South Africa: Major Economy With A Major Crime Problem

CENTURION (PRETORIA), South Africa“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, “God Bless Africa”. This is the beautiful beginning of South Africa’s National Anthem. Well, the country is in trouble and it really needs God’s blessings.

There is some good news. BusinessReport says that South Africa improved its competitiveness ranking. According to the World Economic Forum, it is now among the 50 most competitive countries in the world, (out of a total of 140 listed).

This is definitely good news. Much of it has to do with the spreading of ICT systems, financial markets improved efficiency, and an improved transportation infrastructure.

However, in some important categories relevant to competitiveness, (the average of all of them gives the final score), South Africa has a lot of work to do. On corruption, (too much) the country is 76, (out of 140); on government regulations (too many) the country is number 117. But by far the most worrisome score is on security (too little). South Africa ranks 102nd out of 140.

The truly frightening aspect of this bad security score is that violence in South Africa is getting worse, year after year. The newspaper The Star comments on recently released national violent crime statistics with the headline: “Gangster Paradise“, followed by chilling data: “Murder, up 10%, Robberies, up 11.4%, Residential Robberies, up 9.9%, Carjacking, up 13.4%.; Truck Hijacking, up 47%. Children aged between 10 and 17 responsible for 47 murders”.

In announcing these figures, the police authorities stress that these numbers are better than what they were 10 years ago. (Murders are up, but  –do not be fooled– we are winning the War on Crime).

Small consolation for those who see homicides and robberies trending up. A Justice Department official in fact commented that: “This number of deaths is what you would expect from a country at war”.

“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”. “God Bless Africa”.  

Get Good People Out Of Bad Neighborhoods

WASHINGTON – Here is a simple, if radical, new idea for those who want to deal with large pockets of urban poverty. (What We Know About Bad Neighborhoods, by Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. in the WLS, May 9-10, 2015). Do not try to re-engineer truly bad neighborhoods. Not because this is in principle a bad idea. But simply because it is too difficult. The failure of scores of well funded public programs attests to this.

Impossible to fix truly bad neighborhoods

Indeed we have to come to the realization that it is almost impossible to deal with poverty, bad housing, bad schools, dilapidated buildings, lack of decent food stores and other shopping, and then crime and despair –all at the same time. In these  sometimes large neighborhoods there are just too many interconnected negative factors, all of them sadly feeding on each other.

Most unfortunately, taken all together these factors create a deeply pathological value system. Indeed, even if you are a person with some abilities and good will, when you are surrounded my blight, rampant crime, and hopelessness it is nearly impossible to stay positive and believe that there is a practical way to improve your own life in a neighborhood dominated by poverty, violence, gangs and crime.

Move people out, give them a chance

So, what is the alternative? The alternative, as Jenkins points out in his WSJ piece,  is in offering a chance to those who are reasonably motivated by helping them move somewhere else.

Yes, the environment in which you live does make a huge difference. A reasonably motivated person is bound to do much better in a new place where there is safety, decent housing, good schools, and jobs. However, the very same person will drown in a bad neighborhood with non existent public services, and almost zero economic opportunities outside of crime.

A partial solution

So, is this a complete “solution” to the challenges created by poor neighborhoods? No, it is not. It is only a partial solution; but very significant nonetheless. This is about giving people with motivation and will a viable alternative that may literally save their lives.

Of course, there is still the problem of those who have neither the will nor the abilities who are left behind. What about them? I do not have a good answer for this.

Save some people

However, It still makes sense to offer a better life to those who can and will take advantage of good opportunities, instead of condemning them to drown in the swamp that scores of (well meaning but useless) tax payers-funded welfare programs never managed to drain.

Sadly, 50 years after the “War on Poverty” was declared, we have to admit defeat. The well-meaning frontal assault using all the best tools of public policy did not work. It is time to think of something else.

Seeking Justice in Baltimore

WASHINGTON – Freddie Gray was a 25 year old Baltimore small time drug dealer. He was just another member of an all too familiar urban underclass of petty criminals who  had chosen drug dealing and/or other illegal activities mostly because they have preciously few options.

