White Privilege & Housing and Homelessness

Last week I was in St. Louis. The tension was palpable. It was a community on edge, awaiting the grand jury decision regarding Officer Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. This week, with the decision in Ferguson making world headlines, the result has been many talking about reforms, righting injustices, addressing inequities, making adjustments in society so that complex social issues that involve race are considered differently.

Legacies of injustice continue. In the United States it is the painful history of slavery and the treatment of African-Americans and maltreatment of Native Americans too. (A “civilized” nation that celebrates Columbus Day?) In Canada and Australia it is the painful history of colonization of indigenous peoples and failed, unjust attempts at assimilation through the likes of residential schools. (In Canada there is still something called the Indian Act – legislation that governs engagement between the state and what is allowed for a group of people, to put it over-simply).

If you are not white, you are disproportionately going to be represented in a homeless population in the United States, Canada and Australia. This isn’t a coincidence.

If you are not white, you are less likely to be a homeowner. You are less likely to have financial assistance from family to purchase into the homeownership market. If you are not white you are less likely to meet financial risk assessment thresholds to purchase a home. If you are not white and you do own a home, the value of your home is, on average, less than that of a white person. This isn’t a coincidence.

If you are not white, you will be incarcerated at a disproportionately higher rate. The biggest investment made in housing is the “big house”. This is not a coincidence.

If you are not white, you are less likely to get appropriate mental health assistance or assistance with a substance use disorder. This is not a coincidence.

If you are not white, you are more likely to make less money than white counterparts, unless you are working in a unionized environment. If you are not white, you are more likely to not be in a management position. This is not a coincidence.

If you are not white, you are less likely to finish high school and less likely to complete a post high school degree. This is not a coincidence.

Did I – a white, educated, straight, male – make more not white people homeless or decrease their homeownership rates or incarcerate people in a disproportionate manner, deprive others of mental health assistance or substance use recovery, pay an unequal wage or decrease educational attainment of people that are not white? No. But that doesn’t mean I am not part of the problem.

If I want to be part of the solution, I have to acknowledge that I am definitely part of the problem. Try as I might, my white privilege makes it impossible for me to truly empathize beyond a cerebral exercise in our current society because the likelihood of success is stacked heavily in my favor. I didn’t ask for any of this. It is a privilege bestowed upon me solely by being white, and I will never know what it is like to be not white. Do I give up in trying to understand wholeheartedly? No.

I need an education different than what multiple university degrees have provided me. I need to ensure that all I do is rooted firmly in the tenets of justice, and not one of pity or sympathy or charity. I need to speak truth to power and talk about the thing that others sometimes don’t want to talk about, beyond just “Have you noticed that most of the people in your shelter are African-American?” (or aboriginal) to “What are we going to do about the disproportionate number of African-American (or aboriginal) people needing housing?”

When I have half-heartedly attempted these discussions in the past it is usually met with responses like, “It took generations to get to the point where things are this bad, and it is going to take generations to get out of this situation.” Or, “I know bad things happened in the past. I didn’t do it. It wasn’t my fault. When are they going to get over it?” Or, “The problem is that they don’t have fathers in their life or role models to set them straight on how to make a living and take care of themselves.” Or, “I almost feel better for them when they are incarcerated, because at least then you know they are getting fed and access to health care.” Or, “You know it’s because they really can’t handle alcohol.” Or, “They’ve never had an apartment because of how their people are. We are just setting them up for failure.” Or, “Of course there are more of them homeless” – as if all of these statements normalize reality so that no action can be taken – and are accepted on face value as truths.

I will take these inflammatory comments head on from now on in all situations.

See, these aren’t African-American problems. They are American problems. These aren’t Native Canadian problems. They are Canadian problems. These aren’t Indigenous Australian problems. They are Australian problems. It isn’t someone else’s problem. It is our collective problem.

I am not against discussion, but we aren’t going to talk our way out of this. I am not against education, but we aren’t going to train our way out of this. What I am for is action.

I have said many times that it is pointless to gather race or ethnic data if you aren’t going to do anything with it – if it is just an academic exercise or to gather descriptive data then it is pointless. Maybe it is time that we find the point and act on the point.

Economic injustice and racism are siblings…perhaps even twins. I am opposed to anti-poverty strategies. I am all for increased wealth strategies. I will not pity people for their poverty. I will not advocate just to increase benefit rates. I will rally against why it exists in the first place.

I will work to reform any system that calls itself a “justice system” when it systemically removes people’s access to employment and housing, and does so in many instances for a lifetime. If we can’t agree that time served is, um, time served – then maybe we need to start calling it the racially unjust punishment system.

I will advocate that we intentionally work to decrease stigma of mental illness and substance addiction with people of color. I will no longer accept the narrative of “it’s cultural” thrown around by white people in avoiding getting people the assistance they deserve.

And one more thing.

I will never vote for the candidate wanting to lower my taxes. Why? Because this is the manifestation of white privilege at its finest. We can’t have less money in the coffers of government and expect more or better interventions to address these systemic and systematic issues. Lowering taxes will not decrease homelessness. Lowering taxes will not increase available housing. Lowering taxes will not result in better education. Lowering taxes will not improve human services. A vote for the candidate wanting to lower taxes – who will give you the mantra of better service at less cost or efficiencies as propaganda – is a vote for ongoing injustice, more racial inequity, and more white privilege.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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