On Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

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As unreliable as memory can be, some things never leave you. When my mother and I were locked out of apartments and houses when I was a little girl, I do not remember the times or the dates, but I remember loss. I remember my favorite pink bunny sweater, the one with miniature white bunnies with green sunglasses printed on the inside of the sleeves – trashed – along with the only picture of my brother Jose my mother had in her possession, my namesake, who died a year or so before I was born.

The blue house in Chester where I spent the first 6 years of my life with my mother and the street and the giant tree in the front yard have all stayed with me. I only remember that the water was shut off and we had to use the bathroom and kitchen sink at our neighbor Kim’s house, nothing more. The bank probably took that house, but I don’t know the details, then we moved to New York, to live with relatives.

Our first eviction was not the locked door on our own apartment, but a loving push into the winter by older relatives who could not care for a kid and her mentally ill mother in a building for old folks. So, we went to a shelter that would later be condemned, Roberto Clemente, an open gymnasium floor with cots side by side like the site of natural disaster. One morning, as I ate breakfast, a roach in my cereal made it impossible to keep eating.

We were evicted by strangers a year or so after that. It became such a regular occurrence that I remember feeling that God was ignoring our prayers, punishing us for something I couldn’t name. I also remember feeling that I had inherited what Matthew Desmond describes in his powerfully affecting book, Evicted, a “traumatic rejection” of myself and human dignity.

My things were inside of the apartments we were evicted from,  but they were no longer mine. If I could not belong to this place, this home, and I could not have my things, as few of them as there were, who was I? Why did I matter?

I have carried these questions around with me for more than three decades, trying to make sense of how difficult it is for me to be settled, to relax. To be able to put any kind of rejection in perspective instead of feeling the familiar overwhelming sadness that can overtake my spirit.

I remember the locations – Burnside Avenue, the lower East Side of Manhattan, Tiebout Avenue, Daly. There are a couple of displacements that I can’t recall. Over time, they have all accumulated into a single wound that has scabbed over. It is a wound that I sometimes look at, acknowledge and write about. I have picked at it over the years so it has not fully healed.

Reading this book was a way for me to bandage it, to give it the attention it has needed to stop haunting me. 

I read a lot about poverty, because I try to understand it from an intellectual distance. The feelings that it invokes in me make me nauseous, uncomfortable, drained. This is because extreme poverty is psychological assault. It is emotionally gutting and transformative is the worst ways. What Desmond captures in this seminal book explains perfectly that if we believe in fairness and extending human dignity to the poor where we have to start is looking at the importance and availability and affordability of housing.

He writes about families that are mostly black and poor though he does include whites. He writes about landlords in roach-infested apartments and houses where sinks are broken and conditions are filthy and sometimes dangerous; trailer park owners and managers who are largely apathetic about the ways in which they exploit the poor to make money. Desmond writes: 

Families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. Today, the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. Millions of Americans are evicted every year because they can’t make rent.

Millions of Americans, though we don’t know how many millions because no one really ever studies or writes about eviction, was an astounding phrase to read at this age. That means that millions of Americans experience the shame that comes with not having enough for even a basic, fundamental need.

For decades, we’ve focused mainly on jobs, public assistance, parenting and mass incarceration. No one can deny the importance of these issues, but something fundamental is missing. We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.

The thing about shame is that it is isolating. It feels like you are part of a targeted, afflicted minority. The shame invoked by poverty in particular does not feel widespread when you are experiencing it. So to read that millions are affected every year was a revelation. It helped me put the old pain of internalizing the trauma of eviction in perspective. To let that part of me die.

There were sections of the book that deepened my understanding of other things, too. Here’s another passage:

Larraine threw money away because she was poor…People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps. If Larraine spent her money unwisely, it was not because her benefits left her with so much but because they left her with so little.

It is one thing to understand our parents and to give them grace as we grow older for things that we previously did not understand the fullness of — slights, or things we were deprived of, or ways that they were short and stern with us when we needed them to be different. It’s another to see, through the lives of others, the full view of everything that they had to endure.

Reading the phrase “compounded limitations” made me pause and reflect on the limited evidence I used to judge my mother for the challenges she faced when I was growing up. That’s probably true for all kids, but I think I also failed to implicate poverty instead of or in addition to her bipolar and borderline personality disorders. I just didn’t understand the full spectrum of everything that she faced and had to cope with without medication and without a support system. I did not know about everything that we survived together.

