Archive for the 'class/classism' Category

Blacks, Latinos, and the precariousness of “middle class”

Today I listened to a segment on Democracy Now! about a new report that’s out from Demos and Brandeis University on the state of the Black and Latino middle class in the United States. The study, entitled “Economic (In)Security: The Experience of the African American and Latino Middle Classes,” finds that three-out-of-four Black and four-out-of-five Latino middle-class families are economically insecure and at high risk of slipping out of the middle class. From the report, which can be downloaded as a PDF from the Demos website:

African-American and Latino families have more difficulty moving into the middle class, and families that do enter the middle class are less secure and at higher risk than the middle class as a whole. Overall, more African-American and Latino middle-class families are at risk of falling out of the middle class than are secure. This is in sharp contrast to the overall middle class, in which 31 percent are secure and 21 percent are at risk. Specifically:

  • Only 26 percent of African-American middle-class families have the combination of as- sets, education, sufficient income, and health insurance to ensure middle-class financial security. One in three (33 percent) is at high risk of falling out of the middle class.
  • Less than one in five Latino families (18 percent) is securely in the middle class. More than twice as many (41 percent) of Latino families are in danger of slipping out of the middle class.
  • African-American middle-class families are less secure and at greater risk than the middle class as a whole on four of the five indicators of security and vulnerability [named by the report as assets, education, housing, budget, and healthcare]. Latino middle-class families are less secure and at greater risk on all five indicators.

Jennifer Wheary, a senior fellow at Demos and one of the co-authors of the report, elaborated on Democracy Now!:

And what we found was when we compared the situation of white middle-class families to African Americans and Latinos, there were vast differences. You know, and what was astounding to us was really looking at—these are, you know, African American and Latino families that, by all sense and purposes, have achieved the American dream, people who, you know, have two earners, two professional earners in the household, you know, maybe are trying to own a home or do own a home, you know, very—have achieved all the aspirations that we typically go for. But even among those people, when you look at, you know, where they’re weak economically, we found that about two-in-five Latino middle-class families are in danger of falling out of the middle class. They’re so financially vulnerable, don’t have assets. Maybe somebody in the household is uninsured. And one-in-three African American middle-class families are also in danger, so vulnerable, so weak, that they’re in danger of falling out of the middle class.

I haven’t read the report yet, but when I do, I fully expect to cry. In fact, as I listened to the segment on the bus home today, I actually found myself tearing up; not only because the larger injustices behind what I was hearing, but because it hit a very personal chord.

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NYC public housing: a shambles in need of fixing

the CVH public housing tour

Many low-income people in NYC rely on public housing as one of the few sources of affordable housing available to them in this city of sky-rocketing rents. However, the conditions in public housing are often sub-par, with poor maintenance and major repairs left undone for years. These conditions are threatening to get worse, even while residents are forced to pay higher rents.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which runs public housing, is facing a budget deficit of $225 million, largely due to major funding cuts from the federal and state governments. NYCHA has been scrambling to make up for this deficit, but most of the measures that it’s taking wind up hurting the residents of public housing: rent increases, additional fees charged for basic household appliances, delays in making urgent and essential repairs, and the planned layoff of more than 500 workers from an already understaffed agency.

Last Thursday, Community Voices Heard, a member-led grassroots organization of low-income New Yorkers, led housing advocates and elected officials on a tour of public housing developments to show them just how important it is that NYCHA gets much-needed funding (and utilizes it well, of course – just because the money’s there doesn’t mean it’ll be used right.)

In one apartment on the the tour, a bathroom wall had been left without repairs for two years; a sheet of plastic has been hung over a gaping hole, leaving pipes and hazardous materials exposed. In another building, the walls of a fire-damaged hallway have not been cleaned for over a year. Residents complained of stoves that haven’t worked for ages, one of which was removed two years ago because of a gas leak and not replaced until last week, when the media contacted NYCHA after the CVH tour.

Agnes Rivera, a CVH leader and a resident of one of the housing developments, spoke of the worsening situation in public housing and how important this housing can be:

We are bringing our elected officials on this tour to show them that our housing is deteriorating. The Housing Authority doesn’t have the money to make the repairs that the families living in public housing need…

I was in the shelter system, due to a domestic violence situation, and was lucky to have public housing as my safe haven. Public housing has helped me live in an affordable home and to afford sending my children to college. My children want to be able to afford the same things for their children.

