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In the current state of public discourse offensive statements have become commonplace. I tend to ignore most of those comments, but occasionally some of them deserve a response. After reading Rod Dreher’s blog post entitled “Of Shitholes and Second Thoughts” I decided this is one of those perspectives that cannot go unchallenged.

I shared my thoughts on Dreher’s post in a short thread on Twitter. Within a few hours, he had posted a full blog post as a rebuttal to me and another commenter, Jonathan Merritt. Despite his attempts to discredit my critique and his efforts to explain himself, I still think his original words were damaging and uninformed.

The Recap

Dreher’s first post contemplated a recent statement by the current president. When the subject of Haiti and African countries came up during a meeting about bi-partisan immigration reform, the president reportedly said, “Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?” His remarks sparked a torrent of criticism in Congress and online.

In the subsequent days, Dreher reconsidered his initial response. “The whole thing is more morally challenging than I initially thought,” he wrote. He then goes on to decry the president’s statement itself but also expresses ambivalence about the “sh*thole” countries and quotes Matthew Walther and Andrew Klavan to illustrate his point.

The most controversial remark soon follows. Dreher says,

Let’s think about Section 8 housing. If word got out that the government was planning to build a housing project for the poor in your neighborhood, how would you feel about it? Be honest with yourself. Nobody would consider this good news. You wouldn’t consider it good news because you don’t want the destructive culture of the poor imported into your neighborhood. Drive over to the poor part of town, and see what a shithole it is. Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood a shithole to bring the shithole to your street?

No, you don’t. Be honest, you don’t.

Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate magazine, posted a screenshot of the paragraph and commented, “i’m at the gym right now and i have ruined the end of my workout because i am legitimately stunned by the hate and vitriol in that paragraph. imagine believing that everyone of your station sees the residents of public housing as worthless degenerates.”

After I saw Bouie’s post, I clicked the link and read Dreher’s entire piece. I thought that perhaps, the quote had been taken out of context and that reading the whole post might blunt the bigotry of the statement. It didn’t.

I posted my reflections and that’s what prompted Dreher’s second post, I’ll focus mainly on this subsequent writing, but much of what I have to say intertwines with both posts.

Liberal Twitter and Professional Race-baiting

The title of Dreher’s second piece—“Liberal Twitter’s Knickers Knotted”—is dismissive and condescending. The phrase “knickers knotted” implies an ostentatious hand-wringing about what should be considered a minor issue. But is saying “Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood into a shithole to bring the shithole to your street?” really a minor statement? I don’t think so.

Before he gets out of the first paragraph, Dreher calls me a “dishonest liberal” and “obnoxious.” Yet Dreher never posts a link to my original comments on Twitter. He does not even give his readers the chance to read for themselves what I wrote.

Don’t miss the fact that Dreher immediately labels me a “liberal.” In many Christian circles, when you call a person or viewpoint “liberal” that usually means they are “unbiblical” and, therefore, not credible. I’m curious, though, in what way does Dreher think I am liberal? Is it because of my views of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, trinitarian theology, or any other Christian doctrine? Probably not.

Dreher likely calls me a liberal because I talk about racism and systemic injustice. He makes his opinion about these topics clear when in the final paragraph he calls me a “ professional race-baiter.”

It is an easy and oft-used tactic to claim that someone who talks about race is a “race-baiter.” But, as has often been said, saying that it’s raining doesn’t mean you caused it to rain. I point out racial issues because they exist. They affect me and our entire nation daily. To turn a (color)blind eye to racism is to fundamentally misunderstand the way our society has been (dis)ordered.

Out of context? Really?

What Dreher seems most concerned about is my supposed singling out a particular paragraph of a more nuanced piece and taking it out of context. He writes, “These critics have taken this passage out of context…If you read the entire post, here’s the context you’ll see.”

I would remind Dreher that the American Conservative, the site where he originally published the piece, used the exact same quote to promote his post. Are they guilty of misrepresenting him, too?

Honestly, when I first read the notorious paragraph, I thought Dreher was going in a different, and possibly helpful, direction. He could have explained how public perceptions of people in poverty are often based on damaging stereotypes. Dreher might have reminded his readers of the humanity and dignity of each person who lives in conditions of material need. He didn’t.

Instead, in the original post, Dreher goes on to quote another conservative commentator who wrote that, based on her experience in the Peace Corps in Senegal, the president was right to say some places are sh*tholes. Rather than expressing empathy and candidly addressing the ambivalence we can often feel about complex issues, Dreher’s comments come freighted with unsympathetic and uniformed criticisms.

More Information: Redlining, Sharecropping, and Slavery

Dreher briefly asks for more information to help him sort out his thoughts. “I’m trying to figure out what, exactly, I do believe. That was the context for the Section 8 statement…I want more information to help me (and my readers) think through this,” he wrote.

It sounds like an admirable sentiment, but taken in context with his other words, it comes across as disingenuous. If someone wants more information about the poor, it’s a good idea not to insult them in the process.

It is insulting to say “nobody would consider it good news” if poor people—i.e. those living in Section 8 housing—were to move near an affluent neighborhood. This statement “otherizes” an entire group of people based on their income level. Lost in Dreher’s comments is any sense of humanity, diversity, or individuality among the poor. These human beings become a superficial “they” who all share the same negative characteristics. People in poverty are simply bundled and rejected as undesirables.

