Exploitation, black exceptionalism in the lens of ‘Evicted’ and ‘The New Jim Crow’

Poor for a Minute
8 min readSep 17, 2016

In an age in which our focus is so often relentlessly individual in nature, two recent books that combine great writing with social science discipline suggest how powerful a fresh look at American society as a whole can really be.

Your individual life, your success or failure, is up to you, the drumbeat goes. We see this often in media, in our gaze upon celebrities, entertainment stars, top athletes and politicians. As Angela Davis pointed out in a speech in Milwaukee years ago, even our focus on collective action such as the civil rights movement tends to dwell on the leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Davis herself . Rarely do we look at or listen to the Alabama “church ladies” and other community-wide forces that give these individuals their power.

Our collective, societal dynamics and policies must not escape our gaze, however; they have much to teach us. In these two books, the ways in which we Americans treat our poorest brothers and sisters, our African American citizens, is scrutinized with a breathtakingly honest, level-headed gaze.

“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” a 2016 book by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, and “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” a 2010 landmark by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, are two works that have the power to revolutionize a reader’s thinking about poverty and race. If enough people absorb these teachings, they may help to create movements that will impact the unjust American landscape they describe.

Set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my former hometown, but every bit as relevant to Portland or any major American city, Evicted tells the story of the ways in which the evictions are a cause, not merely a condition, of poverty, and can harshly affect the lives of thousands of poor individuals, families and communities across the U.S.

It’s not exactly about homelessness; it’s about individuals and families on the next rung or two up the ladder, but falling, who shuttle from place to place, trying to get it together, but constantly being tossed out on their ear. However, it would not be a stretch to say that the book makes a powerful argument for what advocates of greater funding for housing programs for homeless people call “housing first” policies.

“America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family and your community,” Desmond writes. “But this is only possible if you have a stable home.”

“The persistence and brutality of American poverty can be disheartening, leaving us cynical about solutions,” Desmond writes. “But as Scott and Patrice will tell you, a good home can serve as the sturdiest of footholds.”

Desmond’s book follows the lives of several black families in Milwaukee’s central city “ghetto,” as well as several white families in a trailer park on the south side of the city. Scott and Patrice’s stories are heartbreaking, and unforgettable. Its well-written prose flows more like a magazine or newspaper story than stuff, dry academic research — no small feat for a work of sociology (and I’m speaking as someone who has spent hundreds of hours in classes with names like Sociological Thought & Theory). But that combines with Desmond’s deeply-sourced research and hundreds of footnotes, themselves fascinating reads and placing the book within the 150-year-long pantheon of sociology’s greatest works.

Desmond finds that a property management industry grown fat since the 1950s, which includes small “mom and pop” landlords as well as large property management firms, and an entire tapestry of actors ranging from court clerks to sheriff’s deputies to moving companies and storage companies to power companies ensure that the lives of many of our poorest neighbors become a traumatic cycle of eviction after eviction.

“Exploitation. Now there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate,” Desmond writes in the epilogue. “It is a word that speaks to the fact that poverty is not just a product of low incomes. It is also a product of extractive markets.”

Eviction has been largely ignored for years by social scientists, journalists and policymakers, Desmond finds, “making it one of the least studied processes affecting the lives of poor families. But new data and methods have allowed us to measure the prevalence of eviction and document its effects. We have learned that eviction is commonplace in poor neighborhoods and that it extracts a heavy toll on families, communities and children.”

Recently, in Oregon, local policymakers have been speaking more forcefully against eviction and in favor of “just cause” tenant rights and rent stabilization measures.

In a watershed moment in the battle for tenant rights in Oregon, House Speaker Tina Kotek spoke forcefully in a September 12 speech that assailed “developers and property owners [who] are excessively benefitting from this crisis.”

“Our housing crisis is a man-made emergency that demands bold action,” Kotek said at Oregon Opportunity Network’s annual dinner. “We need to reset the scales and pass policies that will help prevent homelessness, protect tenants, preserve the affordable housing we have, and increase the housing stock going forward.”

Just as heavy a toll on our communities and nation is taken by the “new Jim Crow” system of mass incarceration of African-Americans, mostly men, and mostly based in convictions for comparatively minor offenses like marijuana possession, Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” shows us.

Whereas Desmond’s meticulous research makes an ironclad argument for reforming systems that evict poor families and rip apart communities, while also calling for repairs in the social “safety net,” Alexander’s book calls for a new social movement to finally being to be honest about and start to end the mass incarceration of our black and brown skinned brothers and sisters.

