Part of my day job includes giving presentations about homelessness to college students. In other words, I get to re-experience the fun part of being a college professor (sharing knowledge and engaging students) without the parts I disliked (grading papers and dealing with the bureaucracy). One of the first things that I tell students is this:
How you define a problem will define its solution.
How you define your priorities will define your problem.
How you define “success” depends on how you define the problem.
In the case of homelessness, HUD has prioritized those who have absolutely no other means for housing and created a four-tier definition: literally homeless (place not meant for human habitation or an emergency shelter), imminently homeless (will be literally homeless in less than 15 days), unaccompanied youth identified as homeless under other federal statutes, and individuals fleeing domestic violence. So if you have friends or family who can take you in for a bit, then you’re just unstably housed, not homeless, and don’t qualify for HUD-funded assistance. You won’t get included in homelessness statistics either, because as someone who is “doubled-up,” you’re not eligible, even if you are homeless in most laypeople’s minds.
Various assistance programs are funded with that definition in mind. The Housing First intervention, providing low-demand permanent housing prior to offering assistance with other therapeutic problems, defines homelessness as lacking a place to live, without worrying if the person, now housed, is otherwise considered stable by society. Success is thus defined as whether or not a client is housed, as opposed to whether or not a client is conforming to mainstream ideas of wellness and health.
This is true in other domains as well.
A side story: There’s been a lot of racial prejudice and bigotry receiving attention in Buffalo right now, as opposed to the usual circumstance of racial prejudice and bigotry being ignored. Recently someone threw a rock, with a slur-laden note, through the window of a mixed-race family in Kaisertown. There is a controversy related to renaming Squaw Island to Unity, after people rejecting using the Seneca name pre-colonization. “Squaw” is a pejorative for Native American women. There was another controversy regarding renaming the Lancaster High School (suburban district northeast of Buffalo) mascot from “Redskin” to anything else. These, in my mind, are fairly cut-and-dry. Pejoratives and slurs do not have places in civilized conversations, so change the name. Done.
Agreement was not universal. Instead, some folks argued that it was “political correctness gone too far,” and, especially in Lancaster’s case, “a tradition”. Despite the fact that we live in the historical lands of the Iroquois Confederacy, Redskins supporters flew in a Native American from South Dakota, about half a week’s drive away, to argue that the Redskin moniker wasn’t offensive to Native Americans, nevermind a loud chorus of local Seneca people who argued otherwise. Two other districts’ lacrosse teams vowed to boycott games until the name changed. The school board voted to change the mascot. A former resident of Black Rock wrote to The Buffalo News angry that the name of Squaw Island was changed, suggested that because they spent their childhood ignorant of the offensiveness of the term, it never should have changed.
You could predict how a person would react to the Lancaster mascot name based on which part of the story they thought was important. If the important part was that the Redskin term is a slur, they wanted the name changed. If someone felt that Native American culture deserved more respect, they wanted it changed. If they felt the more important part was that the history of the high school came with the name “Redskins”, they wanted to keep it. If someone felt that their freedom of expression was continually being constrained by etiquette, they probably resented the change.
One point: you cannot argue that the “Redskin” name was a tradition without flexing the muscles of white privilege. If tradition were the trump card slur-supporters suggested it is, we’d all be observing Seneca cultural traditions. It is not though – tradition only counts when a group that is relatively powerful claims it, or when it is celebrated within boundaries that other groups cannot infringe upon it (such as a family dinner, or something like that).
Another point: when the offensiveness of something is controversial, you can all but guarantee it’s an argument between more powerful and less powerful people. Why? When people who are more powerful argue that something is offensive, it sticks. Power brings with it a sense of rhetorical truth. Power brings the sense of entitlement to define it as a truth. When disadvantaged groups argue that something is offensive, and get pushback, it’s likely the offending party that is giving the pushback because, in their mind, they’ve done no wrong.
This is especially true because American culture does a poor job of understanding social structures. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my favorite Communist radical organizers, gets quoted all the time about not wanting his children to be judged “by the color of their skin, but the content of the character,” by people very willing to forget anything else he said about systemic racism and poverty. That color-blind assessment only works when evaluating individual actions on an individual basis, presuming that all other power structures are held equal. They are not, and have not ever been, equal. America is a democracy that routinely disenfranchises lots of people from voting. America is a democracy where those with more money sway the political process.
