Although I have fought racism for 60 years beginning when I was in high school from 1959-1963, I still struggle with grasping institutional racism because on its face, a practice can seem equitable. But when a system disparately harms one group more than another, a red flag goes up. Fines and subsequent arrest warrants are red flags.
I learned from a newspaper article that Riverton’s Mayor is concerned about hundreds of outstanding arrest warrants here. Our research determined that at least 80% of the warrants are against Native Americans although they are only 20% of the population here. The warrants are mostly for unpaid fines. This is a red flag!
When people fail to pay a fine, they are cited to court. If they do not appear, an arrest warrant is issued. Let’s take one typical situation: A man accumulated several fines related to alcohol abuse and shoplifting totaling $575 in Riverton. He could not afford to pay them. An arrest warrant was issued. He lives on the Wind River Indian Reservation. If he comes to Riverton for any reason, he risks being arrested and put in jail. Riverton is where many stores and services are located. One man is known to have refused going to the ER after an accident because of his fear of arrest for unpaid fines. He died from his injuries.
Intergenerational trauma has led to a higher incidence of alcoholism and drug abuse among Native Americans. Economic disparities are huge. Native Americans on the average have $9 for every $100 for the average American. Over 25% of Native Americans compared to 8% of white people live in poverty.
Fines do not stop alcoholism or shoplifting. Fines do not heal people from trauma, mental illness, addictions, or poverty. Fines serve to humiliate and intimidate. If people pay the fines, it helps to fund city government. If not and they are arrested and jailed, it costs taxpayers. If fines desperately harm Native Americans, which it does in Riverton, it’s institutional racism.
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Fear not. Be humble. Have faith. Be bold. Build relationships. Do justice.