In Evicted, Desmond illustrates the role inequality and discrimination play in housing injustice in America. He shows that some discrimination that is technically illegal (such as racial discrimination and discrimination against families with children) is still rampant within the housing market, and also gives examples of discrimination that is not classified as illegal. This latter form of discrimination mostly takes the form of discriminating against poor people simply for being poor. Ultimately, Desmond shows the distinction between legal and illegal forms of discrimination to be rather meaningless, because the legal system is basically ineffective in preventing discrimination and promoting equality. In many cases, the legal system actively collaborates in the oppression of certain groups.
One of the main forms of discrimination the book addresses is racial. Desmond makes frequent reference to the history of racist housing discrimination, showing how this placed many families in a cycle of poverty that was virtually impossible to break. The book focuses on Milwaukee, which has been named the most segregated city in America. Desmond shows that this segregation is in part the result of the voluntary actions of racist white people from across the income spectrum. Both the impoverished white people living in Tobin’s trailer park and the wealthy white landlords want as little to do with the black North Side of the city as possible—even if this means losing out on housing opportunities (for the poor) and profit opportunities (for the landlords). On the other hand, Desmond also shows that the city was actually designed to be segregated, and that the racial division and inequality has emerged from this urban design. This is a key example of the way in which discrimination and inequality emerge through both legal and illegal forces. While the prejudice of individuals certainly contributes to segregation and discrimination in Milwaukee, it is also within the government’s power to intervene and tackle racial injustice.
Desmond is also careful to show that one form of discrimination, such as racism, never exists on its own. Rather, all forms of discrimination and inequality are interconnected, leaving certain people drastically more vulnerable than others. For example, while mass incarceration is an issue that disproportionately affects black men, eviction is one that disproportionately affects black women: “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” Desmond explores some of the reasons for this. Women are rarely able to offer manual labor in exchange for rent reductions as men often do; women are also more likely to be discriminated against for being mothers.
In one telling part of the book, a family who has repeatedly been turned away by landlords is finally able to secure an apartment by pretending to be headed by a single father, rather than a couple. (Ned, the father in question, concludes: “People like single dads.”) Crucially, this eventual success is also due to the fact that the couple—who are white—hid the existence of the mother Pam’s two black daughters, only telling the landlord about their white children. This is a key example of the ways in which racial and gender discrimination intersect, leaving black women—and especially black mothers—in an exceptionally difficult position.
Desmond also illustrates forms of discrimination that, unlike sexism and racism, are less often the focus of legal and political discussion. This includes discrimination against families with children, against domestic violence victims, against drug users, and—most importantly—against poor people in general. While families with children do, as of 1988, theoretically have legal protections against discrimination within the housing system, Desmond points out that this is has little impact in reality. Furthermore, most of these other groups either have no protection under the law or are subject to active legal discrimination. For example, landlords are entitled to refuse housing to drug users and individuals with a criminal record, and can evict people for using drugs. Even more disturbingly, Desmond highlights the issue of landlords collaborating with the police to evict those who report domestic violence. This creates what he calls “a devil's bargain: ‘keep quiet and face abuse or call the police and face eviction.’”
Perhaps the most important form of discrimination Desmond explores, however, is that against poor people as a group. All of the tenants profiled in his book suffer not only due to the economic conditions of their poverty, but also because of the social consequences of this economic situation. The most basic example of this is the fact that landlords do not want to rent to tenants who they believe will not pay their rent on time. While this might seem fair in the abstract, in Evicted Desmond argues that housing is actually a human right, and that it is therefore unjust to refuse housing to people based on their income level. Furthermore, he also demonstrates that if people are victims of housing discrimination due to the fact that they are poor, they essentially have no chance of escaping poverty.
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Inequality, Injustice, and Discrimination Quotes in Evicted
Sherrena saw all this, but she saw something else too. Like other seasoned landlords, she knew who owned which multifamily, which church, which bar, which street; knew its different vicissitudes of life, its shades and moods; knew which blocks were hot and drug-soaked and which were stable and quiet. She knew the ghetto's value and how money could be made from a property that looked worthless to people who didn't know any better.