At the press conference after the tour, CVH and their allies called for Governor Spitzer to sign the shelter allowance bill (S.4329/A.7905) which recently passed both houses of the New York State legislature and could add $47 million to NYCHA’s suffering budget. The bill would make the state’s contribution to NYCHA for residents receiving public assistance the same as the state’s current contribution to private landlords who house public assistance recipients. Coucilmember Rosie Mendez was among those calling on Spitzer to sign the bill:

There is no explanation for public housing authorities receiving less than half the payment private landlords receive for the same size apartment. I urge the Governor to sign the bill and avert the unthinkable consequence that NYCHA is financially unable to continue to provide quality, low-cost housing for New Yorkers that are least able to afford shelter in our city’s overheated private housing market.

Now, maybe Governor Spitzer is a little distracted by the whole Bruno debacle, but his attention needs to be drawn back to signing this crucial bill. Despite our capitalistic society that gives to each according to cash instead of need, public housing should not equal sub-standard housing for low-income people. Email, write to, or call Governor Spitzer to demand his prompt signature of the bill so that the much-needed funding can soon reach NYCHA and ultimately public housing residents.

Race, class, and street harassment

So, I have to admit – I was a little nervous when posting about street harassment the other day. I was really eager to open up the conversation, especially because it was focused on a queer/gender non-conforming/trans experience and perspective that I’m not used to hearing. But I was also worried about certain dynamics that tend to surface during these conversations, namely dynamics of race and class.

While women and other gender underprivileged folks of all races, ethnicities, and classes can and often do experience street harassment, the voices that I usually hear in these discussions are most often of women with either race or class privilege. This is not unique to conversations about street harassment: most larger conversations are dominated by the voices with the most privilege. In conversations about street harassment, though, this has an interesting and profound effect, as you’ll often have some very complex and conflicting power dynamics going on: men exerting their gender privilege and sexism over women who have class and/or race privilege over them.

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in case you ever doubted that prison is an industry

From the New York Times, via futurebird on the debunkingwhite Livejournal community: California inmates who meet certain requirements and can fork over a significant amount of dough get to have a cushier stay in prison than their less wealthy fellow inmates:

For roughly $75 to $127 a day, these convicts — who are known in the self-pay parlance as “clients” — get a small cell behind a regular door, distance of some amplitude from violent offenders and, in some cases, the right to bring an iPod or computer on which to compose a novel, or perhaps a song.

Unbelievable, right? Well, not so unbelievable, considering that our entire capitalist society constantly reinforces the notion that, the more money you have, the more worth you have as a person, and the better you deserve to be treated. And hopefully, though unfortunately, we’ve all been disabused of the silly fantasy that the justice is blind, that the justice system in this country is equitable and applies the law fairly and evenly across lines of race and class.

And yet somehow, I still managed to be a little shocked by this. I figure, if you’re a person with racial or economic privilege who still manages to be convicted of a crime (even if it’s a lesser crime than another person with less privilege may have been convicted of), and you actually get sentenced to time in prison (again, even if said sentence is lighter), and even still if you get some preferential treatment from prison authorities, you’re still going to be serving your sentence in basically the same facilities, with basically the same privileges and lack thereof.

Silly me to forget there’s always a way to make sure that the richer and otherwise more privileged are more comfortable and are treated more humanely than everyone else.

Some particularly infuriating passages (emphasis mine):

Many of the self-pay jails operate like secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world. You have to be in the know to even apply for entry, and even if the court approves your sentence there, jail administrators can operate like bouncers, rejecting anyone they wish.

Wealth and privilege aren’t limited to money; they also extend to knowledge and access to information. Many people are denied all sorts of rights to which they are fully and lawfully entitled because they just don’t know about them. Information is either never offered or made so inaccessible that those rights may as well not exist at all.

Many of the overnighters are granted work furlough, enabling them to do most of their time on the job, returning to the jail simply to go to bed (often following a strip search, which granted is not so five-star).

