Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Crime, Section 8, Neighborhoods in Transition, and New Tensions

In her research, Suresh noticed a recurring pattern, one that emerged first in the late 1990s, then again around 2002. A particularly violent neighborhood would suddenly go cold, and crime would heat up in several new neighborhoods. In each case, Suresh has now confirmed, the first hot spots were the neighborhoods around huge housing projects, and the later ones were places where people had moved when the projects were torn down. From that, she drew the obvious conclusion: “Crime is going along with them.”

It seems this week has brought a two for one, a sort of perfect storm for those armchair sociologists among us looking for an un-Obama related topic to discuss over the dinner table or at the barbershop.

This week, the Atlantic and the New York Times have each published pieces on race, housing policy, and crime that are worthy of more attention than either piece has received to this point.

The Atlantic's "American Murder Mystery" by Hanna Rosin and the New York Times' "As Program Moves Poor to Suburbs Tensions Follow" explore what some have called an uncomfortable truth: that with the destruction of inner city housing projects that people, and their problems, go with them to their new homes. Apparently, it seems that while crime has leveled out in America's metropolises it has increased in America's bedroom communities and other regional cities. After growing up on Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood flicks, and watching Colors and Menace to Society too many times to count, who would have thought that the front line of the war on crime would be Memphis, Tennessee or Kansas City, Missouri instead of Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York?

As argued by the sociologists quoted in the above articles, the cause of this increase in crime and social dysfunction could in fact be a function of how the proliferation of housing vouchers and Section 8 programs have transplanted both the good folk and the bad folk from their former "communities" to whatever neighborhoods they have collectively moved into. Thus, the inner-city crime problem concentrated in the projects becomes the inner city crime problem spread out in the semi-suburbs. Cue music: start controversy.

What follows are some quick thoughts about the "new" tensions which occur when the urban poor move into suburban neighborhoods. My emphasis on "new" hints at the fact that the middle and upper classes have never wanted to live near the poor...this is why those of means move away from those without. As my godfather used to say, "the very reason you want to have money is so that you can have the luxury of choosing your neighbors."

Perhaps, we can have a conversation, prompted by Zora's return, about respectability, class, and race? And to bait them, as though it is necessary, how long will it take for someone to let forth the shrill charge of racism at what may simply be an uncomfortable truth? Or to reflexively rise to the defense of "the victims" in this story?

Some questions:

1. What to do with the urban poor? As housing projects are transitioned into gentrified properties, where should these folks go? Stay in new housing in their communities, or be moved to scattered site housing in the burbs?

2. Again, what about the black and brown middle and working classes? They live in what are politely called "neighborhoods in transition," those most likely to have high numbers of section 8 and other housing voucher recipients and where the landlords are absent. The result: poorly maintained properties that diminish the property values of the properties nearby. Also, shouldn't these working class families feel resentful as they themselves are barely above a minimum income line (and many would not seek aid even if eligible)--and these families struggle to maintain their heads above the water--while their neighbors receive Section 8? Maybe, I am just a little annoyed by literally hearing a sister jump up and down (without shame) in the supermarket last night upon receiving news on her cell phone that "her section 8 had come through."

3. What of the black respectable poor who are happy about and gratified by the chance to live in a nice, clean, safe neighborhood? And are eager to have a leg up? To have a chance to conform with these new community standards? How do we separate them from some who have internalized a culture of poverty (notice I didn't say economic poverty) and who wear their pathologies as a badge of honor, as opposed to working to overcome them?

4. Why is the middle class often made a villain in these stories? I know many middle and working class black and brown folk who are just as concerned about their property values, and norms of behavior in their communities as white folk? Where is their voice?

5. No, I am not a conservative. Yes, I think there are different norms of behavior across communities. Example: in the now Section 8, scattered site neighborhood that I grew up in, we have had real issues with community standards, i.e. when to put the garbage out on the street, why one doesn't fix their car in the yard, why loud parties and littering are not acceptable, why one shouldn't sit on their porch or that of their neighbors, etc., etc. etc. Is this classism, racism, or something else?

6. Again, where are the black and brown working class voices who roll their eyes and feel imperiled, rightly so, as their neighborhoods transition into something they cannot recognize, and for the worst, as the class composition of their communities changes?

7. Should we expect the black middle and upper class to act any differently, i.e. less self-interested than the white middle or upper class? To expect so, is that not itself "racist?"

