Commentary

Who Gets to Thrive in the Informal Economy?

Jun 27, 2017

Last week four black young men, three teens and one adult, were handcuffed and detained by an undercover unit of the U.S. Park Police for selling bottles of cold water without a permit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was an unusually hot day.

Local tour guide Tim Krepp took several pictures of the incident, and included them in a tweet. The images of the lanky youths, handcuffed and dejected, went viral. Krepp immediately framed the escalating debate: “My kids sell water and everyone smiles at them. These kids do it and get arrested. It IS racist,” he wrote on Twitter.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen sent the Park Police a public letter asking why it was necessary to handcuff the young men.

"I can't help but think how the reaction by these same officers might have varied if different children had set up a quaint hand-painted lemonade stand on the same spot,” Allen wrote. “While still the same violation of selling a beverage without proper permits and licenses, I doubt we would have seen little girls in pigtails handcuffed on the ground."

The handcuffs were for “safety of the officers and of the individuals,” Park Police spokeswoman Sgt. Anna Rose later said in a statement.

Though the teens were ultimately released with a warning, Allen was addressing the optics. There are plenty of kids selling wares in parks large and small across the city, he wrote, and "we should be making every effort to divert young people from the juvenile justice system and improve their relationships with law enforcement."

We should also be making every effort to find them jobs.

After their original plan of getting summer gigs at Six Flags fell through, the soon-to-be Watergate 3 went into entrepreneurship mode. “We bought the water, like 15 cases. And a cooler and two totes,” one of the teens told The Washington Post. “We charged a dollar a bottle.”

But the informal economy, essential to the survival of so many otherwise talented people, is as much a hassle as it is a hustle for people of color. Often, it is dangerous. Occasionally, it is fatal. Alton Sterling was shot by police while selling CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, La. Eric Garner died by police chokehold, after being stopped for selling untaxed cigarettes.

I’ve been thinking about all the entrepreneurial black boys of summer as temp job season begins. And as we begin to debate, yet again, the merits of the minimum wage.

Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Maryland, and Oregon are set to raise their respective minimum wages on July 1 as part of ballot measures previously approved by voters.

The debate is always complex. Is it good or bad for low-income workers? Is it good or bad for people of color? Currently in the mix is a new analysis of the impact of the minimum wage increase in Seattle in 2015 and 2016. Though the move appears to have had little effect on restaurant workers, it may have lowered low-wage employees’ earnings by an average of $125 per month by encouraging employers to offer fewer hours. But an analysis of the Seattle study from the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, claims that bias in their methodology showed job losses when there really wasn’t any.

See? Complex.

Either way, as Fortune’s Grace Donnelly reports, the new, higher minimum wages are still not enough. "Even with these increases, the minimum wages remain at least 15% lower than the cost of living in each area, according to MIT’s living wage calculator, she writes.

But for two D.C. teens, it’s great news.

Nolan White, 16, and Devin Gatewood, 17 -- two of the teens handcuffed for selling water -- are now being trained to become iPhone technicians through a program called the H.O.P.E. project, which stands for “Helping Other People Excel.” Each year, about 150 people graduate from the program, which trains individuals in tech and support and helps place them in jobs. After he saw the photos of the incident online - thank you, Mr. Krepp - H.O.P.E. owner Raymond Bell contacted one of the mothers of the teens. As it turns out, they’d applied to the program last summer, but couldn’t get in.

So, for now, the debates on the minimum wage - and who gets to survive, much less thrive, in the informal economy - will continue. In the meantime, selling CDs, walking with Skittles, playing with toy guns, hawking loose cigarettes, and driving with a broken taillight remain, for some, activities punishable by extrajudicial execution.

When asked if he got into trouble when his mother picked him up from Park Police custody, Nolan White told The Washington Post, “She was happy that I was alive.”

On Point

White officer, possibly fearing for his life, accidentally shoots black off-duty colleague

The black officer, who was in his home at the time, rushed outside with his service weapon to help after shots were fired in an incident involving a stolen car. Approaching the scene, he was ultimately recognized by two officers and waved over, but another officer, just arriving, promptly fired at him, striking him in the arm. A lawyer for the black officer’s union said there is no sign in the police report that the shooting officer felt threatened. “So we have a real problem with that. But this has been a national discussion for the past two years. There is this perception that a black man is automatically feared.” The wounded officer is out of the hospital; the incident is raising new questions about the role of race in policing.