Crime is the only career

I say this not to justify or condone crime. This is to say that when young men grow up in a semi-lawless environment that does not provide any real opportunity, sadly for many of them crime becomes the default option.

A bad day

It so happened that on April 12 Freddie Gray had an extremely bad day. Gray saw some policemen, and then he run away. The policemen chased him, arrested him and then they threw him into a police van. Based on the results of an investigation, Freddie Gray suffered fatal injuries while in the van, and then he died a few days later because of the consequences of his injuries.

In another era, a non event

In another era this might have been treated as a non-event. Freddie Gray would have been considered an unfortunate casualty that occurred on yet another busy law enforcement day. He was after all a known criminal, with a long history of arrests.

The very fact that he run away when he saw some policemen proves that he had reasons for fearing the police. In other words, most likely he was guilty of something. And therefore the police had every right to pursue him and apprehend him. The fact that he suffered injuries while in police custody is just a sad complication. Nobody meant to kill him. Case closed, let’s move on.

A higher standard?

Well, this time it is different. Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore’s Chief Prosecutor charged all six officers involved in the incident. The driver of the police van has been charged with second degree murder. The others with manslaughter, assault and misconduct in office depending on their actions during the incident.

If Mosby’s charges will stand in court, she just created a new standard –Thank God for that! Here is the thing. Freddie Gray had indeed a criminal record. But the police had no right to pursue him and arrest him on April 12, because they had no “probable cause”. There was no evidence that Gray had committed any crime, at that moment. And the manner in which he was treated after his arrest is criminal. He was treated like an animal. He was thrown into the police van. He suffered injuries. He was not given any medical attention. And therefore he died because of his injuries.

Sure, you can say that if Mr. Gray had been a regular, law abiding citizen he would have had no reason to run away from the police. Therefore, no arrest, no injuries and no death. From this perspective, his death is ultimately his on fault.

We can and should do better

Yes, except that this is The United States of America in the 21st Century. This is not Europe in the Middle Ages. No, you cannot arrest people without probable cause. And, even assuming that the arrest was justified, the police are responsible for the well being of any prisoner in their custody. Any injury to the prisoner is their responsibility. And yes, police officers must seek medical help in case of any injuries to a prisoner in their custody.

These six officers, based on the outcome of the investigation, did none of that. And this why Freddie Gray is dead. This is not to say that they deliberately killed him. But it would appear that they treated him like an animal. They injured him, and then let him suffer, without any real concern for his well-being.

We shall see how all this ends up. An indictment does not automatically imply a conviction. Since we are in America, all citizens accused of a crime, and that includes police officers, are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

But at the very least Ms. Mosby, with her decision to indict, made the point that police forces have to uphold a high standard of behavior.

The problem of the urban underclass will not go away

That said, no matter how this case will be adjudicated after a trial, the underlying problem at the root of Gray’s death –poverty, ignorance, alienation and crime– will stay.

Freddie Gray was a petty criminal who had  a bad day. A horrible day that cost him his life. Sadly, thousands of young Black men will continue their lives of crime because they see on alternatives. May be they will be treated better the next time they are arrested, but their journey to nowhere good will continue.




Perceptions and Misperceptions About Black Crime And White Police Brutality

WASHINGTON – The killing by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, of a Black young man, 18-year-old Michael Brown,  triggered a (predictable) chain reaction that once again exposed the ugly truth of an America still torn by racial tensions.

Jumping to conclusion

The Black community in Ferguson and across America, even without the benefit of any real, conclusive evidence, immediately labelled this tragic death as yet another example of police brutality consciously aimed at Black people.

Yes, Black people are targeted. Yes, innocent Black people are harassed, stopped in the street and subjected to all sorts of humiliations by White policemen only because of the color of their skin. And some get killed by the police, for no reason.

White America hates Blacks

And here is the conclusion: “White America hates Blacks; and it uses police forces as attack dogs who act viciously under the bogus pretense of conducting law enforcement operations.”