8. Playing devil's advocate: We don't expect the white upper class, middle class, and striving working class to live with the white poor. Why should we expect this of black Americans? Why should we be surprised when the black middle and upper class want nothing to do with their poorer brethren?


Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

"What to do with the urban poor?"

That's like the age old question of what to do with the poor anywhere, dating back to Biblical times. Some poor folks are needed for cheap labor and the jobs no one else want to do, but when there's a surplus of these unwashed masses, they're a burden to middle and upper class way of life.

The underclass is growing due to our deathly ill economy. I have no answers, none whatsoever.

All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

arm chair socialogist - always debate me and im n the prisons

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

all-mi-t what do they get wrong or right? often the norms of fact and fiction, of empirical truth get twisted in these exchanges because of emotionalism and fear...


Caro said...

Chauncey, lots to chew on in this topic.

But a couple of stray thoughts: is the move of Section 8 holders so strongly and directly correlated to rise in crime, or are there other factors (of which rise in Section 8 renters is only a symptom)? e.g., is there rising economic insecurity in those areas that would increase crime? I mean, I don't know any meth labs in Bklyn, but I know of several near my sister in Fla. Suburban blight arrived before Section 8 people did.

As for the other point, of brown/black homeowners (of which I am one). This is a long conversation, but given mutually exclusive choices I prefer an economically integrated nabe (similar to the one I grew up in) to a racially integrated area where pressure is upward and suddenly I find myself among the poor gentry.

There's also the matter of neighborliness. I know that many times "new" and "older" people in an area only engage in adversarial situations, where cultivating a relationship would defuse conflict when it arises. There's gotta be a way to share public space and to get everyone to follow community standards without making those seem like punishment.


This was a very thought provoking article! In regards to the devil's advocate question, most people gain skills and education via college, a trade, etc. in order to make more money so that they can have the luxury of choosing their neighbors. I read this once in some sort of quote, and it struck me because it was true. I don't think there is anything wrong with the black middle and upper class not wanting to live amongst the lower class. However, I do think it's wrong when people (especially black) allow their socioeconomic status to convolute the way they treat people, and look down on others because they are not members of the upper echelon of society.

As for the sister who was jumping when her Section 8 got approved, I believe we must not be too hasty to get annoyed. Social welfare systems such as Section 8 (in my opinion) should merely be utilized as a stepping stone--not a tool to get over in society. Perhaps this young woman was destitute, gainfully employed, and trying to correct some of her past mistakes that may have led her to get on Section 8 in the first place?

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

Great thoughts and I have to reflect.

Caro: I think you may be onto something, it probably is that these neighborhoods are in transition and thus in decline, so it is sort of a tipping model where the new arrivals, with their fair number of bad apples make a bad situation even worse. As for the community standards issues, I am at a loss, I was talking to a friend earlier today recounting what our old neighborhoods are like and it is the same story--the new arrivals are bringing things down as opposed to up. It almost seems like the new normal is a step or 2 or 3 below what the black middle class and working classes are used to. Random thought: it would be nice to hear from some Latinos or Whites on this issue and how they are dealing with it as well...

Shermika: What to do about those who internalize poverty? Where the hood is in them, where the poverty of means becomes a poverty of expectations and behavior? Moreover, what of the quiet dignity that many poor folk used to have, where they were poor materially but not in their behavior? Perhaps the decline of shame has coupled with/is a byproduct of the rise of hyper-poverty in many areas?

Re: the section 8 sister, she had a sense of entitlement and expectation about her where it seemed that there was no shame in being on government assistance, that living off the tax payer is just something we all do. That is what is so scary! For many inter-generational poverty is the family business...being poor, having children out of wedlock, living on the gov't tit (for lack of a better word) is a lifestyle. A colleague of mine works for the board of education and he was telling a story about how common it is for many children to believe that checks just come in the mail and that a Link card (what welfare is called in Illinois) is actually a credit card.

What damage are we doing to generations of young people who do not have an ethic of working or a sense of full citizenship where one isn't dependent on the state to live and for their human dignity?

Chauncey DeVega

Anonymous said...

I think the black middle class is expected to put up with the dysfunction because of the antiquated Civil Rights-era idea that all black people are tied together in the ubiquitous "struggle". This concept was absolutely essential when we battled just to be recognized as humans and citizens worthy of treatment equal to that of our white counterparts. But while our country still wrestles with racial equality, gains have been made, so much so that a self-identified black man has a legitimate shot as leader of the free world. So the days of "linked fate" when it comes to black folks are numbered, as we've overcome some level of socialized and institutionalized racism and success or failure has become determined more by one's own ambition. In other words, (some black people don't like to hear this, but) personal responsiblity is now the determination of progress.