To me, this was one of the most galling aspects of the pay-to-stay privilege. For most people, the damaging effects of prison sentences extend far beyond the length of the stay. Even a relatively short stay can put a person’s job in jeopardy; do you think that most hourly-wage workers will come back from a few weeks or months in jail to find their old job waiting for them? Hell no; and then, of course, follows the difficulty of finding another job and the financial troubles caused by lost wages. But with the work furlough privilege, you can not only retain your job, but you can continue to make money right through your term.

Only one of the people quoted even comes close to getting at the all too evident problems with this situation:

While jails in other states may offer pay-to-stay programs, numerous jail experts said they did not know of any.

“I have never run into this,” said Ken Kerle, managing editor of the publication American Jail Association and author of two books on jails. “But the rest of the country doesn’t have Hollywood either. Most of the people who go to jail are economically disadvantaged, often mentally ill, with alcohol and drug problems and are functionally illiterate. They don’t have $80 a day for jail.”

Most of the other people quoted simply highlight how racist, classist, and generally fucked up this is.

“The benefits are that you are isolated and you don’t have to expose yourself to the traditional county system,” said Christine Parker, a spokeswoman for CSI, a national provider of jails that runs three in Orange County with pay-to-stay programs.

Since when does a person convicted of a crime that requires jail time have such latitude of choice when it comes to what they “expose” themselves to? Not that I’m any fan of the prison industrial complex, but doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole frakking purpose of prison?

Parker continues, going on to say what is perhaps the most outrageously honest thing in this entire article:

“You can avoid gang issues. You are restricted in terms of the number of people you are encountering and they are a similar persuasion such as you.

Hmm… can anyone guess the sort of things she might be talking about when she says “persuasion?”

When talking about how the Pasadena Police Department tried to “create a little buzz” (!) for the program in the 1990s, a department representative says,

“Our sales pitch at the time was, ‘Bad things happen to good people… People might have brothers, sisters, cousins, etc., who might have had a lapse in judgment and do not want to go to county jail.

Right. Because poor people who commit crimes are criminals, and rich people who commit crimes are good people who had a lapse in judgment.

The article’s conclusion seems to assert that the “five-star jails” still suck. Kinda.

Still, no doubt about it, the self-pay jails are not to be confused with Canyon Ranch… Lockdown can occur for hours at a time, and just feet away other prisoners sit with their faces pressed against cell windows, looking menacing.

Because POOR PEOPLE ARE SCARY! Even when all they can do is scowl at you through a window because your money gets you better treatment and privileges than they have.

Ms. Brockett, who normally works as a bartender in Los Angeles, said the experience was one she never cared to repeat.

“It does look decent,” she said, “but you still feel exactly where you are.”

Yeah – in a watered-down version of jail that you get to stay in because of your most likely unearned privilege. We feel for you, really.

Hey white folks – it’s time to get really mad at me again!

So, white people seem to get really, really angry when I write about gentrification, as evidenced through the many irate comments I’ve gotten, in which I’m called ignorant, racist, and “mean bitch,” amongst other things. I’ve left lots of those comments lingering in moderation for a while, because I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to give these people a space for their inane and often offensive rants, especially when I don’t have the time, energy, or desire to engage with them. But in the end, I’ve decided, what the hell, I’ll approve them. Especially because I have more readers nowadays who will maybe, hopefully help me respond to the bullshit every once in a while? (If interested, you can find the most recent mindblowingly-asinine rant on the “postmodern hipster colonists suck” post, courtesy of Lilly.)

However, sometimes these posts still generate really good comments. I wanted to highlight a recent one here, not just because I appreciate the insight, but also because I think it’s important to foreground the experiences of people who are more directly impacted by gentrification (I’m a NYC transplant from Jersey, and, I’ll be honest, am more of a contributor to gentrification than a victim of it.) Here’s part of what Ebony wrote:

I am from New York City. My mother was born and raised in Harlem in Drew Hamliton Projects. If you are from New York you know where Drew Hamilton is. I am disgusted with the invasion of white people in Harlem. I am not racist but I am proud of Harlem. I like the idea of segregation in Harlem. It’s not Harlem without black people, the same goes for New Orleans. White people have every neighborhood from A street to 96th street as well as Inwood. Why do they need Spanish Harlem, Harlem, and Washington Heights. These people can live anywhere in the 5 boroughs but choose to move to Harlem. They treat this area as if it was nothing before they got there, as if people didn’t reside in this area prior to them moving in. They don’t understand the value of this area.

