Examining Unequal Sacrifices in American Democracy

Over the past few years, outrage surrounding the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and too many others has been widely publicized throughout the United States. These tragedies have sparked protests and created movements like those of the Black Lives Matter organization. As anger continues to build with each tragic incident, many blame legislation, police brutality, and systemic inequality. While these are all causes for anger, the problem lies deeper: an unequal democracy. In a democracy, citizens are expected to sacrifice things for the good of the country, but this burden must be equally shared amongst all citizens. However, the United States democracy distributes gains and losses unequally, disproportionately forcing specific groups of people to be burdened with a majority of the sacrifices for the good of the country.

Danielle Allen, political theorist and professor at Harvard University, provided insight into this idea of a sharing in sacrifices in a democracy in her book Talking to Strangers. Allen described democracy as such:

“Democracy is not a static end state that achieves the common good by assuring the same benefits or the same level of benefits to everyone, but rather a political practice by which the diverse negative effects of collective political action, and even of just decisions, can be distributed equally, and constantly redistributed over time” (29).

Allen describes a democracy where citizens take turns being burdened with some kind of sacrifice for the good of the many, a democracy where “some citizens are always giving up for others” (29).

Allen’s book highlighted the fact that “sacrifice is fundamental to democratic citizenship” and that even in large republics like ours, some citizens are always sacrificing for others (38). She gave the example of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates in early 2000 in efforts to slow the economy for “the good of the country” (39), leading to a cutback on jobs and an increase in unemployment throughout the country. Due to the Federal Reserve’s actions, Wall Street celebrated rising stocks while over 116,000 found themselves unemployed. As unemployment rates rose, it was found that African-Americans and Hispanics were the ones most heavily affected and therefore the ones “absorbing most of the loss” (42).  Allen used this to show that “political actions can impose loss not by action, but by intention” (40). In the example, the Federal Reserve knew the impact of their actions, but decided that 116,000 jobs were worth the sacrifice for the stock market’s success, illustrating that “the sacrifices of some citizens are the bedrock of other citizens’ lives” (45).

Further, Allen claimed that citizens are confronted with the paradox of being relatively powerless sovereigns. To deal with this, the United States has a habit of “assigning to one group all the work of being sovereign, and to another group most of the work of accepting the significant losses” to keep the country stable (41). Allen described social or economic loss as becoming political when “citizens believe themselves disadvantaged by a collective decision”, leading to the citizens feeling negative emotions like anger, disappointment, and despair, and “sowing the seeds of distrust”. She went on to say that political loss can manifest itself into these negative emotions within citizens in three ways, one of which being citizens reasonably believing “they have suffered losses and feel anger about those losses in cases where the losses have not been reasonably imposed” (46). It is these negative emotions that lead to the tensions and conflicts we see between citizens and government today, such as the tensions between communities and police departments, such as those in Ferguson.

The events that took place in Ferguson in 2014 stemmed from a variety of issues between the community and the city. However, the roots of these issues was the fact that a specific group of residents in Ferguson, Missouri, specifically the African-American community, were taking a significant amount of losses due to the city’s priorities and decisions. After the death of Michael Brown, the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (DOJ) investigated the Ferguson Police Department and released a report on their findings. The DOJ reported that the city of Ferguson “set maximizing revenue as the priority for Ferguson’s law enforcement activity” and found that “the city budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved” (9). Officers reported that city leadership stressed revenue generation heavily throughout the police department (2). In 2013, the municipal court generated $2.46 million through fees and fines, exceeding the city’s target of $2.11 million (9). This emphasis on generating revenue effected the Ferguson Police Department’s law enforcement and led to many officers viewing Ferguson residents in predominantly African-American communities”less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue” (2). This shift in perception of residents led to unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American communities, as they were often targets to receive the most citations for the police department to generate revenue.

This perspective led to racial bias being one of the key problems found by the DOJ within the Ferguson police department. The report stated that Ferguson’s court and policing practices were borne disproportionately by African-Americans, citing that they accounted for “85%  of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population” (4).

