More random thoughts of a serious nature: crime, urbanization and other social ills (part I)

When I started work on this series I didn’t think it would be a monthly thing. I was thinking more weekly. There is a certain momentum to be built up with more regular posts. However, my life is such that weekly posts are a tad beyond my reach right now. So monthly will have to do.

We talk a lot about crime these days, and it’s with a kind of despair. We’re quick to lay blame all over the place: it’s the fault of the party in power; it’s the fault of “illegal immigrants”; it’s the fault of “broken homes“; it’s the fault of inner city young men who have to be rescued from themselves.

There’s also a sense of fatality in the discussion, because what, after all, can we do (a) to change the party in power in the middle of its term (and, indeed, change the party in power to what? to whom?); (b) to stem the tide of illegal immigration; or (c) to change the fact that “80 per cent of students live in a home where their mother is the head of the household, where there is no father or father figure”? We are trying to use tough love and shock tactics to rescue the young men, and no doubt there will be results from that programme—potentially both good and bad—but without longterm, sustained, incremental changes such interventions will be short-lived and may backfire in the end. And to tell the truth, I think we know this. And so, wherever we turn, real hope is in short supply.

But let’s put the situation in some perspective. We are living in a society where over the past forty to fifty years, there has been explosive growth. This growth has taken many forms, but perhaps what is most critical is the massive growth in population, coupled with gross urbanization, which has concentrated between two-thirds and three-quarters of our entire population in one small point, the Bahamian capital of Nassau. The fact that Nassau is built on New Providence, one of our smaller islands, compounds the issue; according to the Bahamas Department of Statistics, the population density in New Providence was 3079.1  people per square mile in 2010. When you consider that New Providence, moreover, is unevenly populated, and that the city of Nassau takes up two-thirds of the island, this increases the number of people per square mile in the urban areas even more.

I’ve suggested before that this simple fact can be regarded as part—and in my opinion, a large part—of the cause of the problems we are having. The concentration of people in the capital, with the resultant population density, is responsible in many ways for the myriad social issues we are facing today. The responses to my suggestion were swift and, as far as that went, fair; that there are places on earth that are more densely populated than Nassau which do not have the attendant social problems. There is something to this, but what is missing from this objection is that the people who made it failed to account for what I believe to be the salient difference between Nassau and (say) New York City, or Hong Kong, or Singapore. Let’s take New York City—Manhattan to be precise—first of all. The Manhattan of the twenty-first century was not always the pleasant, relatively crime-free, attractive city that some of us may know. The Manhattan of the 1970s and 1980s was eerily like the Nassau of the 21st century: high crime, crumbling inner city communities, racial and social tensions, police brutality, gnawing poverty in the centre, startling—and terrified—wealth on the edges. Something was done to make Manhattan a safer, cleaner place; the problem was studied and very specific solutions were implemented, with the result that the city was transformed.

Or let’s take Singapore. In 1965, at the moment of its establishment as an independent nation, that city-state faced more challenging issues than we do today: poor housing, proliferating squatter settlement, high unemployment, poor sanitation, escalating crime. Once again, the transformation into the clean and orderly place we like to romanticize was not accidental. It was part of a social and economic campaign that recognized the issues and took steps to ameliorate them.

Or, more striking still, let’s take London or Paris of the nineteenth century. Victorian London was grimy, crime-ridden, violent, and diseased; contemporary Paris was all that, and politically unstable. And a large part of the reason for the turbulence of the time was that both countries had experienced the kind of shift in population and its consequences that The Bahamas has in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Owing to the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century, European cities like Paris and London became centres of population for the first time in their histories. (Before the industrial revolution, most people in Europe inhabited the countryside; after the industrial revolution, the population had shifted to urban centres.) Like The Bahamas over the past fifty to a hundred years, both cities experienced the kind of growth that no one had ever dreamed about, much less planned for. The industrial revolution changed the economies of Europe, concentrating wealth and power on factories where both had previously rested in the land. Factories demanded labourers and paid wages for their services, and the lives of ordinary English and French men, women and children were being transformed by the possibility of earning cash. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into those cities in consequence. Of course, as is the case with urbanization everywhere, the dream was more potent than the reality, and the influx of people to the cities brought about more misery and instability than anyone could have imagined.

We have only to look at the work of Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens to see that the issues that plague The Bahamas today are not unique, are not congenital, and are not unresolvable. But where these examples differ from ours is instructive. Let me list those differences, as I see them.

1) In every case, to approach a solution, the issues were looked at dispassionately.

2) The people crafting the solutions were part of the societies in question, and their success or failure to find those solutions impacted them.

3) The entities implementing the solutions had specific responsibility for the implementation and the outcome of the solutions.

I’m going to take these one by one, though not all in the same article. The rest of this post will focus on the question of dispassionate approaches to problem-solving.

