We all know things that we can’t “prove”. I know, for example, that the killings and beatings of unarmed black men by the police and prison guards are not “the appearance” of racism, nor are they exceptions, mistakes, or isolated incidents. They are part of a racist culture, and they terrorize entire communities. Furthermore, they are meant to do this, and the bi-partisan political establishment — the ultimate enablers of the police — want us to be afraid.
I was part way through Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond when I came across the op-ed “Why Don’t You Just Call the Cops?” that Desmond co-wrote with Andrew Papachristos in the New York Times.
They showed, by a statistical analysis of 911 calls, that there was a drastic reduction of such calls to the police from the black community in Milwaukee in the period following a front-page story covering the savage and unprovoked beating of a black man by on- and off-duty Milwaukee policemen in 2004. The police chief of Milwaukee, Edward Flynn, dismissed their findings — attributing the decline to a glitch in the 911 system. But Desmond and Papachristos showed that it was not all 911 calls that declined — only 911 calls to the police!
Desmond and Papachristos are in the tradition of courageous activist intellectuals and writers like Franz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre (The Wretched of the Earth), Rosa Luxemburg (The Accumulation of Capital), Otto René Castillo (Apolitical Intellectuals), Émile Zola (J’Accuse), and Fred Newman (philosopher and independent political activist), who have used their scientific training, their analytic skills, and their literary gifts (always at some personal risk) to expose the fallacies, obfuscations, and outright lies of the political establishment and their official apologists and “explainers”.
As for Evicted, it exposes how slum housing (whose value should have long since been depreciated to zero in any reasonable system of accounting) is a source of large profits for the banks that hold the mortgages, and how the poorest Americans are kept in a state of poverty, dependence, and insecurity by paying most of whatever income they have to keep a decaying roof over their heads.
It also shows how some of the more privileged and enterprising members of poor communities are coopted into this exploitative system, becoming small-time landlords themselves, while they fulfill a larger purpose as enforcers for the banks.
Evicted also suggests how, in lieu of decent affordable housing and jobs at living wages, government subsidies for the poor (the “safety net”) keep the poor marginal and powerless, and simultaneously subsidize the landlords and banks that profit from their misery. (If you want to learn more about this in horrifying detail, be sure to see Daniel Hatcher’s important new study, The Poverty Industry.)
But probably the most important thing to say about Evicted is that for those of us who have never been without a place to sleep at night, it paints a vivid picture of what such a life is like for the human beings who live it.