Additionally, the emphasis on generating revenue led to an inflation in the costs of citations in the city of Ferguson, often to unreasonable levels. The DOJ report cited a report from Ferguson’s Financial Director which, “included an extensive comparison of Ferguson’s fines to those of surrounding municipalities and noted with approval that Ferguson’s fines are ‘at or near the top of the list’” (10) . For example, other municipalities’ parking fines ranged from $5 to $100, while in Ferguson, it was $102. Further, it found that the fine for “Weeds/Tall Grass” was as little as $5 in one city, but in Ferguson, it ranged from $77 to $102 (10). It is also a common policing practice in Ferguson to issue multiple citations at a single traffic stop. It was found that, “Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter” (10). The costs of these citations would mount to excessive and unreasonable amounts, and in many cases, those who received them were unable to pay the fines, and even officers commented on the injustice of their practices. The DOJ report stated that in at least one case, “no indication that ability to pay” was ever considered when the court collected fines, finding that African-American residents, many of whom were below the poverty line, were the ones being targeted by these practices; the ones who were making the most sacrifices for the city to generate revenue.

The court systems in Ferguson were used to generate revenue from fines and fees as well. In addition to the excessive fees from citations, residents were forced to pay $75.50 for every missed court appearance, plus $26.50 in court fees (42). The court imposed “roughly one Failure to Appear charge per every two citations”, making this charge the highest in generating revenue (43). Additionally, the Ferguson courts imposed unnecessary barriers to resolving citations and “increased the likelihood of incurring several penalties” (43). The DOJ report refers to cases where the resident appeared to court several times, but due to the barriers in place, were unable to pay their fines and ultimately incurred additional fines and fees. These additional fees only added to the excessive amounts of money Ferguson residents often owed the city.

Further, if one to miss too many payments or receive a Failure to Appear charge, it was a common practice for the police department to issue an arrest warrant for said individual. With almost no except
ions, these warrants were issued because, “ 1) a person missed consecutive court appearances, or 2) a person missed a single required fine payment as part of a payment plan” (55), and unlike other local municipalities that require a $50 a month payment plan, Ferguson requires $100 a month, a fee that is difficult for many to pay (53). The DOJ claimed that jail time would be “too harsh a penalty” for a majority of the violations, which stemmed from parking infractions, traffic violations, and housing code violations. However, the Ferguson courts, “routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees” (3).

The effects of such unconstitutional practices can be devastating to an individual. This is illustrated by one woman’s account of her experiences with Ferguson’s justice system. This woman, “received two parking tickets for a single violation in 2007 that then totaled $151 plus fees. Over seven years later, she still owed Ferguson $541—after already paying $550 in fines and fees, having multiple arrest warrants issued against her, and being arrested and jailed on several occasions” (42). Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident, but rather many residents had similar experiences.


Fig. 1. Protesters in Seattle standing in solidarity with those in Ferguson; Mark Harrison; Seattle Protesters Block I-5                Police Use Pepper Spray; The Seattle Times; 24 Nov. 2014; Web; 13 Dec. 2015.


When the city of Ferguson focused their priorities on generating
revenue, they clearly were gaining quite a bit. However, these financial gains were at the expense of the losses of poor, African-American residents in the city; at the expense of those who couldn’t afford the losses. The fact that it was one specific group of citizens who were burdened with these sacrifices rather than all of the city’s residents sharing in the burden makes it easy to see how tension and frustration could build within the African-American community (see fig. 1). These negative emotions boiled over after the death of Michael Brown, and it is clear that the community’s feelings of injustice went deeper than Brown’s murder; they were rooted in the continuous sacrifices their community was forced to make.