We also have to consider the racial element of poverty. People of color experience poverty and unemployment at higher rates than white people. Some may attribute this gap to differing capabilities between the races. That is a racist view. Others, like Dreher, may attribute these discrepancies to “destructive culture of the poor.” Regardless of intention, the cultural view of poverty can be code for racist views of minorities who happen to be poor.

Also of concern is the fact that neither of Dreher’s blog articles speaks to the systemic and institutional nature of poverty. People don’t wake up one day and decide to be poor. Personal decisions certainly affect one’s material wealth, but that’s not the entire story. Throughout U.S. history, those who had economic, political and social power made deliberate decisions that kept people, usually racial and ethnic minorities, in poverty.

We could speak of the practice of redlining where the federal government passed down regulations encouraging realtors not to sell houses in affluent areas to African Americans and other people of color. The result was the concentration of poverty in certain areas of a city. The effects of a closed ecosystem of poverty have become evident from the under-funded schools, sub-par hospitals, decrepit housing, and a host of other issues that plague poor neighborhoods. These conditions were imposed not chosen.

Before that sharecropping kept black people in a cycle of poverty. Sharecroppers would cultivate a “share” of farmland owned by wealthy farmer, typically a former slaveowner. The owner of the property forced sharecroppers to buy on credit and only from a commissary on the plantation which sold basic implements like plows, seeds, and food at inflated prices. At the end of the harvest, sharecroppers would bring their crops to the owner for assessment. Mysteriously, the sharecroppers would almost never produce enough crops to clear their debt and, in fact, might owe even more money after the harvest than before. These unjust economic practices bound sharecroppers to a plantation as surely as the chains of slavery.

Slavery was not that long ago. Just over 150 years ago, not only were black people forbidden from owning property, they were actually considered property. Slavery in North America labeled human beings as chattel, in the same class as a horse or a wagon. Slaveowners went through a bloody war to preserve their right to “private property” in the form of human beings.

Critics of a systemic view of racism will say that slavery, sharecropping, and redlining are all in the past. Those circumstances are no longer the norm, so no one should bring them up in contemporary discussions of poverty. This view fails to understand the ongoing impact of past injustices.

For instance, the racial wealth gap is a result of America’s history of racial oppression. According to a 2015 study, the average white household had 16 times the wealth of the average black household. Is this because white people are really just that good with money and black people are that bad? No. It’s because real estate makes up the single largest share of household wealth. For generations blacks were excluded from a fair housing market and the result is a massive chasm of inequality.

Dreher’s comment about Section 8 housing ignores the historical context that created and perpetuates poverty among certain groups.

Deficit vs. Asset Based Thinking

Beyond Dreher’s ahistorical views of poverty, his analysis looks only at the deficits of poor communities but considers none of the assets. I had the privilege of working with residents of public housing for almost a decade as a public school teacher and principal. I am still learning from the poor about how to live a richer life.

I have seen people with barely any money give their last dollar to friends and relatives to help them with medical costs or a light bill. I have seen a neighborliness among community members in public housing that shames many suburbs. I have witnessed the piety and resilience of people who have few earthly possessions and even less earthly power. They have persevered against material poverty, racial prejudice, and social marginalization to carve out a life of joy and meaning.

Is it really the people in Section 8 housing who should concern us? Perhaps we should look at the effects of rich people moving nearby rather than what the proximity of the poor might mean.

A Christian View of Poverty

Jesus announced that he came as an ally to those in poverty. In Luke 4:18-19, Christ says,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Is Dreher’s article good news for the poor? Do his statements indicate God’s concern for people who experience a lack of material prosperity?

Honestly, I think Dreher is partially right. In our selfishness, those of us who have more money probably do not celebrate proximity to the poor. We want to shield ourselves from discomfort and that which is unfamiliar. But this is a sinful response. Instead, Christians who are filled with the Spirit battle against their negative biases to see the poor as Christ sees them—beloved creatures made to worship God in heaven and flourish here on earth.

I am still learning to empathize with the poor. I am still battling my own selfish tendencies to hold on to money and comfort. But through long and meaningful relationships with people in poverty, I have come to see their wealth and my own neediness.

We must all understand that we are a job loss, injury, divorce, or death away from poverty. We must all remember that Christ, though he was rich, became poor so that he could seek and save those in the midst of spiritual bankruptcy (2 Cor. 8:9). We must all emulate Christ’s example to beware of the love of money which is a root of all kinds of evil and to ally ourselves with the poor (1 Tim 6:10). We must all make sure that as we bear the name of Christ that we bring good news to people of all economic classes.

It is my concern for the suffering of the poor that motivated my response to Dreher. I have tried not to personally attack the man but only to differ with is views. I doubt that I will write any further responses. I commend this post and its readers to the Lord and pray for wisdom, grace, and generosity toward people in any form of poverty.

 

Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, and culture. He is the co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast and a PhD candidate in History at the University of Mississippi. Jemar is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (forthcoming Jan ’19 from Zondervan) Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby

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