It took a certain skill to make a living off the city's poorest trailer park, a certain kind of initiative. Tobin’s strategy was simple. He would walk right up to a drug addict or a metal scrapper or a disabled grandmother and say, "I want my money." He would pound on the door until a tenant answered. It was almost impossible to hide the fact that you were home. It was hard to hide much of anything. Office Susie knew when your check arrived; she put it in your mailbox. And Lenny could plainly see if you had enough money to buy cigarettes or beer or a new bike for your kid but not enough to pay the rent.
When city or state officials pressured landlords—by ordering them to hire an outside security firm or by having a building inspector scrutinize their property—landlords often passed the pressure on to their tenants. There was also the matter of reestablishing control. The most effective way to assert, or reassert, ownership of land was to force people from it.
Poor families were often compelled to accept substandard housing in the harried aftermath of eviction. Milwaukee renters whose previous move was involuntary were almost 25 percent more likely to experience long-term housing problems than other low-income renters.
When tenements began appearing in New York City in the mid-1800s, rent in the worst slums was 30 percent higher than in uptown. In the 1920s and ‘30s, rent for dilapidated housing in the black ghettos of Milwaukee and Philadelphia and other northern cities exceeded that for better housing in white neighborhoods. As late as 1960, rent in major cities was higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations. The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing. They were there—and this was especially true of the black poor—simply because they were allowed to be.
Some landlords neglected to screen tenants for the same reason payday lenders offered unsecured, high-interest loans to families with unpaid debt or lousy credit; for the same reason that the subprime industry gave mortgages to people who could not afford them; for the same reason Rent-A-Center allowed you to take home a new Hisense air conditioner or Klaussner “Lazarus” reclining sofa without running a credit check. There was a business model at the bottom of every market.
Men often avoided eviction by laying concrete, patching roofs, or painting rooms for landlords. But women almost never approached their landlord with a similar offer. Some women—taxed by child care, welfare requirements, or work obligations—could not spare the time. But many others simply did not conceive of working off the rent as a possibility. When women did approach their landlords with such an offer, it sometimes involved trading sex for rent.
The power to dictate who could stay and who must go; the power to expel or forgive: it was an old power, and it was not without caprice.
"This moment right now," Sherrena reflected, "it’s going to create a lot of millionaires. You know, if you have money right now, you can profit from other people's failures. . . . I’m catching the properties. I'm catching ‘em."
In the 1960s and 1970s, destitute families often relied on extended kin networks to get by. Poor black families were "immersed in a domestic web of a large number of kin and friends whom they [could] count on," wrote the anthropologist Carol Stack in All Our Kin. Those entwined in such a web swapped goods and services on a daily basis. This did little to lift families out of poverty, but it was enough to keep them afloat. But large-scale social transformations—the crack epidemic, the rise of the black middle class, and the prison boom among them—had frayed the family safety net in poor communities. So had state policies like Aid to Families with Dependent Children that sought to limit "kin dependence" by giving mothers who lived alone or with unrelated roommates a larger stipend than those who lived with relatives.
But for the most part, tenants had a high tolerance for inequality. They spent little time questioning the wide gulf separating their poverty from Tobin's wealth or asking why rent for a worn-out aluminum-wrapped trailer took such a large chunk of their income. Their focus was on smaller, more tangible problems […] Most renters in Milwaukee thought highly of their landlord. Who had time to protest inequality when you were trying to get the rotten spot in your floorboard patched before your daughter put her foot through it again? Who cared what the landlord was making as long as he was willing to work with you until you got back on your feet? There was always something worse than the trailer park, always room to drop lower.
Job loss could lead to eviction, but the reverse was also true. An eviction not only consumed renters' time, causing them to miss work, it also weighed heavily on their minds, often triggering mistakes on the job. It overwhelmed workers with stress, leading them to act unprofessionally, and commonly resulted in their relocating farther away from their worksite, increasing their likelihood of being late or missing days.
Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit. The violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide. One in two recently evicted mothers reports multiple symptoms of clinical depression, double the rate of similar mothers who were not forced from their homes. Even after years pass, evicted mothers are less happy, energetic, and optimistic than their peers.
Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.