Dispassionate Approaches: the value of empiricism

With regard to dispassionate approaches and the value of engaging in them, let us take the European situation first of all. The social turbulence of the nineteenth century led to the establishment of specific areas of study that we take for granted today; disciplines such as sociology, criminology and psychology were the response by thinking citizens to the challenges of their times. They were not called the social “sciences” for nothing; the idea that lay behind their establishment was clear. If the scientific method, when applied to the material world, could transform that world by harnessing energy, creating machines to do more work than humans ever could, or developing vehicles that travelled further and faster than legs could take one, whether they be the legs of humans, oxen, or horses, then it could also transform the social world when used in the same way to study society. And what was key to the process were the principles that underpinned the scientific method: the use of empirical evidence to understand the world, and then the application of that understanding to change it.

So what do we mean by empirical evidence? It’s information collected about a situation that is both objective and verifiable. It’s information that is also as accurate as it can be, given the tools that one has at one’s disposal. And it is information that is relevant to the situation at hand—not information borrowed from someone else’s time or place.

What’s perhaps most striking about this method is that it depends on evidence that is collected in a way that we might find unusual in our own Bahamian context, where “knowledge” is synonymous with opinion, political preference, sensationalism, guesswork, superstition, and prejudice. Let’s take the question of “illegal” immigrants as an example. Just how many such individuals exist in our country today? We hear all kinds of outrageous claims. Some people say 90,000. Some believe it’s more. But there is an empirical study, conducted 10 years ago, that gives a baseline for the number of Haitian immigrants in The Bahamas (at that time roughly 30,000 people). It was a study that was conducted not only on New Providence, but also in selected Family Islands, and the figure it gives is much lower. What is more, there is another empirical study, the all-Bahamas census, that corroborates the findings of the 2004-5 IOM report and suggests that some 39,000, or 11%, of our population is made up of Haitian “nationals”.

But the empiricist would point out that even this figure is flawed, because we are dealing with faulty definitions. What do we mean by “illegal immigrant” anyway? Most often, we mean people from Haiti. But not all people from Haiti are in The Bahamas illegally. Many have permission to live and work here; several are permanent residents, having worked for and paid for that status; and several others are legitimate citizens. But we also often muddy the waters by including the Bahamian-born children of Haitian immigrants in the mix as well—an issue that is extremely problematic, given the fact that many of us also consider the fact of being “born here” as conferring “Bahamian” status (unless, of course, one of your parents came from Haiti). To date, the only recent report that has attempted to deal with this issue remains the IOM Report, which attempted to survey Haitians in The Bahamas regardless of their status. And so we do not know what we mean when we say “illegal immigrants” are responsible for our social ills.

Let’s go back to the question that we started with, then: the idea of escalating crime in The Bahamas (by which we mean mostly in Nassau), and the common habit of blaming this crime on the “Haitian element”. If we were to study the issue dispassionately, using empirical evidence, we would discover that the common position in this case is just plain wrong, according to every set of statistics we can find collected by different agencies. Here I’ll be referring to three such sets: statistics collected by police, statistics collected by the prison, and statistics collected by the College of The Bahamas. As far as murder is concerned, between 2005 and 2009, the number of murder suspects categorized as being of “Haitian” ethnicity corresponds fairly closly to the official number of people classified as “Haitian nationals” according to 2010 the census: 12%. For the prison population, the number of people incarcerated who were born in Haiti is between 2% and 3%—a far cry from the official figure of 11% of the population. The popular correlation of “illegal immigrants” with escalating criminal activity is, quite simply, wrong. According to every set of statistics we have at our disposal, it is “tru-tru” Bahamians who commit most of the crime from which we suffer.

The sooner we admit this as fact, then, the sooner we can find solutions which might make a difference. For it stands to reason that if our assumptions are so wrong, then maybe many of the other assumptions that we spout so freely—like the ideas that “broken homes” contribute to crime, or that unemployment does, or even the involvement of women in the workforce—are wrong as well. And if our assumptions are wrong, then our proposed solutions are very likely going to be ineffective. The more we bandy about ideas that are poorly researched, cobbled together from “gut” feelings (which may well translate simply as prejudice), or, worse, come from pathological partisan politics, we run the risk not only of not fixing the problems, but of making them worse.

So let’s go back to my contention that what we are experiencing today is the result of the rapid social changes that have taken place over the past 50 years, and the slow response of our social institutions to those changes. A dispassionate review of the situation will enable us (a) to identify the extent and type of the changes; (b) seek and identify root causes of social ills; and (c) craft responses that are relevant and have some chance of succeeding as a result, freeing us from the bigotry, partisan politics, and knee-jerk reactions that currently characterize our proposed solutions. It will also help to give us hope. For if others have faced similar problems and solved them, then we can do so as well.


*featured photo taken from 2006 Winston V. Saunders’ You Can Lead A Horse To Water in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photo by Eric Rose.

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