The most radical dehumanization of all is to keep living normally in this world etsi pauperes non darentur—as if the poor did not exist. —Jon Sobrino, quoted in The People’s Bible
What is it like where you live? Are the houses big, small? New, old? Do they look different from each other because they were individually built a century ago, or do they look the same, slapped up by a developer within this century? Or maybe they look the same because they were built by the government, lacking in both quality and imagination. What is it like having your home? Do you rent or own? Do you have a good interest rate or reasonable rent? Where’s the closest public housing complex or mixed-income development? What is the feeling people have about your neighborhood?
These things are important to think about, because when you move into a neighborhood, you’re making an unspoken agreement with the values of that neighborhood. How do our neighborhoods and its residents perpetuate inequalities and injustice, or how are they the victims of it? What is the history of your area? Does your neighborhood live as if the poor do not exist? And if so, how have the neighborhoods been structured to enable this radical dehumanization?
Let’s talk about home ownership, since that’s so often where these issues start. We think buying a home is a neutral act. We are taught it is the pinnacle of the American Dream. What we are not taught are the implications of such an act.
Buying a home brings up such topics as property values, property tax, racial make-up, and quality of schools. Generally speaking, the nicer the house, the greater the value, broader the tax base, better the schools, whiter the area, and stronger the inclination to view the neighborhood as normal, desirable, and worth defending.
But should this be normal and desirable? What harm do we perpetuate when we live our days merely pursuing and defending middle-class values? What part of God’s heart do we miss out on knowing when we live our lives not thinking about those He spent so much time talking about?
Last year the Obama administration unveiled a new plan to reduce segregation and inequality in neighborhoods through the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing HUD program. It not only requires cities to monitor and report on patterns of segregation, areas of poverty, and disparities in opportunity for fair housing, but also requires community participation, which “must include residents, and other interested members of the public,” every five years. The goal is to replace “segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns, transforming racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity.”
The reason a solution to this issue has to be federally designed and enforced is that local governments and citizens, by and large, aren’t doing it. Despite our American ideals of equality, justice, and democracy, Americans surprisingly are not too keen on actually living that way. It turns out that people who are richer and whiter do not want to live next to people who are poorer or browner. And when we tie school funding to property values, and combine that with a history that denied black citizens the ability to own a home and gain wealth in the same way as whites, we end up with incredible disparity in neighborhoods and the quality of schools.
Back in the ’40s, when Detroit was grappling with an exploding population because of an influx of black citizens coming north as part of The Great Migration, soldiers returning from the war, and a booming industrial sector, white people were adamant that black people would not live next to them, and also that government money would not be spent on housing them, period. Adding insult to injury, the federal government approved of and used redlining as a means of enforcing segregation, meaning that there were limited areas for black people to live.
“In cities like Detroit, social reformers and federal officials fought to erect public housing sufficient to meet the needs of those whom the market failed to serve. But public housing advocates were repeatedly stymied by homeowners who…demanded that the government privilege the stability of their homeownership, over and above its support for public housing.”
The reasoning the white people gave for their exclusion sounds very familiar:
“They feared that ‘our property would depreciate in value’ if a public housing project were constructed nearby.”
“‘The white population has come to believe that it has a vested, exclusive, and permanent ‘right’ to certain districts.’ The government, they believed, had an obligation to protect that ‘right’.”
Those kinds of attitudes aren’t exclusive to Detroit or the past, and they allow inequality to flourish. Do you know how those white residents made their views known? They sent letters to city hall. Hundreds of them. Thousands showed up to public hearing meetings. They took to the streets protesting (and rioting). They were actively involved in shaping public policy that would affect the city for decades to come.
Who is actively involved in shaping public policy in your town? Who is your city council listening to? Who shows up to public meetings to listen and speak? What is going on now that will have an impact thirty years down the road?
People generally show up to government meetings, like school board and planning commissions, when they are against something. Where are the people who show up for things like mixed-income developments and quality public housing? We need citizens advocating for good laws. Can we advocate for rent control? When it comes time to amend laws, codes, and zoning regulations, who is there to advocate for more inclusion and diversity? When cities begin the required tracking and reporting the disparity in income and race and holding the community meetings, who is going to be paying attention? Can we create a society where safe, quality homes and schools aren’t dependant on how much property tax you pay?
Instead of being citizens who live as if the poor do not exist, we can be known as people who advocate with them and for an end to their poverty. If not, we give the future of our neighborhoods over to those white and wealthy residents, who, for example, persistently write letters and show up to public meetings, saying that because they pay more money in property taxes, their opinions about city development and housing projects should be prioritized.
What would it look like if we took certain Bible verses seriously, such as “The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed” (Psalm 103:6) or “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (Proverbs 13:23)? What if we could transform our communities into places that sweep away no longer?
We live separated lives because our neighborhoods were designed to be separate. People who choose to be separated by race and class do so thinking nothing of it because our history has told us that it is normal, that is the way the world works. But that’s not the way it has to be. Can you imagine if thousands of people packed a city council meeting to advocate for rent control or increased school funding or public housing placed in wealthier neighborhoods? What could our communities look like?
If we take seriously God’s insistence throughout the Bible that the poor and oppressed deserve justice, then we have to address it in our own lives and communities. My husband works in city government, which is why I’ve become so insistent on citizen involvement. I’ve seen how important it is.
Here are a few ideas for how you can work to end inequality within our neighborhoods:
- Be involved. Get to know the work of your local nonprofits around the issues of inequality. Show up at local government meetings. Get to know the laws and codes on development and rent control. Let your elected officials and city employees know there are people who value inclusion and diversity in both race and class. Speak up against the people who fight for classism and racism.
- Learn the history behind your area. Where is the public housing and why? What are the stories behind the school boundaries? What is the racial makeup of the schools in your area?
- Stop being so invested in property values.
- Change something about your life to include more diversity. Change schools, churches, or houses.
I think the Bible speaks so much about oppression and inequality because it knows the world doesn’t have to be that way. And even though our neighborhoods may be places of deep inequality, they don’t have to stay that way.
We can be people who live as if the poor not only exist, but are fundamentally important to our lives.
*Quotes taken from Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)