Semuels: Another argument you make is that it is sometimes morally acceptable for the poor to refuse to participate in the labor market. What is it about the construction of modern ghettos that makes you argue that the jobless there should not necessarily seek out legitimate work?
Shelby: In a just society I believe that each of us has a civic duty, to contribute something to the maintenance of our society. But I think if economic deprivation is severe enough, and if the only jobs available are low-paying, menial, and stigmatizing, then it can be justified to refuse to contribute as a form of dissent, as a form of registering your dissatisfaction with the way economic relations are structured.
I don't mean to suggest that everybody that refuses to work has any high-minded principles in mind. They may or may not. I think that probably some do, and that's something that can be signaled to others who might feel similarly. You could certainly imagine other economic regimes where we would think that if people refused to work it wouldn't be unjustified, such as the cases of slavery and serfdom.
Semuels: Exploitative conditions, you argue, make permissible actions that otherwise would not be permissible. I think that you talk about shoplifting or joining a gang. In what types of conditions are lawless activities acceptable?
Shelby: It may seem radical, but I do think some transgressions of legal property claims can be a justified form of political dissent. We construct a set of economic entitlements and property claims in a way that's fair to everybody that's participating in this society. But there are ways of constructing those entitlements that are unfair. If they're sufficiently unfair, then refusing to respect people's conventional claims to those resources might be justified.
I don't think that people should do it out of spite or do it just to gain status and leisure items for themselves. But if they refuse to participate in a labor market, then there's still going to be the question of how to make a living. Often that means participating in an underground economy. They might do that simply out of economic need, but they might do that partly as a transgressive, politically-motivated act.
That might make permissible some economic crimes, some economic lawlessness in the ways that don't impact the already unjustly disadvantaged.
Semuels: Kind of like Robin Hood.
Shelby: Yeah, it could be that. I suppose you might be doing it to help others, but you might be doing it to help yourself. You might be doing it just as a way to communicate something about how you regard the prevailing economic relations, a way of kind of denouncing them.
Semuels: What’s the role of poor residents in rethinking their surroundings? What should they be doing?
Shelby: During the turn from the mainstream civil-rights movement to black power in the late ‘60s, I think there was a fair amount of agreement on the importance of regarding the black urban poor as political agents in their own right, as people to work with in changing things. It's a belief that ordinary people can participate in changing their society. We've really moved away from that picture of engagement.