Of Sh*tholes and Section 8: A Response to Rod Dreher

Jemar Tisby

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.


24 thoughts on “Of Sh*tholes and Section 8: A Response to Rod Dreher

  1. Isabella Miller

    For instance, someone who has experienced hardship may develop values centered around resilience and compassion, while positive experiences may reinforce values like gratitude or optimism.

  2. Chet Hinote

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  3. Marjorie

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  4. Gaston

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  7. Adrian

    “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”


  8. Tracy

    Milo, the trouble in Brooklyn is that people in Section 8 housing want the wealthy to stay out of their neighborhoods! And what you are describing is housing with poor maintenance. Nobody is excited to live near that, but we’re talking about something else now, aren’t we?

  9. Tracy

    I don’t live in a huge city, and Section 8 housing is on two different sides of me. One is Section 8 housing for the elderly, and the other is Section 8 housing for families. The housing for the elderly is in good shape, the development for families is clean and safe — but maintenance looks a little behind schedule. I’ve lived in major cities where Section 8 housing is also in mixed neighborhood settings — in fact it can be found near relatively high rent areas in New York City. Perhaps Dreher needs to get out a little more. He was trafficking in stereotypes. Any hipster in Brooklyn would be glad to have showed him the vibrancy of his neighborhood.

  10. Lauren O'C

    Respectfully, he addresses this in the essay, head on. Mr. Tisby’s acknowledgement of selfishness and his own need to continue to grow is in the section after the quote from Luke.

  11. Thomas W.

    My apologies, I missed the following in the my first read through:

    Jemar: “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 would have written a little differently as Jemar admits here Dreher’s position on our perception of the poor.

    However, I do find it disappointing to have read the rest only to see Jemar ultimately agree with the premise.

    The difference here is thus rendered to Jemar’s belief that it’s always sin when we shield, and Dreher’s uncertainty must be from ill motivation. The later can’t be proven, and shielding isn’t always sinful, esp when there is risk of danger to consider.

    The biggest problem arising is when we disagree on how to help the poor esp when there is no physical danger, and we can’t discuss the consequences of proposed solutions without strawmen and ad homenim. I think this is where Dreher fails too and was wrong to be dismissive of Jemar and others.

    The reality is that we need to be able to discuss how best to help, and how best to help may very well vary by community, and thus shielding isn’t always from heart of discrimination, but from a heart of honest consideration. Thus, it is possible without sinning.

    In addition, what I would propose to temper our beliefs on class warfare is whereas Jemar makes a great point to appeal to Christ and the Word on ministering to the poor, the Word also encourages generosity from the heart of the individual, not by compulsion or guilt. We need to be very mindful how we impose our christian liberty and our callings upon others.

    A couple of commentators have mentioned how they live in poorer neighborhoods on purpose despite the risk of dangers. That is great, it’s frankly awesome. But often Christians assume our individual calling should be everyone’s. Or we assume that our willingness and calling to take on risk, danger, and other burdens should be followed by others. But others have different callings, different gifts, different acceptable priorities (adoption isn’t for everyone or every family, and marriage isnt for every person). We aren’t all missionaries to a foreign 3rd world land. We aren’t all preachers. Etc. Pride often creates our prejudices here and how we respond. The bible tempers this when it reminds us we are one body but with many varying parts, when it asks us to respect our weaker brother, when it asks us not to force charity from others, etc. Christ appeals to the rich to be generous and the poor to be content. And we need to get past the underlying worldly tenet that equality can only be achieved by tearing down something or someone else.

    Jemar: “It is my concern for the suffering of the poor that motivated my response to Dreher.”

    It was quite possible Dreher’s concern too in which he wrote the articles to begin with (or else I doubt he’d be wrestling with it). Affording the same nuance and motives to others we believe we are capable of and are using ourselves (even with they don’t) makes for a much better discussion and less of a waste of time. It also helps prevent our bias from taking over and arguing intentions we can rarely prove. This article was wrought with interpreting Dreher’s motives, while ending with an acceptance of the initial premise to begin with.

    Perhaps a better article would have been on how to temper our fears (misplaced or not) when the Lord is calling us to respond to the needy? Or an article on the positives and negatives of going into poor communities verses bringing them to your own? Where these failed, succeeded, and what were the variables?