For that to happen, she says, we have to begin to see clearly what has been hiding in plain sight: young black Americans are being segregated into a criminal justice pipeline in numbers that can’t be explained away by higher rates of criminal behaviors.

In fact, she argues persuasively, a system of ill-conceived and corrupt laws, court systems that don’t care, prosecutors with too much power, police officers accustomed to enforcing laws more in black neighborhoods, a prison-industrial complex, affirmative action policies and a black elite too willing to see black presidents as evidence of sufficient racial equality contribute to a new kind of Jim Crow.

Alexander’s book is, among other things, an evisceration of the United States Supreme Court’s refusal to be courageous, and the sad way in which the SCOTUS decisions serve as the crown to a system that disproportionately locks up young black males.

The whole edifice, Alexander finds, came into being partly as a cynical political strategy to woo Southern white voters — a disturbing piece of political history echoed by the excellent 2016 HBO biographical drama “All The Way,” featuring Bryan Cranston, the former lead actor in “Breaking Bad.”

African-Americans are segregated and defined as de facto criminals by this new Jim Crow system, which came into being in a shockingly rapid fashion during the 1980s, Alexander argues.

In essence, she says, all of us Americans now think of a black man when they think of criminality.

Meanwhile, a journalistic and media focus on “black exceptionalism” policies like affirmative action — rather than the incarceration of black people, mostly males, at the highest rates in the entire world — helps to sell this falsehood to an all-too-willing U.S. public.

“In short, mass incarceration is predicated on the notion that an extraordinary number of African Americans (but not all) have freely chosen a life of crime and thus belong behind bars,” she writes. “A belief that all blacks belong in jail would be incompatible with the social consensus that we have ‘moved beyond’ race and that race is no longer relevant. But a widespread belief that a majority of black and brown men unfortunately belong in jail is compatible with the new American creed, provided that their imprisonment can be interpreted as their own fault. If the prison label imposed on them can be blamed on their culture, poor work ethic, or even their families, then society is absolved of responsibility to do anything about their condition.”

“This is where black exceptionalism comes in,” Alexander continues. “Highly visible examples of black success are critical to the maintenance of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. Black success stories lend credence to the notion that anyone, no matter how poor or how black you may be, can make it to the top, if only you try hard enough. These stories ‘prove’ that race is no longer relevant.”

Alexander takes time to note a 2002 University of Washington study of racially-based policing in Seattle that she sees as of national importance.

“In 2002, a team of researchers at the University of Washington decided to take the defenses of the drug war seriously, by subjecting the arguments to empirical testing in a major study of drug-law enforcement in a racially mixed city — Seattle. The study found that, contrary to the prevailing ‘common sense,’ the high arrest rates of African Americans in drug-law enforcement could not be explained by rates of offending; nor could they be explained by other standard excuses, such as the ease and efficiency of policing open-air drug markets, citizen complaints, crime rates, or drug-related violence. The study also debunked the assumption that white drug dealers deal indoors, making their criminal activity more difficult to detect.

“The authors found that it was untrue stereotypes about crack markets, crack dealers and crack babies — not facts — that were driving discretionary decision making by the Seattle Police Department.”

If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention, the old saying goes. Maybe it’s true, at least in the United States of America in 2016. The truth about America shown to us by Desmond and Alexander is that inequality and poverty and racial caste systems have deep roots here that can’t be easily erased, or easily explained away.

Can anyone lift themselves from humble status to become middle class, or rich, in today’s America?

The statistic used to be one in ten Americans who made a significant upward leap in social stability, but that was in the halcyon days,

These days, if you believe the media, and recent sociological studies, it’s getting harder to move up in America.

Think poor people have themselves to blame for their hunger, tent life, their threadbare clothes or inability to just, well, make it?

Think that help-via-smart-phone-app is really helping anyone?

Take a look at the system Desmond shows us, into which millions of children are born, where families are displaced every day by a system that doesn’t seem to give a fuuuk, as John Oliver might say about Janice in accounting.

Think black people aren’t being systematically deprived of their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, that they’re in prison because they deserve to be?

Sit and squirm while beholding the truth-telling and racial decoding in Alexander’s unflinching analysis.

Perhaps I got it wrong. Email me at poorforaminute@gmail.com.

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Poor for a Minute

We are all poor due to the broken social safety net in the United States, the world’s richest nation. Portfolio, bio, contact: ThacherSchmid.com