Eviction vs. Conviction

We hear a lot about criminal justice in America and how it adversely affects the lives of black men in particular. A similar story should be told about housing in America and how it adversely affects the lives of black women. Lots of black men get convicted. Lots of black women get evicted.

Katha Pollitt’s 2016 review of “Evicted”, by Matthew Desmond, in The Guardian:

What if the dominant discourse on poverty is just wrong? What if the problem isn’t that poor people have bad morals – that they’re lazy and impulsive and irresponsible and have no family values – or that they lack the skills and smarts to fit in with our shiny 21st-century economy? What if the problem is that poverty is profitable? These are the questions at the heart of Evicted, Matthew Desmond’s extraordinary ethnographic study of tenants in low-income housing in the deindustrialised middle-sized city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

You might not think that there is a lot of money to be extracted from a dilapidated trailer park or a black neighbourhood of “sagging duplexes, fading murals, 24-hour daycares”. But you would be wrong. Tobin Charney makes $400,000 a year out of his 131 trailers, some of which are little better than hovels. Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher who is one of the only black female landlords in the city, makes enough in rents on her numerous properties – some presentable, others squalid – to holiday in Jamaica and attend conferences on real estate.

Desmond follows the intertwined fortunes of eight families and a host of minor characters. Arleen Belle and Doreen Hinkston are black mothers clinging to the edge of low-wage employment; Crystal and Trisha are fragile young black women whose upbringing was violent and chaotic; Lamar is a genial black father of two who lost both his legs to frostbite when he passed out on crack in an abandoned house; Scott is a white male nurse who lost his licence when he stole opioids from his patients; Larraine, also white, is a slightly brain-damaged sweet soul. It is sometimes a little hard to keep up with the storylines as they weave in and out of the text, but no matter. What is important is that Desmond takes people who are usually seen as worthless – there is even a trailer-dweller nicknamed Heroin Susie – and shows us their full humanity, how hard they struggle to retain their dignity, humour and kindness in conditions that continually drag them down.

The main condition holding them back, Desmond argues, is rent. The standard measure is that your rent should be no more than 30% of your income, but for poor people it can be 70% or more. After he paid Sherrena his $550 rent out of his welfare cheque, Lamar had only $2.19 a day for the month. When he is forced to repay a welfare cheque he has been sent in error and falls behind on rent, he sells his food stamps for half their face value and volunteers to paint an upstairs apartment, but it is not enough. People such as Lamar live in chronic debt to their landlord, who can therefore oust them easily whenever it is convenient – if they demand repairs, for example, like Doreen, or if a better tenant comes along. Sherrena liked renting to the clients of a for-profit agency that handles – for a fee – the finances of people on disability payments who can’t manage on their own. Money from government programmes intended to help the poor – welfare, disability benefits, the earned-income tax credit – go straight into the landlord’s pocket and, ironically, fuel rising housing costs. Public housing and housing vouchers are scarce. Three in four who qualify for housing assistance get nothing.

Even in the Great Depression, evictions used to be rare. Now, each year, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of renters are put out on the street. Even a paid-up tenant can be easily evicted. Arleen loses one apartment when her son Jori throws a snowball at a passing car and the enraged driver kicks in the front door, and another when the police come after Jori when he kicks a teacher and runs home. Any kind of trouble that brings the police can lead to eviction, which means women can lose their homes if they call 911 when their man beats them up. Think about that the next time someone asks why women don’t call the cops on violent partners.

As Desmond shows, the main victims of eviction are women. Why? They are paid less than men for doing the same job. They are less able to make deals with their landlord, who is almost always a man, to work off part of their rent with manual labour. The main reason, though, is that women are raising children as single mothers. They not only have all the costs and burdens of childrearing, they need bigger apartments – which, since landlords dislike renting to families with young children, are harder to find and a lot harder to keep. Other sociologists – Kathryn Edin, for example – have found that single mothers often get help under the table from their children’s fathers, but Arleen, Doreen and Doreen’s adult daughter Patrice get mostly trouble from men, who are variously abusive, addicted, vanished or in prison. In one of the book’s many small sad moments, Arleen claims she receives child support in order to seem more stable and respectable to a prospective landlord. In fact, she gets nothing.