On a larger scale, the United State’s War on Drugs has led to specific groups of people experiencing loss for what is considered best for the country as a whole. In 1971, President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs”, but it wasn’t until October 1982, when President Reagan officially announced his administration’s War on Drugs, that the impact of the new legislation took effect (Drug Policy Alliance). The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1966 “established the basic framework of mandatory minimum penalties currently applicable to federal drug trafficking offenses” and established the quantities necessary to trigger the use of mandatory minimums. These minimums varied depending on the type of drug, and in the case of cocaine, the forms of the same drug (USSC 23). The 1966 Act treated quantities of cocaine base (also known as crack cocaine) differently than similar quantities of powder cocaine, creating a sentencing disparity. This sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine was 100:1, with offenders convicted of trafficking offences involving at least five grams of crack cocaine receiving a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, while trafficking offenses that involved powder cocaine required at least 500 grams of the drug to trigger the same mandatory minimum (USSC 25).  Pharmacologically, crack cocaine is nearly identical to powder cocaine, only it has been converted into a form that can be “vaporized and inhaled for a faster, more intense high using less of the drug”, meaning  individuals are able to sell small doses at more affordable prices (Alexander 51). Many claimed that these laws were biased and harmful to African-Americans, due to the fact that crack cocaine was associated with African-American communities, and powder cocaine was typically associated with white communities (Alexander 52).


Fig. 2. President Reagan signing the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 into action; Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, 18 Nov. 1988; Web; 13 Dec. 2015.

In 1988, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed as an amendment to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, but paid special attention to cocaine (see fig. 2). Title VI, Subtitle L amended the Controlled Substance Act “to
increase the criminal penalties with respect to persons convicted for the possession of a mixture or substance containing cocaine base”. In addition to this, Title V, Subtitle C allowed public housing authorities to evict tenants if they, or anyone under their control, allowed any kind of drug related criminal activity on or near the public housing premises. Further, Title V, Subtitle G denied federal benefits- such as “grants, contracts, loans, licenses, and public housing”- to anyone who had been convicted of a drug offense for anywhere from a year to life, depending on the number of past offenses (H.R.5210) This legislation increased mandatory minimums for cocaine base and impose more restrictions for offenders upon release, with a disproportionate amount of African-Americans being convicted.


The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to 18:1 (ACLU). Now, an offender receives mandatory minimum of five years in prison if convicted of an offense involving at least 28 grams of crack cocaine or at least 500 grams of powder cocaine (USSC 150). However, these disparities should not exist at all, considering these are the same drug in various forms.

The War on Drugs and corresponding legislation were introduced in an effort to reduce drug distribution and trafficking, improve public safety, and punish those convicted of drug crimes for the good of the country. However, this legislation’s sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine disproportionately affects African-American communities, because crack cocaine is more commonly associated within those communities and has a much harsher punishment. This leads to more African-Americans being charged with felonies, representing 37% of the incarcerated population in 2013 (Carson), and therefore being barred from federal benefits. What started as legislation to reduce crime for the good of the country has required African-American communities across the United States to sacrifice more in comparison to other communities.

It’s clear how communities can feel angry and frustrated to constantly shouldering the burden of sacrifices for the success and betterment of others. Throughout history, certain groups of people, particularly African-American communities, were forced to make significant sacrifices for what many saw as the “common good”, while rarely receiving any of the benefits. The disproportionate distributions of gains and losses plagues the United States today and makes some question if we have a just and fair democracy. This unequal distribution leads to negative emotions, which lead to distrust, frustration, and anger in our country and in our fellow citizens, leading to protests that have been widely publicized over the past couple of years and tragic events like the death of Eric Garner. In Talking to Strangers, the reader was challenged with “seeing our comforts as constructed out of the sacrifices of others”. Once we, as a country, are able to do this, we can begin improving our democracy by having all citizens share in the losses and benefit from the benefits equally.


Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New, 2012. Print.

Allen, Danielle S. Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2004. Print.

Carson, E. Ann. Prisoners in 2013. Rep. United States Department of Justice Bureau of Statistics, 30 Sept. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

Drug Policy Alliance. A Brief History of the Drug War. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2015.

“Fair Sentencing Act.” American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.

H.R. 5210, 100th Cong., Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1988) (enacted). Print.

Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Rep. United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

Report to the Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System. Rep. United States Sentencing Commission, Oct. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.