So when it comes to controversies relating to racial inequity, or gender inequity, many people are inclined to see them as the result of aggregate individual results instead of watching how the entire machine operates. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva details this phenomenon in Racism without Racists: most people will claim not to be prejudiced, and end their analysis of racial inequity there. Because, to them, racism is simply inequity and nothing more. Power is invisible. Of course this perspective is a privilege of power, and belongs exclusively, racially speaking, to white people.
Whites are the dominant race in American society, both numerically and in terms of power. This power exists in differential wealth, political representation, and in rhetorical power. This last one is the most subtle: the members of a dominant culture, no matter who it is, get to say what is and what is not. Taken-for-granted ideas are rarely challenged. It’s the backbone of the post-modern ideas of discourse; if you’d like me to bore you to tears on that, take me out to lunch.
So I spend a lot of time thinking about structures and power. I use a lot of words describing the insidious ways that power manifests itself in the stories and ways we construct truth. Did you know that Buffalo is undergoing a renaissance? It depends on how you define a renaissance. Who benefits? How do you measure it? How do you see it? If you want to see one of the better prototypical stories, check out this Gothamist article. Read past the stories of rehabs (which aren’t endeavors undertaken by most people, and are much, much, much harder than any of these pieces acknowledge) and chickens and get to the part about how those who have been disadvantaged remain disadvantaged. The statistics support this. Whether something is successful depends on how you define success: in Buffalo, we often focus on the physical infrastructure of an area as opposed to using the people as a unit of analysis.
I am more concerned with the people than the place. I’m more concerned with equity than most other things.
Another story: people have opinions about the Baltimore protests. One fellow in my area chose to express his opinions using a picture of monkeys crawling over cars, declaring, “you want to be treated like people? stop acting like animals!” Oh, God. At this point, after viral videos, PBS produced documentaries detailing our area’s prejudices, and aforementioned dust-ups with our struggle to properly respect Native Americans, I kind of expect this? I am not happy about it, but it doesn’t seem newsworthy anymore. I initially chalked up the controversy to the depth of which we are in denial about how prejudiced this area is. Also, I find it really disheartening because racial bigotry is more or less step 1 in trying to eradicate systemic racism, and we aren’t even there.
Well. Turns out this fellow, who I didn’t know from Adam, is locally famous. He organizes the Dyngus Day parade. Alan Bedenko wrote about him, and used a quote from an essay that I wrote last year arguing that Dyngus Day’s persistence in a neighborhood that was effectively abandoned by those of Polish ethnic and currently is the home of an African American population is a rather flagrant demonstration of white privilege and entitlement. As I said, “At what point does your ethnicity relinquish claim to an area that it no longer inhabits? Why does this white ethnic group feel entitled to waltz into someone else’s backyard for a celebration?”
That was shared by What’s going on in Buffalo‘s facebook page, and my sparsely updated, generally dull blog suddenly had a post with 3200 impressions.
The responses were fascinating. Once again, you could predict what someone’s opinion would be based on which part of the story they thought was the important one: the East Side of Buffalo, or this party they call Dyngus Day. Appreciative comments tended to be people who spend a lot of time thinking about the former; critical comments tended to be those with a lot of investment and experience in the latter. The latter group felt that it was unfair for me to criticize an event I’d never attended (and likely will not in the future), because ultimately, that’s the important part of the story to them, not the display of white privilege. (White privilege? We, as a city, are apparently not yet completely beyond the understanding you don’t tie notes with the N-word on rocks and throw them through the windows, or that slurs are not respectful mascots, why would I expect a nuanced understanding of how entitlement colors power dynamics among various races?)
First: I did not hear from a single current East Side resident that I was wrong. I heard from a lot of former residents, or children of former residents, that being from Syracuse and never having attended this party meant that I “didn’t understand”. Effectively, because I was not indoctrinated into their perspective, I did not understand why their claim to an area that don’t frequent, by and large don’t invest in, and as the original post notes, don’t live in, is legitimate. It’s hard not to interpret that criticism as “you’re too objective, my emotional attachment takes precedence!” It’s even harder when I live in an area that actually has more current Polish residents than the East Side does (I live in Black Rock).
Real talk? I didn’t hear from many current East Side residents at all. It’s likely because, as Kevin Kud described in this response essay, social networks in Buffalo are pretty divided. In my own experience, I have found that ideas of how things can be very uniform within a network of affinity, and then dramatically differ with another group. These groups have few bridges. So most of my traffic to that post came from the What’s Going on In Buffalo facebook post (shoutout to Craig for his willingness to share his traffic stats with me), I suspect that it’s likely his site doesn’t have many current Broadway-Fillmore residents reading it, but the descendants of many former ones. So some of the issue is selection bias.