New York Times

Australia’s First Peoples demand justice and peace

John Eligon has become one of my must-read writers on race, and this lush, long read offers another reason why. Eligon recently traveled through Australia’s indigenous communities to explore their lives "post-colonization." He wondered whether any parallels might be drawn to other indigenous and communities of color around the world. You’ll recognize many of the difficult statistics: Australia’s First Peoples are imprisoned at higher rates, more likely to die by suicide, and suffer disproportionate levels of addiction and poverty. And yet, says Eligon, “I heard stories from dozens of indigenous Australians who shared the details of their lives with a mix of outrage, resignation and courage.” Many are calling for a new treaty with Australian government. Click through for some of the people he met. Eligon also worked with the  Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Foreign Correspondent” on a 60-minute documentary, which  airs online today.

New York Times

Another historical marker commemorating Emmett Till has been vandalized

Erected outside the former Bryant grocery on the Mississippi Freedom Trail in 2011, the Till sign has been almost entirely erased after someone scratched away much of its text and photographs. The defacement stings more than if it had been a stray bullet or a kick from a passing car, says Davis Houck, a member of the Emmett Till Memory Project. “This time, it’s more sinister because it’s carefully thought out. It’s not a defacing, but an erasing.” Sigh.

Clarion Ledger

How to get married in China

Even though young Chinese women are vastly outnumbered by men, they are under enormous pressure to find an acceptable mate. If they remain unmarried by age 27, the fear is they will become “leftover women.” In service of that pressing need, advice columnists are popping up online to help. Several have achieved celebrity status: Ayawawa is the online name of Yang Bingyang, an author, former model and Mensa member, who has some 2.8 million followers on Twitter-competitor Weibo. Yang is old school in her advice, which draws some harsh critique. “Our world has been hijacked by political correctness,” Yang told The New York Times. “I’m criticized for telling the truth about the differences between men and women.”

New York Times

The Woke Leader

Sherman Alexie is not going to be the Indian you expect

Anne Helen Petersen has written a terrific profile of Sherman Alexie, the arrogant, bold and funny writer and filmmaker  - who has 26 award-winning books under his belt – on the eve of the publication of his first true memoir. It’s about his mother Lillian, a woman he describes as “the lifeguard on the shores of Lake Fucked,” and who is wholly responsible for his survival on the grim Spokane, Wash. Reservation. “My mother was a great woman — but not a great mother,” he says. Alexie refused to be the “Indian you expect,” i.e. the one with braids and Native wisdom, full of humility and mystical yammering, he says. And that gets him into all sort of trouble – like regular death threats. One “[w]ho certainly doesn’t say 'fuck,' or talk about anti-gayness on the rez, or write a YA book that talks about masturbation. That Indian doesn’t live in a city and publicly criticize tribal politics,” writes Petersen. But he makes for a great profile subject.

Buzzfeed

Notes on food, family and revolutions big and small

Saadia Muzaffar is a technologist, advocate and one of the smartest, most loving humans I know. Follow her here.  She's also a beautiful writer. In this lovely, short essay, she walks through the careful steps required to make daal, a delicious lentil dish mastered by both her Nani and her mother. “Spread lentils on a rattan tray, surveying every single grain. Scan for tiny pebbles masquerading as lentils. Close your eyes.” The fastidiousness of the process reveals in some a secret rebellion, in others a quiet resignation. “Your mother’s daal: a well-constructed, post-colonial argument, checking off all the vagaries of politeness and repression,” she writes. Her mother’s mother daal, however, picked a different fight with the world. Which recipe does Muzaffar choose? Enjoy. Try not to hunger for a past that never was.

Dead Housekeeping

The lost history of the Confederate Flags

Harvard professor Sarah Lewis shares her research and personal story with the team at Race/Related. Turns out the Stars and Bars we’re so familiar with resulted from two years of work by Confederate leaders, who were trying to find an emblem that best represented their values: freedom for whites, slavery for blacks. “This rarely discussed history emerges from the work of Raphael P. Thian (1830-1911), who was in charge of transcribing Confederate records from the seized rebel archives in Richmond, Va., after the Confederacy’s surrender,” Lewis writes. The designs really do tell a dastardly tale. A must read.

New York Times

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