Political Science Now

Learning from Ferguson: Welfare, Criminal Justice, and the Political Science of Race and Class

Chapter 7: Learning from Ferguson: Welfare, Criminal Justice, and the Political Science of Race and Class

Joe Soss, University of Minnesota
Vesla Weaver, Yale University

“We focus on the state’s welfare and criminal justice systems . . . because the institutions and agents of these systems play pivotal roles in the operations of state power, governance, citizenship, and politics in RCS communities.”

In 2015, Americans learned from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) that public authorities had imposed a “predatory system of government” on poor black citizens in Ferguson, Missouri (Chait 2014). The extensiveness of police repression and harassment, deployed to extract revenues for the municipality, looked eerily similar to the practices of authoritarian regimes. The government of a small inner-ring suburb of St. Louis, we learned, had designed an aggressive system of “poverty traps” for the citizens. Ferguson residents, primarily poor and black, were targeted, arrested, and summonsed on civil-ordinance violations; they were assessed prohibitive fines and fees and subjected to jail if they failed to pay (US Department of Justice 2015). Many discovered it was almost impossible to escape the resulting cycle of perpetual debt, which often drew them into further entanglements with police and courts. It soon became clear that whereas Ferguson officials may have been masterful in their repression and pilfering—generating an average of three arrest warrants per household and fees sufficient to sustain a municipal government—they were hardly alone. Local governments around the country, which also approached their poor black and Latino residents as suspect populations, were actively pursuing similar projects of governance (Harris 2016). As a popular uprising emerged, journalists quickly set to work, adding to the damning evidence in the DOJ report and constructing varied interpretations of the newly visible municipal repression and collusion between the municipality’s budgetary arm and its police forces. The same dramatic events, however, appeared to catch off guard many in our field of political science, in unfamiliar empirical territory and lacking a conceptual language to describe what unfolded. Indeed, the American politics subfield appeared to be ill-prepared for Ferguson—out of step in a manner reminiscent of its fumbled responses to the social injustices of Hurricane Katrina a decade earlier and waves of urban rioting and protest several decades before that (Frymer, Strolovitch, and Warren 2006).