The sad fact is that, no matter what will come out of the ongoing investigation on what really happened that day in Ferguson,  Black America made up its mind, “This tragedy proves what we already know. Blacks are the victims of police brutality. Period”.

Let’s step back

Of course this is the proverbial oversimplification. There is some truth here; but only some. Let’s step back for a minute and let’s look at the broader context.

The sad fact is that a disproportionately large percentage of young Black are in fact criminals –and therefore targeted by the police. And why are there so many criminals? Because most young Black people are marginalized, or semi-marginalized.

No education, no good options

And they are marginalized because, for a variety of reasons, they are unable to fit into a mainstream that includes getting a decent education, and then applying for and obtaining a decent job.

It is a well-known fact that most young Blacks get below average education in below average public schools. Some do not even get that. They drop out. And, at that point, with essentially zero qualifications, the choices available to them are really unattractive.

With little or no education, there is no chance whatsoever to be able to compete for a good job in a US labor market that has become ultra-competitive.

Therefore here is the restricted universe of available opportunities:

A) the prospect of a life of under employment, getting low-paying menial jobs here and there; or

B) crime

There is money in criminal activities

For many crime may look much more attractive because there can be money, lots of easy money coming with it. And so many Black people get into the drug trade. In so doing they get into a world of gangs, violence, lots of killings, turf wars, and more.

And, as a result of these dynamics, with some reason, we get to the stereotype held by many Whites: “Most young Blacks are criminals. This being the case, police forces have reason to be particularly aggressive when pursuing Black suspects.”

Circular argument

And here we see how get to the circular argument:

–Whites believe that most Blacks are criminals, and therefore they should be pursued, arrested and convicted.

–Black communities, and this would naturally include peaceful, law-abiding people, see most police activities in their neighborhoods as willful persecution. (Indeed, if you are a law-abiding Black but you are stopped, questioned, harassed or worse by the police, merely because the fact of being Black makes you a suspect, it is natural that you will feel persecuted.)

Police brutality in Ferguson

And here we understand how Black communities in Ferguson and across America immediately reached the conclusion that, if an unarmed Black teenager got killed by a White policeman, the only possible explanation is that the policeman is a trigger happy racist who used a pretext to kill an innocent Black boy.

The police would say instead that policing Black neighborhoods is an extremely dangerous endeavor, because there are too many armed and violent criminals in these areas. Therefore “tough law enforcement” is totally justified.

But we know that this “toughness” can easily be construed as “willful brutality”, in many instances with cause.

So, here we are. Blacks believe that the police are out to get them. Whites believe that most young Blacks are dangerous, and therefore they welcome aggressive police actions aimed at them.

As you can see, we are in a real mess in which both sides have a good argument. This makes finding common ground a close to impossible challenge.

How do we break the cycle?

But reasonable people –Black and White– would probably agree that if young Black people could stay in the mainstream, get a good education, and then a good job, much of this now gigantic problem of Black crime-tough policing-perceptions of brutality-protests would disappear.

Black marginalization, whatever its causes, leads to Black crime. Black crime, very often violent crime, leads to harsh policing in Black neighborhoods.

And this leads to Black perceptions of intentional police brutality. Mostly White police forces are maliciously targeting all Blacks, including peaceful, law-abiding citizens, without any cause.

Therefore when Michael Brown in Ferguson, or any other seemingly innocent Black person elsewhere, gets killed by a White police officer, the instinctive reaction is: “Here we go again. They just want to kill all of us”.

Getting young Blacks to stay in the mainstream

But if most young Blacks would stay in the mainstream, get good degrees and good jobs, Black crime would decline, and with that all perceptions and exaggerations whereby “most young Blacks are criminals” would gradually fade away.

Having said that, I fully recognize that the hard part going forward is in devising smart policies and incentives that will stop and reverse Black marginalization.

However, I am sure that any constructive policy has to start with making a good education truly available to all Black children, even those living in the really tough neighborhoods.

In fact, these are the children who need it the most. If poor children do not get a good education, then –by definition– the way forward becomes extremely difficult.

