighborhoods 

Now that police killings of brown and black youth have settled in alongside apple pie, Honest Abe and the other avatars of American exceptionalism, the conversation — like all things red, white and blue — becomes about money. The grim sequence set off by these slayings recurs like a collective waking nightmare: we sit shiva while internal investigations and criminal courts sprint to deny any wrongdoing, and then shrug our shoulders before shuffling along to the next unimaginable tragedy. But the victim’s family doesn’t have the luxury of moving on; they’re left behind to pursue some facsimile of justice in civil court, where catharsis is probably a bridge too far, but there’s at least an outside shot of winning some cash to dull the pain.

Since pricing out human life is so obviously fraught with potential complications, courts will frequently call on expert forensic economists for help. The economists have one job: to calculate the victim’s lost lifetime income. But, because the universe of counterfactuals and what-ifs can be tough to navigate, the experts need help, too. So they turn to actuarial lifetables, which offer educated guesses based on a few factors, one of which is the victim’s race.

Actuarial tables isolate trends in historical data and extrapolate them into long-term forecasts, on the hypothesis that the past and future will be reasonably similar. For young black men — to say nothing of Hispanics, Native-Americans, and women — that’s a frightening thought. Modest recent progress notwithstanding, history is lousy with vast discrepancies in income and health markers between minorities and everyone else. The struggle against centuries-old discrimination is real.

The tables ruthlessly capture all of this. The numbers aren’t just drawn from a hat. Historically speaking, blacks really have had shorter lifespans than whites, and Native-Americans have earned less and women have committed fewer years to the workforce, and on and on. That’s true — on average. But in the real world — where race isn’t destiny — those outcomes exist in a distribution. Some will exceed expectations, others will fall short. So even when a table can confidently pinpoint the group average, it still provides precious little insight into an individual’s future. More than that, if we have faith that the American experiment is still meandering in the right direction, then it’s reasonable to suppose that the gaps will continue to close — maybe even faster than the tables suggest.

Because the tables take past trends as gospel, courts systematically offer lower damage estimates to non-white victims. This is standard practice in wrongful death litigation, and it’s rarely disputed. In one of the few cases where the propriety of race-based income estimates was even mentioned, the expert economist testified that, over thousands of cases, he hadn’t once been asked for a race-neutral calculation. Tort law happily assumes that black men will die 3.4 years before — and that Native-Americans will earn 42% less than — whites, and should be compensated as such. Call it the hard bigotry of mean values.

The issue goes beyond the narrowing of minorities’ right to fair compensation. Police violence is undeniably tethered to socioeconomics; by one estimate, more than 40% of black victims of police killings died in the poorest 20% of census tracts. That correlation isn’t especially surprising — blacks remain disproportionately likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods — but it does suggest that the operative description of the typical victim isn’t black, but black and poor.

Poor lives matter, but, given tort law’s insistence on tying compensation to future income, maybe not quite as much as rich ones. Meanwhile, recognizing poverty as inseparable from police violence spotlights the danger built-in to trusting race-based estimates. Monetary damages are designed to reproduce the income that the victim would have contributed to his family and community but for getting got by the cops. That’s what the money’s for — and limiting it necessarily degrades both the family’s and community’s fiscal stability. In turn, substandard damage awards feed the very police violence that they’re meant to recompense, since remaining on a lower socioeconomic rung is the surest way to guarantee exposure to street crime, massive police presence and, ultimately, inadequately compensated killings. The vicious cycle spins on.

Still, race-based lifetables weren’t set in stone and carried down a mountain. They’re tools of convenience that courts are absolutely not beholden to. Some places have seen the light; Canada, for instance, now requires the use of race-neutral data. That can happen in the U.S. too, with or without a legislative mandate — it’s mostly a matter of courts deciding that enough is enough. But until then, here in the epicenter of police violence, we’ll continue to rely on a process that seems to assume that our discriminatory past is more valuable than an equitable future. It’s the wrong approach. Knowing our history shouldn’t doom us to repeat it.