Convergence: Housing, Race and Black Lives Matter

Last updated: August 13, 2015 – 9:27 AM


To begin with, working to end police violence against Black men and women is the right thing to do. The killings of Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott and hundreds of other Black men and women by police are an intolerable outrage. They require us to take action.

John Bartlett, Author

Housing activists should be joining hands with Black Lives Matter because their work cuts to the core of the role that race plays in defining how one is treated in society. Race is an inescapable and unjust factor that determines the housing environment in which you live, or whether you need to fear being shot by the police. If we truly want to work for housing equity and make housing a human right, then racial disparity must be confronted.

In Chicago, the Marshall Field Garden Apartments (MFGA) is but one example of the role race plays in housing in America. The apartment complex, which has about 625 units, receives support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It is an island, inhabited by mostly low-income Black women and their children, located in a sea of White wealth on the Northside of Chicago. Its location is one of opportunity in an area many dream of living.

But for the residents, it is a nightmare. MFGA’s security system acts to shackle and control its residents. The two-square-block complex has but one entrance that all the residents and their guests must pass through. Upon entering the entrance, the door closes and locks in residents and guests.

Chicago’s Marshall Field Garden Apartments, which are home to many Black and working families, have an entrance with an elaborate security screening system. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

A security guard directs residents to pass through a body scanner and then to pass their hand through a biometric finger print machine. It is only then that residents or their guests are “free” to enter. To leave, residents and their visitors have to double back to the entrance and enter a code to open the locked door.

Observes Paul Burns, an organizer with Metropolitan Tenants Organization: “As a Black man, I am appalled by this treatment. Entering these apartments is so dehumanizing. It’s as if Marshall Field Garden Apartments is a practice field for prison.”

The MacArthur Foundation recently released a report that found Black women in Milwaukee are being evicted from their homes at the same disproportionate rates that Black men are being imprisoned. Black men in the U.S. are three and a half times more likely to be killed by police than White men. Black women in Milwaukee are three times more likely to be evicted than White women.

The fact that Black men are being locked up and Black women are being locked out is not unrelated. Both poor housing and police misconduct thrive in segregation. Both eviction and incarceration work together to keep communities of color poor and disenfranchised.

A family, which is forcibly displaced by eviction, often experiences a sense of despair as well as a feeling of injustice. In Chicago, according to a study by the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, the average eviction takes just 90 seconds. Tenants rarely are able to tell their story, let alone inform the court of the impending harm the eviction will cause.

Tenants are assumed to be at fault. Most families will end up seeking a place to stay in a relative’s home or a shelter. In either case, the overcrowded living situation and loss of dignity mean hardship, particularly on children. Parents often lose jobs and kids miss school.

In the same way that evictions result in a sense of despair and feelings of injustice, the incarceration of Black men result in identical feelings. The court system is stacked against them. Many people of color are represented by overworked and underpaid attorneys.

A prevailing view is that if arrested they must have done something wrong. Even the bail system is biased against low-income people of color. Unable to meet bail demands, they are stuck in the crowded institution called prison, miles from home. Many lose their jobs and their children lose a parent.

The “locked up and locked out” syndrome described in the MacArthur report creates a feedback loop that produces a crushing incidence of generational poverty. All of this devastates communities.

Having either an eviction or a criminal record makes it difficult to rent a decent apartment or find a decent job. It forces families to rent in highly-segregated neighborhoods where jobs are scarce, educational opportunities are rare, and crime is high.

People who can leave do so, which further erodes the community fabric and economic vitality. The only people left in these communities are those who can go nowhere else.

A history of racial injustice breeds false stereotypes and shapes the basis for this nation’s current state of affairs. It is a social order that is unjust and unacceptable.

This is why housing activists need to support Black Lives Matter. Black youth are leading a struggle for equality while defining the role race plays in the denial of basic human rights. A human rights approach is a key to success, as it focuses on the broader rights of the community and the dignity of its residents.

Human rights are the social rights which allow everyone to enjoy life, liberty, equality, a fair trial, freedom from slavery and torture and freedom of thought and expression. A society based on human rights not only offers hope for survival but a genuine path toward a society that values and supports every life in the community.

The way to win our human rights is through struggle. As Frederick Douglass said, “It is not the light that we need; but the fire, it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind and the earthquake.”

Today’s young leaders are taking the movement for human rights into the streets. It is time to demand massive investment in communities of color so that everyone has a decent home, a decent job, a good education, good health and are free from the fear of state violence.

Black Lives Matter is a struggle for Human Rights that we all must support.


This piece was originally published August 12, 2015 by Equal Voice News

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