How Much Is a Black Life Worth? We Calculated It


This week, Philando Castile’s family was awarded $3 million to settle a civil wrongful death lawsuit against the tiny township of St. Anthony, Minn. A week earlier, CNN reports, the family of Mike Brown reportedly received $1.5 million from the city of Ferguson, Mo., in the 2015 death of the 18-year old.


It seems like a lot of money, but is it worth it?

Imagine you were sitting at home, watching Power (because I am apparently the only black person in America who doesn’t watch the show), when you heard the doorbell ring. When you opened it, there stood a sharply dressed attorney holding a briefcase. You asked him what he wanted, and he said:

Inside this briefcase is $5 million. It is tax-free and untraceable. I will let you count it if you wish, but—trust me—it is all there. I will hand it all over to you right now and never contact you again. There is only one thing I require in exchange: You must allow me to walk up to the person you love most in this world and shoot them in the head.

Would you do it? How about this one:

You review your water bill and notice that it has surged by $92.93. You call city hall and ask the receptionist about the extra charge. She clears her throat and responds: “Well, that’s how much it costs your city to occasionally kill a black child. Will you be paying by cash or check?”

If it seems ridiculous, that is because our figures are high. Cities, counties and entire states across the country publicly pay millions for police misconduct every year. Even though most of the cases against law-enforcement officers never result in convictions, municipalities often secretly (and sometimes publicly) settle civil suits with victims or the families of victims.

When a Chicago cop pumped 16 bullets into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the city refused to release the video evidence and the officers kept their jobs, but the city had already secretly forked over $5 million in hush money to McDonald’s family. Tamir Rice’s family received $6 million from the city of Cleveland for shooting him two seconds after police encountered the 12-year-old playing in a park with a BB gun. Sandra Bland’s family received $1.9 million when she was found dead in police custody in Texas after she was arrested for failing to signal. No officer has yet been convicted of any of these crimes, but the agencies involved in these deaths have paid millions to the families.


After the Castile and Brown settlements hit the news, along with other high-profile lawsuits, The Root decided that we’d like to know the value of a black life. How much does it cost to kill a black person?

Of equal importance is the amount you pay. Police departments, officers or cities don’t pay these settlements; taxpayers do. We wanted to figure out how much individual taxpayers paid for the loss of a black life. Here’s how we did it.


The Data

As it is often noted, there is no national database for police shootings, so—and this is important to know—this is not a peer-reviewed, scientific study. In fact, police departments don’t even have to report police shootings to a federal agency.


The only way to find the settlement amounts is from news reports, so we found 41 cases where police either settled out of court or were found civilly liable for the death of a black man or woman. Instead of using the highest-profile cases, we also mixed in cases that didn’t make national headlines. We also intentionally used incidents from different regions throughout the country.

You can download a list of the individual cases we used here, along with the settlement amounts, which entity paid the settlement and the population of the paying party.


The Math

We took the settlement amounts that courts, police departments, insurance companies, attorneys and the families of victims reached, and averaged them to find a somewhat representative amount for the value of a black life. This amount represents each taxpayer’s financial responsibility for a police killing.


For each case, we also looked at the state, county or the municipality that paid the settlement. Using data from, we used the 2014 population for each entity (which is the most current) and divided each individual settlement by the number of people responsible for paying the amount that police gave the victim’s family, giving us the number each citizen must pay when police erase a black life.

For instance, for the deaths of Sean Bell, Akai Gurley and Eric Garner alone, New York City paid $17.05 million. This means the Big Apple figures a life is worth about $5,683,333—which seems like a lot—until you realize that each of the city’s 8,491,079 residents only had to kick in about 67 cents apiece to cover the NYPD’s bill to kill a black man.


How Much Is a Black Life Worth?

Using these numbers, a black life is worth about $3,364,875 million, or—on average—each taxpayer shells out $50.06 to extinguish a black life, meaning that a black life is worth less than:

  • Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial (it cost the company about $5 million)
  • Ben Simmons’—who played in zero games in the NBA this season—2016 NBA salary ($5.093 million)
  • A weekend trip for Donald Trump to Mar-a-Lago ($3.6 million)

You probably own more than one pair of shoes that cost more than the average person pays for a dead black body. Our worth cannot be counted in dollar amounts, but they sometimes measure our weight in Skittles and AriZona iced tea. It is shorter than a pack of convenience store Swisher Sweets laid end-to-end, and more fragile than a loose cigarette.


Black bodies were brought to this country as a commodity, and the only thing that has changed is the volume of the auctioneer’s voice. He still wears a robe. He still bangs a gavel, and we are always going, going ...



I like data so I’m fascinated by this while also trying not to think about the human reality behind the numbers.

Anyway, in case anyone else was curious. The highest payout from The Root’s sample selection was Christian Eaddy (a case I’ve not heard of but can’t handle looking up right now) at $14.3 mil paid out in LA and the lowest was Corey Ward at $200k paid by Atlanta.

Now I’m curious about how they calculate these payout amounts. I’m sure it’s horrifying.