Read the rest of the comment here.

The part that I’ve emphasized is an excellent description of what seems to be a very prevalent attitude amongst gentrification’s beneficiaries: the notion that these neighborhoods were relatively worthless, uninhabited wastelands until the gentrifying classes moved in.

I was treated to some great examples of this attitude a couple of weeks ago on The Leonard Lopate Show, a radio program on WNYC (a local NPR station.) The segment, “How To Be a Good Tourist,” was a conversation between Lopate, two NYC journalists, and callers about NYC neighborhoods, cultural institutions, restaurants and other locations that are often missed or overlooked by tourists and residents alike. They got to talking about certain neighborhoods that have historically been overlooked and have “changed” (what a euphemism!) in recent years, as well as neighborhoods that are about to “change.” Here’s some of the conversation, with emphasis and commentary added:

Rosemary Black: I think [the city] is constantly changing… Just a few years ago, the Meatpacking District was quite desolate and nobody would ever go over there unless they were trying to get to the West Side Highway or something…

Leonard Lopate: And it smelled bad, because of all of the blood that was on the street, the sidewalk…

RB: Exactly. And now it’s just filled with trendy restaurants and clubs and bars and you walk over there at night and it’s just teeming with people, and these places are hard to get into, there’s some really nice places over there… it’s completely different from what it used to be. And the same really with the Lower East Side; if you think about what the Lower East Side was like fifteen years ago and you walk over there now, it’s like being in a whole different city.

A whole different city, indeed. A much whiter, richer, less-immigrant-populated city, as the East Village continues to encroach on Loisaida (see the linked Wikipedia entry for a good description of the changes she’s referencing.)

LL: Now, why do you think a neighborhood suddenly takes off like that?

Melena Ryzik: Well, it starts with the low rents. That’s the key thing –

LL: Big spaces and low rents.

MR: Exactly, exactly. And of course I think there’s also the idea for New Yorkers that you want to be the first person to discover something, so there’s a certain cache in having been maybe the first person or the first set of people living over on the Meatpacking district side of things.

Again with this colonialist, pioneer mentality. Because it’s not as if people haven’t been living in these areas for decades now; maybe just not the people that count for much of anything except a novelty and a provider of “exotic” foods to these folks.

LL: Do you think that the South Bronx is likely to change when the new Yankee Stadium opens in a few years?

RB: I think there’s a good chance, everything changes! Places that we wouldn’t have thought a few years ago would be completely different are totally changed around, and safe, and getting to be desirable places to live, so I think there’s a good chance of it.

Who’s the “we” in this entire conversation? Can we assume that it’s white folks with money? Because there’s been a whole lot of folks living in the South Bronx for a long time now – and some of them have thought it a “desirable” place to live all along, despite obvious problems like economic depression and neglect.

Of course, they eventually get to talking about Williamsburg and Bushwick:

LL: And Melena, you say it’s all about rent, because rents are so high in certain areas that people have to constantly go and make new areas popular?

MR: That’s right. You mentioned Williamsburg; you know, that was one of the areas that artists first started moving into when they started moving out of Manhattan, and now that place is full, that neighborhood is full of, you know, million dollar condos, so those kind of people are getting pushed further and further out into Bushwick, which means that there are now great restaurants and bars and places to go to in Bushwick, although not as easy to get to.

Yup. It doesn’t mean that the entire face of the neighborhood is changing; it doesn’t mean that low-income Latinos are getting priced-out, evicted and displaced. No, the important thing here is one of the most economically-depressed and neglected areas of the city is getting some nice restaurants and bars and places to go, not for the long-time residents, but for the sake of the moneyed newcomers who are being “pushed out” of Williamsburg, the last area that they “discovered” and made their own. What about the people who those artists helped to push out of Williamsburg, and who they’ll now help push out of Bushwick, too? Apparently, those displaced people aren’t even worth a mention.