Desmond lays out the crucial role housing plays in creating and reinforcing white privilege. In Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the US, all black people suffer from housing discrimination and all white people benefit at least a little from the racial dividend – a landlord who will rent to them but not to black people, for instance, or offer them a nicer apartment. Black people have the worst housing in the worst neighbourhoods – the great fear of the trailer-park people, who are all white, is that they will end up on the black side of town. Eviction hits black women hardest of all, and the bleak benches of housing courts, which deal with disputes between landlords and tenants, are full of black women and their children: “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighbourhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

An evicted woman watches as a removal company moves her property out of her rented apartment on to the pavement.
An evicted woman watches as employees of a storage company remove her belongings to place them on the pavement in front of her rented apartment. Photograph: Sally Ryan/Zuma Press/Corbis

What are the social costs of eviction? It puts incredible stress on families. It prevents people from saving the comparatively small sums that would let them stabilise their situation. They are always starting over from scratch, losing their possessions in the chaos of removal, or putting them in storage and losing them when they can’t pay the fees. An eviction on your record makes the next apartment harder to get. Eviction damages children, who are always changing schools, giving up friends and toys and pets – and living with the exhaustion and depression of their parents. We watch Jori go from a sweet, protective older brother to an angry, sullen boy subject to violent outbursts who is falling way behind in school.

Eviction makes it hard to keep up with the many appointments required by the courts and the byzantine welfare system: several characters have their benefits cut because notices are sent to the wrong address. Eviction destroys communities: when people move frequently, they don’t form the social bonds and pride in place that encourage them to care for their block and look out for their neighbours. “With Doreen’s eviction, Thirty-Second Street lost a steadying presence – someone who loved and invested in the neighbourhood, who contributed to making the block safer – but Wright Street didn’t gain one.”

“There is an enormous amount of pain and poverty in this rich land,” Desmond writes in his conclusion. That is easy to say, and many books by journalists and academics have done so. By examining one city through the microscopic lens of housing, however, he shows us how the system that produces that pain and poverty was created and is maintained. I can’t remember when an ethnographic study so deepened my understanding of American life.to all and safeguarding our independence.

Our Concentration Camps

I’ve found it very difficult to read about the way our government is treating refugees and children at the border. Without going into details, The Salt Lake Tribune, a newspaper in Utah, one of America’s most conservative states, describes the situation in an editorial entitled “Yes, We Do Have Concentration Camps”: 

Yes, we do have concentration camps.

They are not work camps. They are not death camps. At least, not on purpose. Our government is not building massive gas chambers and industrial crematoria. It is not conducting sick medical experiments on members of an unfavored class.

But that does not mean that the places into which we are herding tens of thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are not properly called concentration camps. Because that is precisely what they are.

When some in the public eye dare to tell that truth, as the media-savvy Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did the other day, enablers of the administration’s cruel policies cry foul. They say that using correct terms such as “concentration camps” — or, worse, invoking the term “Never again” — unfairly equates what is going on now at our southern border with the Nazis’ “Final Solution” — the deliberate murder of millions of people.

It is true that we are not doing that. We are doing this. The two are not morally equivalent. And we probably don’t have reason to fear that this is necessarily going to become that.

But, then, we never do.

Because that starts as this. Some of the people who study, and some of the people who survived or are descended from survivors of the Holocaust, are pointing out that that crime against humanity did not arrive overnight.

It worked its way up, from nasty political speeches (check) to politicians seeking and gaining power with promises to protect the purity of the nation from foreign invasion (check) to denying basic human rights and decency to people of an unfavored class (check).

The same warning is being raised by past residents of the internment camps — concentration camps — in which we confined Americans of Japanese origin or descent during the dark days of World War II.

The places where these tempest-tossed humans are being held are kept deliberately uncomfortable and largely out of view of the public, the press, members of Congress and even the courts. The whole point is to keep them beyond the reach of the rights and protections that, by our Constitution and international treaties, are afforded to all persons, not just citizens.

The people being held there are cold, hungry, dirty and often sick. Children are separated from parents. Children are caring for children. Medical care is not to be found. A few — not millions, but a few — have died.

The administration [in the person of a Department of Justice lawyer] actually told the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals the other day that it is under no obligation to provide refugee children with soap, toothbrushes or anywhere to sleep but cold cement floors in overcrowded cages. They’ve already cut off funding for education, counseling and recreation.

The argument that our government’s failings don’t matter because the migrants have broken the law is legally and morally bankrupt.

People have a moral right to seek a better life, and a legal right to seek asylum. If our border and immigration system isn’t up to the task, that’s not their fault, it is ours.

