Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Crime, The Informal Economy, And Dark-Skinned People

This week I read a post on Sharon Astyk's blog, Casaubon's Book. The title of the post was “The Recession is Dead, Long Live the Recession: Life Without Jobs”. Her post dealt with recent economic data and analysis that indicates that the job losses arising from this current recession will take a very long time to be recovered, if they are recovered at all. She also talked about the stresses that would likely be felt by families (particularly the men) as they struggled to deal with unemployment. Lastly, she mentioned the important role played by the unofficial, informal economy in providing for the needs of people worldwide.

All in all, it was a good post, with many points that are well taken (at least by me). However, I'd like to comment on this quote from her : “...I argue in Depletion and Abundance that the informal economy, the world outside of GDP statements that includes subsistence labor, household labor, under the table labor, barter, crime (note, I'm not suggesting crime as a career here, just including this for the sake of accuracy - at this point, crime is often the only segment of the informal economy available to people, as Peck points out in his sections on minority and urban unemployment - strengthening the non-criminal informal economy is obviously to everyone's advantage) and other work that exists outside conventional calculations can do something not only to mitigate the economic costs of unemployment, but also to mitigate the social costs...” (Emphasis added.)

I'm all in favor of strengthening the informal economy and getting government out of the way of the informal economy. But it's curious that so many writers who study Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse naturally assume that many of us are bound to become criminals, and that there's nothing anyone can do about it. What's more troubling is the assumption that crime is or will be the only option available to many minorities.

This assumption arises from the belief that crime is at present a disproportionately minority problem (especially for black and Latino communities), a belief that arises from negative media portrayals of minority communities, coupled with selectively harsh enforcement/punishment of crimes committed by minorities. But as I pointed out in my post, “Our Least Resilient Neighborhoods,” black people are no more likely to act criminal than any other ethnic group in America. To repeat statistics on one form of crime, namely drug infractions, in 2006 black Americans made up an 15 percent of drug users, but accounted for 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.

Even the crime that does occur in minority communities is often instigated from outside. To the extent that outside commentators notice patterns of crime in minority neighborhoods, it behooves them to ask why – just as those media talking heads commenting on the poverty in Haiti ought to be asking why. The truthful answer to “Why?” would be quite shocking.

What would be really helpful is for those with the loudest voices and the biggest podiums to take a little time to describe some of the things members of minority communities are doing to make their neighborhoods and communities more resilient. We face a perception problem, and that problem can lead to powerful people justifying taking extreme measures against our communities where such measures are unjustified. It looks like we're going to have to work much harder at getting our own story out. (For an example of this, see “Vice Magazine's Liberia Documentary Comes Under Fire”.)

I myself will be working hard to get our story out. For the story of societal collapse and of the response of resilient communities is the story of us all. I want to make sure that my brethren are included in those resilient communities that survive. Toward that end, I have a few more weekend posts to write on the American mainstream media, and how to get out from under its corrupting influence. I also hope to post another very useful interview, God willing. Stay tuned...

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