Since apparently my many previous clarifications weren’t enough

I’ve seen a lot of responses to my posts on gentrification, both in comments here and on other blogs, that question why I don’t want white people moving into poor neighborhoods of color. Some people wonder if I’m endorsing a kind of self-imposed segregation; some ask whether it’s not good that white people move in, since then a neighborhood finally gets paid attention by politicians and the distributors of public services, and isn’t it good that the neighborhoods are getting “better?” Some people wonder why I’d be against the diversification of a neighborhood (because, of course, the whole point of diversity is that white people are around, too…er…) Some folks wonder why I’m generalizing white folks, since some of those white people moving in might be good white folks who are anti-racist and anti-gentrification. Some people even go so far as to call me racist, since clearly, this is because I’m anti-white.

I felt like I clarified this before in “more thoughts on gentrification,”, but I’ll try again:

If white people were moving into poor neighborhoods of color and had no negative effect on the low-income people of color living there, it would not be a problem. The problem with gentrification is that the white folks who are moving in most often bring real negative effects to the low-income people of color. The primary negative effects are forced displacement – people having to move out of their homes or the neighborhood against their will – due to drastically rising rents and immoral (and often illegal) landlord methods like forced evictions and cut-off services; and the gradual erosion of the neighborhoods’ ethnic culture – businesses, restaurants, social organizations, etc – that the community has built up over time, to be replaced by more mainstream, white, middle-class culture.

Can I make it any more clear, people? I’m not just arbitrarily anti-white. I’m not just trying to preserve neighborhoods that are POC-only for the hell of it, because I don’t like the look of those white people or because their music annoys me or something. It’s because, so often in gentrifying neighborhoods, an influx of white folks is a harbinger of real, concrete, negative impacts on low-income people of color.

Something else that has come up, that is far less annoying than the questions above, is the question about low-income white folks and their involvement, culpability, and experience of gentrification. As a general response: I know less about the effect of gentrification on poor white neighborhoods, but I’m sure it happens, as gentrification is equally about class as it is about race. However, race and class are so entwined in this country, and people of color are disproportionately poor, so it’s something of an impossibility (for me at least) to talk about gentrification and not talk about race, especially since in NYC I most often see gentrification occuring in POC neighborhoods, not by any coincidence. However, I am familiar with the gentrification that has gone on in parts of Williamsburg that used to be largely working-class Polish, and that’s quickly sweeping into Greenpoint as well. There, some of the same things have happened – an immigrant, working-class community’s culture is being eroded, bit by bit, to make room for more mainstream (meaning middle-class) white culture; people are forced out of their neighborhood; the whole feel and face of the neighborhood changes. However, I’d venture to say that the effects and methods of gentrification are different in Greenpoint than they are in, say, Bushwick, or even south Williamsburg (which might still be predominantly Latino, at least for now.) For one, white people in the area can’t be seen as a sign that the neighborhood is “up and coming;” there, I think it would be the presence of certain kinds of white folks (younger, richer, not immigrants, etc).

Folks have also asked about the culpability of low-income white folks. They, too, can’t afford high rents. If they live in NYC, the only way they might be able to afford to do so is to live in neighborhoods of color.

If people are truly low-income – meaning, not just “barely out of college, damn my bills suck on my non-profit salary” like me, but really, truly, struggling – then they need to live where they need to live and do what they need to do in order to make it. I’m not going to try to assign blame to folks when they’re doing as well as they can; I’m also not about to pass judgement on any low-income folks because, frankly, that would be seriously fucked up of me. However, I do think that low-income white folks can still have a negative involvement with gentrification, because of the whole thing where having some white folks in a neighborhood makes it “safer” and more appealing to other, richer white folks, who then move in and displace the low-income white folks right along with the low-income people of color. I don’t that one’s lack of class privilege erases one’s racial privilege and the negative effects thereof.

Sigh. Why I am up at 8:30am on a Saturday writing this, I do not know. All I got up to do was check the weather to see if I’d wind up going to the Dyke March after all! (And by the way, this weekend’s weather SUCKS, especially for Pride weekend! Hmm, maybe god does hate fags. Kidding folks, kidding.) And then I wound up here, writing this! I am obsessed with this blog. Help!