Folks are more willing to tell you that you are wrong on the internet and nod in silent affirmation otherwise, so another possibility is that they read it, agreed, but didn’t feel compelled to tell me.
Many people fell into the usual white-person pattern of “someone brought up racism! They are the REAL RACIST, because only racists think about race”. There are a lot of white people who feel morally obligated to pretend that race doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter that, oh, there are entire disciplines that document its consequences. They feel like racism would just go away if we pretended race wasn’t salient. The problem with this perspective is its inaccuracy, that is inherently requires being in a dominant position to have this opinion, and that it bolsters racism. Allow me to explain:
Imagine a bridge that is a vital lifeline between two cities. There’s a widespread belief that it’s falling down. Now, pretend that everyone believed that the problem with the bridge was that people feared going over it. If you believe the problem with the bridge is the fear, you’ll think the solution is for them not to be afraid, and you’ll dismiss their concerns without investigation. If you think that the problem is that the bridge is actually falling down, you’ll go to it and find the broken rebar. Racism is broken rebar, but the color-blind narrative says we’re supposed to ignore it. You can’t fix something you’re not paying attention to.
There were a lot of comments projecting various nonsense on me. This was interesting, and to be expected. A lot of it was conjecture because they struggle to separate issues when they make an argument or sincerely can’t see past their own lens. If I don’t support Dyngus Day, I must also never have been to the Broadway Market, or that I am completely unfamiliar with Polish-American culture. I must never step foot on the East Side. Nevermind my occupation, I clearly don’t know what I am talking about, because I don’t agree with their perspective. Oh, and it doesn’t matter that the area is mostly African-American, and that I can prove it with stats and figures, because a few Polish bars and churches exist there, and there are some white people. (Imagine how powerful your group is, that mere token presence is enough to render everyone else invisible.)
And it’s true. There are a few Polish bars there, and a few churches. I understand from a current parishioner that Corpus Christi is mostly white. When I attended a mass at St. Stanislas, it was entirely white, but it was also in Polish, which is a language even harder than Russian to learn so obviously few-non Polish people would be in attendance. (And my Russian only got me so far). I live near Assumption Church, and the masses I attended were more mixed. This is interesting to me. There are a few white residents. Here’s a letter to our local paper of record about what Dyngus Day was like by one of those white residents. He’s not describing a pleasant experience.
Which leads me to an interesting point. One white woman, a resident of the Old First Ward, pulled me aside and said that she read my essay with interest. If you replaced racial entitlement with class or suburban entitlement, I might as well have been describing the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The behavior she described was very similar to what the above letter to the editor details; I’ve heard similar from folks on Twitter. I didn’t attend the St. Patrick’s Day parades either).
So one possible conclusion is that what Bedenko calls “the nostalgia industry” operates on a sense of historic entitlement that only requires a subordinate group, any subordinate group, not necessarily racial to function. Another possibility is that we are just horrifically awful at being respectful at parties. (Given the stronger stigma against being racist, which is perceived as a character flaw, I suspect people would rather latch onto being universally boorish.) Yet, every weekend in Buffalo during the summer has some sort of festival and complaints seem sparse. I attended the Pride Parade and the Elmwood Art festival and those seemed welcomed and fine. They also play to the perceived strengths that current residents of that area perceive the area having.
This year, I was doing business with a human service agency located near the Central Terminal the day after Dyngus Day. I’m actually there a lot due to my job. The area was a mess with garbage everywhere. It usually looks rough because of the dilapidated housing stock but it doesn’t usually look trashed, or at least not more so than my corner of Black Rock. There is a strong sense of community in that neighborhood among the current residents. Every time I’ve been at the Broadway Market around lunch on the weekdays, I’ve seen retirement-aged gentlemen hanging out. It’s not trashed now, save Mt. Byron, which is now growing grass. (Back story here.) I am not saying it’s not rough; I’m not saying the area doesn’t suffer from severe problems of disinvestment; I’m saying that the value-added by Dyngus Day isn’t immediately obvious, and likely is a value disproportionately experienced by those who do not live on the East Side.
Which is worth exploring.
How you define a problem defines its solution.
How you define your priorities will define the problem.
How you define “success” will depend on how you define the problem.
It is all in the unit of analysis. We frequently keep defining problems and solutions in ways that benefit those in power. When we don’t, it becomes a large controversy that struggles to die even after decisions are made.
Buffalo has a long way to go before it can claim to be an equitable area, and this is thoroughly demonstrated in how we argue about issues of power.