Federal officials, from the White House on down, work for us, spend our money, act in our name. We hold them to account, not the huddled masses. Complaining that we shouldn’t have to deal with this crisis is like carping that forests shouldn’t burn and rivers shouldn’t rise.

And what are the elected officials from Utah — home of a global church, the welcoming Utah Compact and a population generally decent when it comes to refugees — doing?

Well, Sen. Mitt Romney has a bill to boost the use of the E-Verify system that is supposed to tell employers if job applicants are legally allowed to work in the U.S. Not a bad idea, probably, but kind of like bringing a roll of paper towels to a hurricane.

Good, caring, moral Utahans, and their elected representatives, should be shouting bloody murder over this extended and deliberate abuse of human rights…

Our nation is operating concentration camps for refugee children. We need to stop denying that and decide if we are comfortable with that fact. And how we will explain it to our children.

The president and his administration have committed so many outrages that it is difficult to keep up. The barrage of corruption and cruelty can make decent people numb. When challenged on this atrocity, the president denies there’s a problem or blames the Democrats. When questioned, members of his cult blame the children’s parents. Democrats in the House of Representatives have passed legislation to fix the problem. Republicans in the Senate have refused to consider it. Last week, lawyers and a physician visited two of the camps in Texas and made news when the doctor compared them to “torture facilities”. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez made news when she called them “concentration camps”.

Maybe more Americans are now paying attention. Maybe that attention will be translated into meaningful action (including impeachment — how many grounds do we need?).

Charles Blow of The New York Times wrote his own piece this weekend under the title  “Trump’s Concentration Camps”:

Folks, we can use any form of fuzzy language we want, but the United States under Donald Trump is currently engaged in an unconscionable act. He promised to crack down on immigrants and yet under him immigrants seeking asylum have surged. And he is meeting the surge with indescribable cruelty. Donald Trump is running concentration camps at the border. The question remains: what are we going to do about it?

Of course, they’re not just Trump’s concentration camps. As the Salt Lake City editorial says, they’re ours now too. Is there any doubt that we need to act in order to shut them down?

Memorial Days

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. It’s one of three holidays we have for the military. Memorial Day honors those who died while serving in the armed forces. Veterans Day celebrates everyone who has served, including those serving now. Armed Forces Day, which hardly anyone knows about, only honors those currently serving. 

Two songs from an earlier time: 

More recently, the Vice President addressed the graduating class at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy:

It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life.  You will lead soldiers in combat.  It will happen.

Some of you will join the fight against radical Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Some of you will join the fight on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific, where North Korea continues to threaten the peace, and an increasingly militarized China challenges our presence in the region. Some of you will join the fight in Europe, where an aggressive Russia seeks to redraw international boundaries by force. And some of you may even be called upon to serve in this hemisphere.

Somehow, he left out Africa, where we already have troops in combat, the polar regions and the Moon, but give them time. There’s no chance we’ll run out of men and women to honor on future Memorial Days.

Not About the President, But Still Very Strange

From the Washington Post:

A recent uptick in sightings of unidentified flying objects — or as the military calls them, “unexplained aerial phenomena” — prompted the Navy to draft formal procedures for pilots to document encounters, a corrective measure that former officials say is long overdue.

As first reported by POLITICO, these intrusions have been happening on a regular basis since 2014. Recently, unidentified aircraft have entered military-designated airspace as often as multiple times per month, Joseph Gradisher, spokesman for office of the deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare, told The Washington Post on Wednesday.

Citing safety and security concerns, Gradisher vowed to “investigate each and every report.”

He said, “We want to get to the bottom of this. We need to determine who’s doing it, where it’s coming from and what their intent is. We need to try to find ways to prevent it from happening again.”

Luis Elizondo, a former senior intelligence officer, told The Post that the new Navy guidelines formalized the reporting process, facilitating data-driven analysis while removing the stigma from talking about UFOs, calling it “the single greatest decision the Navy has made in decades.”

Chris Mellon, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence and staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was less laudatory.

“I don’t believe in safety through ignorance,” he said, scolding the intelligence community for a lack of “curiosity and courage” and a “failure to react” to a strong pattern of sightings.

In some cases, pilots — many of whom are engineers and academy graduates — claimed to observe small spherical objects flying in formation. Others say they’ve seen white, Tic Tac-shaped vehicles. Aside from drones, all engines rely on burning fuel to generate power, but these vehicles all had no air intake, no wind and no exhaust.

“It’s very mysterious, and they still seem to exceed our aircraft in speed,” he said, calling it a “truly radical technology.”