Desmond’s book is an authentic achievement in several ways. He illuminates the face of deep, traumatic poverty with the deft ability of a gifted writer and a skilled ethnographer and sociologist. He does not try to ignore or apologize for white privilege and ways that it impacted his reporting, writing and research. He does not write with pity, but with respect. He is abundantly clear and honest and unequivocal about the importance of the problem over his own personal inconveniences or narratives or notions.

It is an approach that, to me, as an adult survivor of extreme poverty and eviction in childhood is deeply affirming, healing and moving. There are few accounts of poverty that I have read that explain the far reaching psychological effects of eviction and extreme poverty on one’s person. Here is how Desmond puts it:

Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit. The violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide. One in two recently evicted mothers reports multiple symptoms of clinical depression, double the rate of similar mothers who were not forced from their homes. Even after years pass, evicted mothers are less happy, energetic, and optimistic than their peers. When several patients committed suicide in the days leading up to their eviction, a group of psychiatrists published a letter in Psychiatric Services, identifying eviction as a ‘significant precursor of suicide.’ The letter emphasized that none of the patients were facing homelessness, leading the psychiatrists to attribute the suicides to eviction itself. ‘Eviction must be considered a traumatic rejection,’ they wrote, ‘a denial of one’s most basic human needs and an exquisitely shameful experience.’ Suicides attributed to evictions and foreclosures doubled between 2005 and 2010, years when housing costs soared.

And then this:

Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition of poverty…Eviction affects the old and the young, the sick and able-bodied. But for poor women of color and their children, it has become ordinary. Walk into just about any urban housing court in America, and you can see them waiting on hard benches for their cases to be called. Among Milwaukee renters, over 1 in 5 black women report having been evicted in their adult life, compared with 1 in 12 Hispanic women and 1 in 15 white women.

That he acknowledges the importance of home in the construction of the self, in how we are in the world and connects the brokenness of our American housing system as a way that continues to keep black women and their children shut out of the personal edification that is essential to participation in public life is what moves me most.

I was heartbroken to see Martin Luther King Jr. quoted here, saying “Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.” Desmond expounds on this by reminding us that exploitation is a word “that has been scrubbed out of poverty debate.”

For the poor, he goes on to explain, grossly overpriced items like, say, Payday loans, are not for luxury but for the basics we need. Also, housing vouchers are currently overpriced simply because landlords are allowed to overcharge voucher holders. The nationwide Housing Choice Voucher Program likely costs “not millions but billions of dollars more than it should, resulting in the unnecessary denial of help to hundreds of thousands of families.”

What made me so nauseous reading the book was how easy it is to recognize that there are many ways to avoid the suffering of the poor and the deep psychological and economic despair that poverty inflicts on the poor. But we live in a society that is skilled at looking away and ignoring the problem. Because poverty does not affect the powerful. It is not a sexy cause. It does not impact every one of us equally so we choose not to care.

I was obsessed with this book as soon as I read the New York Times excerpt, although I didn’t know why. When I saw that Desmond was coming to Politics and Prose to give a reading, I took a Lyft from U Street to his standing room only reading on a Friday night. I was surprised that so many other people were in the room — it was a largely white audience. I am not a person who is given to participating in Q&A portions of public events, but I was compelled by the statistics that he laid out about the overwhelming majority of black women with children who he saw evicted in Milwaukee, the deep humanity of them that he witnessed over the course of writing the book and so much more that I had to thank him.

I said something like, “I wanted to thank you for writing this book. My mother and I were evicted a few times in the 1980s and 1990s in New York and it is very meaningful to hear you talk about what that experience is like in this way.” I had some questions about any information he may have had or read about the impact of eviction on children, and also what he thought the future of the research would be on homelessness in other cities.

Before he answered my questions, he thanked me for my strength and courage for mentioning my history in the room. A few people applauded, which also surprised me.

What I think I know now is that the process of eviction makes you feel worthless. It makes you feel like all attention is equal — the attention you get when all of your things are in garbage bags on the curb is just as uncomfortable as being applauded for enduring it without breaking down in the street. Then you realize that there are people like Desmond who see you. They acknowledge that you are not just a statistic, or a failure, or defined by your inability to afford to live like most people want to. That acknowledgment is a powerful affirmation that changing our broken American housing system is possible, even if change might be slow. 