    Likewise with immigration, ~ 80 million Africans are born every year, we immigrate about a fraction of that number like 2% maybe, so what are the implications, why are we doing it and what ends are we attempting to achieve? How does it affect the citizenship here, esp our own poor? How does it affect them?

    I think many of us as Americans have an overhanging arm chair qb approach to helping the poor, regardless of the consequences or ramifications. And we’re prone to just the same ole assumptions of others motivations when they make flat statements on situations as were so quick to argue. (Me included).

  12. Will

    Hey friend. My name is Will. I live in Nashville where I run a non-profit working with young men who have grown up in generational poverty and I live with my wife in the neighborhood where I work. High crime/low income. Your questions are legitimate and there was a time when I would have yelled “Amen!” I don’t suppose that I can fit almost a decade of reading, living, serving, crying, eating and laughing into a comment thread. But I will say that that all the things you mention above are usually a defense mechanism against something that has or is hurting them. I’ve never met the gang member with a solid family life. I’ve never met a prostite with a healthy relationship with her dad. I’ve never met a dealer who felt like they had options. This doesn’t justify any criminal or destructive behavior but instead of seeing those prone to criminality as bad people, we should see them as hopeless, hurting people made in the image of God with infinite value. And as a Christian, as a minister of reconciliation, as salt and light, I believe we have been redeemed to pursue those people in love. Not to run from them.

    Please don’t read this as rebuke. As I skimmed the comments yours jumped out to me as familiar so I thought I would respond. Thanks for reading.

  13. Andrew

    I’m curious to know, are you purposefully choosing to live in close proximity to section 8 housing right now with kids of your own? I’m not taking sides, just interested in your intellectual honesty.

  14. Stephen

    You do know that Rich people sell drugs too, and they have affairs/children out of wedlock, and they do behave in manners that should get them fired, and they do also have self-destructive behavior. Those aren’t character traits that are exclusive to the poor.

  15. Karen Koenig

    When job opportunities are next to nil in your neighborhood and the neighborhood schools are completely failing children so they don’t get a good education, selling drugs to quickly make a buck looks very appealing when it seems you don’t have many other options.

    When there is little access to things like affordable birth control you tend to have unplanned pregnancies.

    When you live in a cycle of generational poverty where all hope of a better life has been collectively drained from your environment and community, you tend to not care very much about anything, because what’s the point? And you’ve never had anyone to look up to teach you the skills required to land a good job, or to even have pride in a solid work ethic.

    If you’ve never lived it, its impossible to know just how soul crushing it can be. That does not mean that people don’t ever rise above it, but Christ continually gave examples of how we are to reach out with radical love that has no strings attached and no judgment when we love others. And it is in that very radical act that people see Jesus and can be changed from the inside out.

  16. Patrick MacDonald

    Doesn’t seem like Dreher would have wanted Jesus to move into his neighborhood.

    “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

  17. Justin

    Dreher has since published two full posts on his blog from those who have taken exception to what he has written.

    Say what you want about him, but the man is willing to take criticism seriously. I think he really went wrong in the posts in question. But I appreciate his willingness to wrestle out loud with the tensions he feels, even if it means enduring some embarrassingly insensitive stuff. And he is showing himself willing to be criticized.

  18. Milo C

    Let’s remember that “is” and “ought” are not the same thing.

    As an empirical matter, can someone please point me to any middle- or upper-class person who actually would be excited about a Section 8 housing development being situated in their neighborhood? I’m genuinely curious, and speaking as someone who actually DOES live in a middle-class neighborhood with a small Section 8 housing complex inside it. It’s mostly older folks who live there, but the grounds are perpetually covered in litter and broken bottles, and the only murder in our neighborhood since we’ve lived there took place in that complex.

    I think putting up with a bit of fear is a worthy sacrifice to keep these folks in their homes, but NO ONE I know is EXCITED about the complex being there.