Zora said...

Have we really made it to the point that the black middle class has nothing in common with the black working class? I can't help but to think that the growing ideological and social seperation between classes in the black community has something to do with physical distance. We don't worship together, we don't eat together, we don't study together ... Increasingly, we are getting our ideas about the black poor from the same places that white people get them -- the media.

When assumptions about work ethic and responsibility were made about blacks as a whole (and I argue that they are still applied to the whole), we were outraged about not being treated as individuals. I know plenty of people who work their asses of with 2-3 jobs and can still barely make ends meet. Have we progressed so far that we can now be just as quick to judge and dismiss as whites have historically been?

Unfortunately, hard work does not always lead to success. Given the structures of our society and economy, we will always have an underclass. Crime will always be associated with the underclass. Why? Because the poor are the most vulnerable and without protection. They are easy prey.

Anonymous said...

Zora, I didn't say that to mean that the black middle class is somehow superior to the working classes. In fact, I’m not a sociologist, so I don’t even know what the differentiation is between the “middle class” and the “working class”. What does the designation of a “class” mean anyway? Is it income, zip code, occupation, education, conspicuous consumption, all of the above?
I guess I wanted to say that most everyone wants a “good” life, or what they used to call “The American Dream”. That’s always been typified by middle class white people (are middle class whites and blacks dissimilar from each other?) with a suburban house, 2.5 kids, a dog, two cars and maybe a boat (I imagine it differs from region to region, but in FL, we like boats). Does it really reflect that poorly on middle class blacks (or aspirants thereof) that they seek that goal? That they don’t want to live in neighborhoods where criminal activity is the norm and is unremarkable? That they want their children to go to good schools and maybe go to college? That they want a higher standard of living?
I think it a bit unfair to malign the black middle class, because they just want a “good” life. Sometimes that means leaving behind the folks who aren’t also reaching for that good life. I agree that there is a growing divide between the black middle and underclass, but it seems inevitable.

Zora said...

I also believe that there is nothing wrong with wanting a "good life." My problem is with blaming the the black underclass for getting in the way of that. Why not blame city and state governments for not providing our neighborhoods with the same protections and resources that are offered in white neighborhoods. There are mixed income white neighborhoods. These neighborhoods, for some reason, seem to be functioning just fine. Is it because the black poor is somehow different than the white poor?


Chauncey: I’ve always said that one can still see the effects of slavery, and it’s been how many years—almost 400? I understand what you’re saying as people practically embrace poverty as if we’re in some sort of caste system. I think the government and it’s systematic practices against poor black folks has a huge part to do with the internalization of poverty. Once it’s ingrained in a person that they ‘can’t get out of the hood’ and they’re ‘just like Pookie and them,’ then they start to believe it. Should they want more? Yes. Will they get more? Only if they move past the negative (institutionalized racism, classism, sexism, and other isms) will they ever reach the positive (a life that isn’t dependant upon governmental handouts). I, like many other like-minded black people, do not like to be ‘broke.’ That’s why I work harder to get where I need to be. However, as you said, some black people don’t have shame and instead, look for a handout.

I know far too well how living off the government can become a lifestyle for many, when in fact, it should be a stone to step on and jump your tail off of when you get a job. I believe there is nothing greater than making your own moolah, but there are those who’d rather leech off others. We are doing a great damage to children when we do not enforce a proper work ethic in them, and do not instill pride in them. Furthermore, although I sadly still see (sorry for the alliteration) the effects of slavery, I can only pray that the children of tomorrow and the adults of today will move past this ‘plantation mentality’ and see that we are doing further damage to ourselves when we’d rather sit back and collect checks, rather than earn them.

Zora, the black poor is very much different from the white poor, as they have a double negative to face: being BLACK and POOR. Society is often quick to help the white poor than the black poor because of their "white privilege." A person can change their socioeconomic status, but they cannot change their color.

Anonymous said...

Now listen. You animals in section 8 do cause crime. I live in a small town that had 0 crime up until 8 years ago. My town has over 16 section 8 neighborhoods and we have 6 murders at least every single year. The respectable hard working people (white) moved away when their property value hit rock bottom, and many businesses closed shop. GET A FUCKING JOB! I am going to make sure to get rid of section 8 and make you fuckin chimps get a real job and not mooch off the system. It is my tax dollars that put a roof over your heads so straighten up!