Seeing the way to a solution sometimes takes as long as it does to really look at and heal an old wound.

My book, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color

BooksThis is a stack of my contributor copies for my new book, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and and People of Color. It’s scheduled to be published August 31.

I owe so much of the existence of this book to my mentors and colleagues in journalism, especially Dori Maynard, who I wish was alive to see the publication of a work that is built on the foundation of work that she and her father pioneered regarding media diversity.

Beyond that, I started writing this book in earnest the same year that my mother died. I needed to pour my heart into something that I cared passionately about, and in spite of myself, journalism and the journalism industry, with all of its potential and flaws, became part of that.

So now it is in physical form, after I have carried it around in my head and heart all this time, which I can’t imagine ever getting old for a writer, especially someone who has loved books and wanted to publish one for most of my life. I hope you’ll pick up a copy.

It’s at Amazon and ABC-CLIO.

Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama

The Internet is now an essential part of academic life, but anyone who has ever spent hours arguing with anonymous commenters or days managing positive or negative responses to his or her work knows cultivating a presence in cyberspace isn’t without serious drawbacks. Just like in real life, there’s always more than enough online drama to go around.

For women, though, things can quickly shift into dangerous territory offline. “The Next Civil Rights Issue: Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” journalist Amanda Hess describes rape threats directed at her for simply being a woman with an Internet connection. She notes that 72.5 percent of people who reported being stalked or harassed online between 2000 and 2012 in one study were women. For women of color, the online complexities are even worse.

Two of the most extreme cases involved high profile women of color providing commentary on controversial topics. In February, Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper received death threats and an onslaught of racist, sexist vitriol in response to a piece she wrote at Salon about a Florida jury’s failure to convict Michael Dunn, a white man who was charged with shooting Jordan Davis, a black teenager. Last summer, Salamishah Tillet was attacked even more viciously after she appeared as a guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and talked about the intersection of racism and the anti-abortion movement.

Tillet, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the nonprofit A Long Walk Home, was mentioned in a segment on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” — and then the first wave of attacks started. “I was flooded by letters, emails and phone calls all the way up to the Provost of my University,” Tillet says. “My faculty colleagues and president were all contacted, and then we heard from alumni and television viewers. (Bill O’Reilly’s) viewership, at least the people who contact you, is a machine. It’s really a lot.”

The strangest manifestation of the attacks on Tillet, though, might have been the 80 magazine subscriptions that she had to individually write and cancel, she said. “Because my credit was involved, that was more effective than the harassment. But online, people were calling me a wench, and I had to contact the police and on campus security. At least when people go after you on Twitter, you experience that as a norm,” Tillet says. “But I was unprepared for both. It was really frightening.”

Sometimes the scale at which women of color are attacked is not as visible. In October, biologist and postdoctoral research associate at Oklahoma State University Danielle N. Lee declined an editor’s request to blog at his site for free and was subsequently called an “urban whore.” Lee contributes to Scientific American where her Urban Scientist blog amplifies diverse aspects of the sciences and offers the rare perspective of a black woman conducting research while also drawing on hip hop culture. In the wake of her interaction with the editor, identified only as Ofek, Scientific American deleted her blog post about the interaction, then restored it to the site with a lengthy explanation of why it was removed. Lee also made a YouTube video in response to the incident and posted a response blog on her personal site.

“The whole thing got conflated,” Lee says. As for what academics might learn from her experience, she says, “Sometimes I feel like I’m still figuring that out. What I’ve learned so far is that the crap doesn’t end because you reach some level of success. The crap continues.”

University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong has also noticed that the more visible her work has become, the more of a target she has become for all kinds of online drama. When Leong writes about online harassment leveled at women, as she did in a four-part series of blogs at Feminist Law Professors, she points out that “Internet harassers focus on identity rather than on ideas as a specific strategy for excluding women and people of color from online discourse.” (Leong has also created a Cyberharrassment Bibliography as a resource for others and further discussion.)