  19. Thomas W.

    If the statement Dreher makes isn’t in general true about us as people, then why is Jemar Tisby needing to advocate on a continual basis for social justice and against many applications from race to gender to economic standing that have led to oppression of the poor? What are we fighting against if that perception isn’t true of how people think and have ACTED for centuries? The perception of what is dirty, grimy, filthy, etc is just another aspect like racism is that flows from the fallen heart and nature of all mankind. And that means even me, you, and Jemar Tisby are susceptible to it.

    Isn’t Dreher right about how at least most people tend to respond to those they consider less than themselves? And calling us to be honest about it? How is that bigoted of him in an attempt to challenge our lack of self honesty? How is it, Jemar can’t deal with the question flat out, but instead let the bias he has against the man’s motives create an overwhelming dissonance for his view simply because Dreher didn’t say it like Jemar wants it said?

    Dreher doesn’t care what the basis is to the specific person is, because it VARIES by person.

    This article entirely undermines itself. And like the book review from last year, asserts the motives of another person which you can’t know (you’re not Jesus) leading to judgmentalism. Even if Dreher is ultimately guilty of the same in his response to Jemar and others, then why follow the same suit by not sticking to the content?

    This whole article just seems to avoid the questions we ought to be challenging ourselves with daily. Yes, I’m sure there are a few, and maybe Jemar is one, who have never struggled with that issue, but his own approach to fighting systemic injustice means there’s a SYSTEMIC INJUSTICE caused by people who don’t want to associate with others! That means most of us struggle with that. It’s an acknowledgement of a significant portion of the population does in fact not want the poor impacting their livelihoods.

    That includes me too. I don’t have a hard time with skin color. I do have a hard time with the poor in general when it comes to stereotypes of hygiene and criminality perceptions.

    But that’s not all Dreher seems to appeal to here. In the context of immigration he is talking about how immigration displaces our citizens. That includes black people.

    From Dreher: “That’s what’s going on here with this post of mine. I very much doubt that most of my critics (missionaries excluded) would choose to live among the poor of any race in most American cities, especially if they were raising families. Is this because they are racist, classist bigots? Maybe they are. Or is it more likely that they look at the fruits of the culture of the poor — the violence, the drugs, the shattered families, the bad schools, the chaos — and want to protect themselves and their children from it.

    Why is this wrong? Why does it necessarily imply that one hates the poor? Are we supposed to pretend that this stuff doesn’t exist?”

    Assuming Dreher is lying and/or his motives aren’t genuine is why we go around in circles on these issues. The judgmentalism has to stop. And Christians should learn to become above reproach in that manner so that are words are not easily dismissed or labeled.

    If you have a family with kids, and are considering adoption, you have to consider how that adopted child will displace your own kids. It will affect them. It will displace them to some extent. Only your family can decide if that’s something worth it that you’re wiling to sacrifice and do. Others who don’t aren’t worse or better.

    Likewise, immigration (legal or illegal) displaces citizens. If we can’t have an honest conversation on how new Hatian immigrants will affect African Americans for instance, then you’ll never get out of the issues of system injustices, because the potential to create more issues that compound the same ole issues will just go on. We have to look at how immigration both affects our family here, and what does it actually do for what is left behind.

    Immigration is not a mercy ministry. Nor is the government necessary for ministry to the poor and other nations.

  20. lpadron13

    What does being poor have to do with choosing to sell drugs?

    What does being poor have to do with choosing to have several children out of wedlock?

    What does being poor have to do with choosing to dress or behave in a manner that won’t get you hired?

    What does being poor have to do with the self destructive behavior Dreher is aiming at with his piece?

  21. Alicia

    Thank you for your intelligent and gracious response. When I saw his comments on Section 8 housing and sh*ithole communities I got angry in a way I don’t usually when someone I don’t know says something ignorant. I am intentionally raising my children in a neighborhood he would consider a “sh*thole” and while poverty and the effects of poverty are terrible, my family and I have been blessed by our neighbors beyond anything we could repay. I love my neighborhood and see God’s grace at work in the people here as they show my family compassion and forgiveness.

  22. Andrew F.

    Great thoughts! James 1:9-11 comes to mind.

  23. Rollin


    Bruh, I appreciate your gracious response to the Dreher’s ad hominem attack on you.

  24. Shannon Anderson

    Thank you! This response is wonderful and life-giving. I am grateful for the voice of The Witness in our world!

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