According to Mellon, awestruck and baffled pilots, concerned that reporting unidentified flying aircraft would adversely affect their careers, tended not to speak up. And when they did, he said, there was little interest in investigating their claims.

“Imagine you see highly advanced vehicles, they appear on radar systems, they look bizarre, no one knows where they’re from. This happens on a recurring basis, and no one does anything,” said Mellon, who now works for To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences. Because agencies do not share this type of information, it is difficult to know the full extent of activity. Still, he estimated that dozens of incidents were witnessed by naval officers in a single year, enough to force the service to address the issue.

“Pilots are upset, and they’re trying to help wake up a slumbering system,” he told The Post.

In 2017, the Pentagon first confirmed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), a government operation launched in 2007 to collect and analyze “anomalous aerospace threats.” As The Post’s Joby Warrick reported, the investigation ranged from “advanced aircraft fielded by traditional U.S. adversaries to commercial drones to possible alien encounters”….

Elizondo, who ran the AATIP, said the newly drafted guidelines were a culmination of many things, most notably that the Navy had enough credible evidence — including eyewitness accounts and corroborating radar information — to “know this is occurring.”

“If I came to you and said, ‘There are these things that can fly over our country with impunity, defying the laws of physics, and within moments could deploy a nuclear device at will,’ that would be a matter of national security,” Elizondo said.

With the number of U.S. military personnel in the Air Force and Navy who described the same observations, the noise level could not be ignored.

“This type of activity is very alarming,” Elizondo said, “and people are recognizing there are things in our aerospace that lie beyond our understanding.”

PS: It’s time to impeach the bastard.

How Much Respect Do Authoritarians Deserve?

Someone recommended an article called “Authoritarianism Is Not a Momentary Madness, But an Eternal Dynamic Within Liberal Democracies”. It was written by two psychologists, Karen Stenner and Jonathan Haidt, and appears in a collection of essays called Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America, edited by Cass Sunstein. I read it. .

The thesis of the article comes in two parts. The first is that roughly one-third of Americans have an “authoritarian” personality. By this, they mean that a certain percentage of human beings consider values like uniformity and obedience to be extremely important.

Authoritarianism inclines one toward attitudes and behaviors … concerned with structuring society and social interactions in ways that enhance sameness and minimize diversity of people, beliefs and behaviors. It tends to produce a characteristic array of … stances, all of which have the effect of glorifying, encouraging and rewarding uniformity and disparaging, suppressing and punishing difference. Since enhancing uniformity and minimizing diversity [affects other people] and requires some control over their behaviors, ultimately these stances involve actual coercion of others (as in driving a black family from the neighborhood) and, more often, demands for the use of group authority (i.e., coercion by the state).

… Authoritarianism is far more than a personal distaste for difference. It becomes a normative worldview about the social value of obedience and conformity (versus freedom and difference), the prudent and just balance between group authority and individual autonomy. This worldview induces bias against different others (racial and ethnic outgroups, immigrants and refugees, radicals and dissidents, moral “deviants”), as well as political demands for authoritative constraints on their behavior. The latter will typically include legal discrimination against minorities and restrictions on immigration, limits on free speech and association, and the regulation of moral behavior (e.g., policies regarding abortion and homosexuality, and their punitive reinforcement) [184-185].

Personally, I don’t think this is an acceptable outlook on life. It sounds misguided, stupid, even immoral.

The authors don’t see it that way. They view the existence of a substantial subset of human beings with this personality type as a fact of life. It’s just the way some people are. One of the authors, Linda Stenner, puts it this way in the first sentence of her book, The Authoritarian Dynamic: “Some people will never live comfortably in a liberal democracy”. By “liberal democracy”, she means a nation like ours, a “nation of immigrants”, in which we, the majority at least, celebrate individual freedoms (as stated, for example in a “Bill of Rights”) and the diversity of our fellow citizens.

This brings me to the second part of the authors’ thesis. They argue that the rest of us should treat the authoritarian minority’s views with more respect.

Democratic enthusiasts and multiculturalists sometimes make the mistake of thinking we are [all] evolving [into] more perfect democratic citizens. This is why the populist “wave” strikes many observers as a momentary madness that “comes out of the blue”, and why the sentiments that seem to fuel these movements are often considered merely the products of frustration, hatred, and manipulation by irresponsible populist leaders — certainly not serious, legitimate preferences that a democracy must attend to.