Leong teaches constitutional rights, criminal procedure and judicial behavior, among other things. But the fact that she’s photogenic combined with her Native Hawaiian heritage has set off self-identified men on the Internet. This was amplified after she wrote an article published in the Harvard Law Review entitled “Racial Capitalism” but it got even worse when she started to blog about the other things that were happening, including someone creating a fake Twitter account using her name, her cell phone number and address being posted publicly and the address of her parents being posted online.

Instead of garnering her colleagues’ support, Leong said that she experienced a lot of victim blaming, particularly from white men. Her experience was so far beyond anything they experienced, she said, that they weren’t able to empathize. “A lot of my colleagues said stuff to me like, ‘You made this worse by speaking out about it,'” Leong said. “In other words, ‘If you had just gone about your business, then a lot of things that happened on the Internet wouldn’t have happened.’ As academics who work in the world of ideas and presumably care about what we research beyond what academics think about it, I thought it was important to raise awareness about the harassment.”

What else should academics facing online drama do?

Decide how you will manage the situation.

Tillet, who is a sexual assault survivor, said it’s important to understand that for women, the barrage of attacks can be a trigger for re-experiencing other violence – particularly for women of color. “The victim blaming that happens…you start going through that cycle again. On a personal level, it was important for me to shut down communication for two days. I was communicating with people who were helping, but I didn’t take any phone calls.”

Online attacks, excessive trolling or worse can take up huge chunks of time and energy that should be devoted to your work. Christopher Gandin Le, chief executive officer of Emotion Technology, which works with policymakers and web companies to promote mental health online, says it’s important to know how you’re going to handle yourself during and after online drama. “I haven’t found anyone who has created something for after something blows up on the Internet. It just goes away. There’s no learning experience for anyone.” In the absence of online mediators, targets of online harassment or attacks can seek short-term therapy on or off- campus in order to process the event. “Even when you create something really amazing people love, what do you do next, managing expectations and understanding that this stuff happens — basically, living your life is really all we can do.”

Delegate monitoring your professional presence online.

Though every individual case will differ, Leong says it is helpful to have a friend, ally or colleague who is not going through the same thing to help remove some of the emotional and practical burdens that come with being targeted online. That person can set up a Google Alert for your name to give you a heads up when something derogatory or defamatory shows up under your name. “You don’t have to be the person who sees that and putting forth the emotional energy to deal with that every single day,” she adds. Tillet said that she was helped greatly by supportive colleagues and friends. It helped that she gave over email access to the head of campus security to sort through to determine if any physical threats had been sent to her. She also kept a file of emails that were harassing and threatening.

Take screen shots of everything.

Both Lee and Leong documented their experiences extensively because misconduct online and other potentially controversial exchanges can easily be unpublished or deleted. Lee was wise to have screen shots of her exchange with the Biology Online editor; Leong has documented some of the online harassment on her blog. “Sometimes convincing a law enforcement officer requires handing them a stack of papers and saying, ‘It’s in here.’ I file everything in a folder in my computer, buried so that I don’t see it every time I log on to do research,” Leong says.

Remember that sometimes silence is better than a response.

Lee says that the weekend the incident with the Biology Online editor became public she went into radio silence. A number of people emailed her to tell her that by doing so, she taught them how to deal with a situation well, but she says she didn’t do it intentionally. “I was at home unable to eat. I was a mess privately. I don’t know what else I could have done. I was in no position to make a public statement,” Lee says. Instead, because she didn’t publicly react to the fall out from her exchange, she found that she was able to keep herself from saying something rash. “At the end of the day, you still have to live with yourself and live with the aftermath of what happens next. I didn’t want anything out there that I couldn’t manage later. It’s easier to put something out that you can’t come back from.” Tillet also says of the two days when she didn’t engage with the public that “It was important for me to shut out the noise and come up with a strategy for a plan of attack.”

If you’re not experiencing the harassment but know someone who is, try being supportive.

Leong says: “When people say to a woman who has been harassed and decides to speak up about it that she’s making things worse, it’s not a supportive thing to say. A better thing to say is, “It’s unfortunate that the harassment intensified, but it’s an important social issue and it was brave of you to do that.” Tillet said that her colleague Anthea Butler supported her by offering more strategies to decrease her visibility — or “create a more complicated path to me” — like changing her email address. Because online drama can be relentless, Tillet says go into your advocacy or writing on controversial topics “knowing who you’re standing with and with an infrastructure put in place to protect you and keep you safe.”