Black Victim Of Police Shooting In Ferguson Was A Suspect In A Robbery

WASHINGTON – I have observed in a previous piece how in America a single episode of “White on Black” violence gets saturation coverage, while the daily killings of young Blacks by other young Blacks are essentially ignored.

Racist America

The simple fact is that any instance of “White on Black violence”, especially when the violence comes from a White police officer who kills an unarmed Black man, (this is the Ferguson, Missouri, case that is receiving major coverage), is used to reassert the larger point that “America is still essentially a racist country”.

Indeed, the plight of African Americans is the result of discrimination, intimidation, and much worse, as the gratuitous Ferguson killing illustrates.

Blacks are perennial victims

My point is that to use the rare instances of police or other White violence against Blacks to make the larger point that all Blacks are the perennial victims amounts to an enormous historical misrepresentation. This assertion is false and truly unhelpful, as it allows Black communities not to look into the root causes of poverty and marginalization. Much easier to say: “We are poor because we are all victims”.

Residual racism

Let’s be clear.There is still residual racism in america. It would be disingenuous or worse to deny this fact. However, today we do not live in a country that is pretty much like segregated America circa 1959 or 1960. The idea that now, just as before, innocent Blacks are the routine targets of police brutality is just nonsense.

Discrimination is illegal

Landmark civil rights legislation was passed in 1964, that’s 50 years ago. Any type of discrimination on the basis of race is illegal in America.

This of course does not mean that discrimination vanished. But it is no longer the accepted, (indeed in many states it was legally endorsed), daily practice. It is the exception, and not the norm. And when it does occur, the authorities must intervene, in order to uphold the law.

Indifference when Blacks kill Blacks

At the same time, I also note a complete disconnect between the saturation coverage (and related national outrage) of instances of “White on Black” violence, even though such episodes are few and far between, and the total indifference regarding the daily carnage in which scores of Blacks are killed by other Blacks. (More than 450 killings a year, just in Chicago).

Somehow, only homicides in which White people killed (defenseless) Blacks matter. This selective focus is the result of denial. Black communities simply ignore the facts, however overwhelming, that would contradict their preferred and totally false interpretation of history that portray them as perennial victims.

The killing of Michael Brown

Be that as it may, the killing of young Michael Brown by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, is now “the case” that has energized Black communities. This sad killing has caused daily demonstrations that often turned violent. The African American community demands “justice”. Why was an innocent, unarmed Black 18-year-old killed by the police?

The facts may contradict the narrative

Well, it would appear that Black leaders and other community activists were a bit hasty in making up their minds as to the actual facts of the case. Michael Brown, the alleged victim, according to witnesses and surveillance video, had just robbed a convenience store with an accomplice. His physical description was given to the police. According to the police, Brown was stopped in the street by an officer.

Now here vital details have not been established with absolute clarity. Black witnesses affirm that Brown did not resist arrest. The police say that Brown tried to get hold of the officer’s gun and that’s why he was shot.

What happened?

These are diametrically opposed accounts about what preceded the fatal shooting. I do hope that the facts will be established, as soon as possible, by an impartial and credible investigation. There should be no doubt as to what actually happened.

Needless to say, even if we assume that Brown was a petty criminal who had just stolen some cigars from a convenience store, this is no justification for using excessive force against him, let alone shooting him. If he did indeed resist arrest, and indeed tried to get hold of the gun of the officer, then what happened was a tragedy; but not a homicide motivated by racial prejudice.

The story we were told may not be true

Still, while we wait for the results of the official investigation, the official narrative of the innocent young Black man just passing by, minding his own business, when a vicious White policeman, for no apparent reason, kills him, turns out to be at least incorrect, most probably a fantasy.

It would appear that Michal Brown, (the victim, we are told), had just committed a crime. A petty crime, but a crime nonetheless and the police, doing their job, where looking for him.

Wrong example?

While all this and more is sorted out, it may be wise to tone down all the protests and the marches. Whatever Black leaders and their followers want to believe about racism and discrimination, it may very well be that this time they picked the wrong example to make their case.