When authoritarians raise concerns about, say, the rates or sources of immigration, they are not actually saying “I’m scared I might lose my job”, but in fact, “This is making me very uncomfortable and I don’t like where our country is headed”. Moreover, “Nobody will let me say so, and only [this Trump-like figure] is listening to me”. Our sense is that if Trump had not come along, a Trump-like figure would have materialized eventually….

The gleeful reactions of Trump’s supporters to his “strongman” posturing attested to their anger and bitterness regarding the “political correctness” of the “liberal elite”, and the pleasure they seemed to derive from watching someone like “us” finally sticking it to “them” [211-213].

All right. It’s pretty clear that a third of our fellow Americans are uncomfortable living in a liberal democracy and would prefer that more of us looked and behaved like they do. In practical terms, what should the rest of us do about it?

In the case of immigration, the authors suggest that current immigration policy doesn’t take into account that millions of Americans, the authoritarians among us, would prefer less immigration or more tightly-controlled immigration.

If citizens say they’re concerned about the rate of immigration, we ought to at least consider the possibility they they’re concerned about the rate of immigration [and not racists]….Common sense and historical experience tell us that there is some rate of newcomers into any community that is too high to be sustainable… some newcomers are more difficult to integrate than others… some might, accordingly, need to be more carefully selected, or more heavily supported…. Ignoring these issues is not helpful to either the hosts or the newcomers. It is implausible to maintain that the host community can successfully integrate any kind of newcomer at any rate whatsoever, and it is unreasonable to assert that any other suggestion is racist [213-214].

One problem with this paragraph is that hardly anyone, nobody in Congress anyway, maintains that we should allow in “any kind of newcomer at any rate whatsoever”. To claim otherwise is to adopt the Republican lie that Democrats are in favor of “open borders”. The fact is that we already have lots of border security and many restrictions on who can live here. The debate concerns the amount and type of border security and the number of people who should be allowed to immigrate, from which countries, and with which restrictions, as well as what to do with immigrants who don’t have permanent resident status (“green cards”).

Another problem is that the authors suggest there is a golden mean that will be broadly acceptable to the American people, whether they have authoritarian personalities or not: “Frank consideration of these matters is the key to broad acceptance of immigration policy” [214]. It isn’t clear at all that opponents of immigration, especially immigration from the president’s “shithole countries”, would approve of immigration policy that is acceptable to the majority of the population. All authoritarians may not be racists, but a good percentage of them must be. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so uncomfortable with people who are “different”. Seriously, isn’t being uncomfortable with masses of people because they don’t look like you or speak your language a pretty good definition of “racist”. So what kind of immigration policy would be acceptable to the average authoritarian Trump supporter, racist or not, and how would it differ from current policy?

If there is one thing we could do in order to foster broader acceptance of immigration policy, it would be to make the facts about immigration clear to more people. Having a president who constantly lies about immigration and immigrants doesn’t help. Neither does having “news” channels that broadcast those lies over and over. If more people knew how legal immigration works and understood the facts regarding illegal immigration, we might achieve broader approval of immigration policy. But it will never be possible to convince large numbers of people who are made uncomfortable by “difference” that a reasonable immigration policy is a good idea. We should be able to live with that, however, as long as we have elections and our representatives do their jobs.

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The Battle of the Bands

Brian Wilson has a website. On that site, there are music lovers who have been playing a game for the past nine years. It’s called “The Battle of the Bands”. Someone posts videos for four songs. Usually there is a theme that ties the songs together. People then rank the four songs. They also post their own videos. There is discussion. It’s almost always very polite. Each battle lasts one week. You have to register on the site in order to participate. It’s free and nobody will bother you with annoying advertisements or solicitations. The whole thing is kind of fun.

Oh, one of the four songs has to have a connection to Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys. 

This week’s battle is called “It’s Over”. These are the four songs.

The Everly Brothers — “Crying inthe Rain” (1962). Co-written by Carole King.

The Miracles — “Ooo Baby Baby”(1965). Co-written, produced and sung by Smokey Robinson.

Neil Young — “Like a Hurricane”(1977). This is a live version from 1982. The studio version is equally long. 

The Beach Boys — “I Just Wasn’tMade For These Times” (1966). Co-written with Tony Asher. It’sthe end of innocence? optimism? faith in one’s fellow human beings?


In case you’d like to visit and maybe even participate, please go here. The people who do participate are very nice and will thank you for showing up.

(Plus, we rarely discuss politics. Although it’s sometimes hard to resist, considering the present situation.)