By JJ Amaworo Wilson
One hundred years from now, historians will want to describe African American life in the 21st century. They may well use Matthew Desmond’s formulation: “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
Desmond is a Harvard sociologist and recent winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant. His graduate studies consisted of living in a trailer park and later a dilapidated Milwaukee duplex, both poverty-stricken. He was there to find out about the rates, causes and consequences of eviction. As “The Nation” put it, in a glowing review, “the results were astonishing … eviction wasn’t a daily event in Milwaukee; it was more like an hourly one.”
What Desmond found, then, was an underworld in the heart of America. A world in which people beg strangers for floor space to sleep on and others are forced to sell their food stamps. The majority of his dealings were with black women – the men were incarcerated, dead or otherwise absent.
Make no mistake, evictions wreck lives. Kids must keep changing schools and thus have no stability in which to learn. Letters go to the wrong addresses, which means missed job opportunities and aid. Communities can never cohere because there’s a constant flow of new faces. And worst of all, evictions stay on tenants’ records, meaning it becomes harder for them to get housing assistance or to rent privately; in other words, an eviction is the beginning of a spiral.
Desmond’s research is conveyed in powerful prose reminiscent of the classics of its type: Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed, or, more recently, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. While providing copious statistics, Desmond manages to humanize the victims. We see them not as numbers but as individuals, flawed but striving.
Perhaps the true tragedy, as so often, is what happens to the offspring of the evicted parents. Their childhoods seem to have barely begun before they have ended. A six-year-old girl says matter-of-factly to her mother, “Tell us about the time that Dad hit you with a bottle and blood was coming out of your head.” In a touching section, an impoverished woman and her friend see a boy scavenging from tables in McDonald’s and pool their change to buy him a meal.
One of the most powerful aspects of the book is how it illustrates that eviction goes hand in hand with violence, addiction, sexual abuse, and racial inequality. As with the terminally homeless, there is always a back-story to those being evicted, and these stories inevitably point to a wide spectrum of injustice and neglect.
Eviction is not an easy read, but in its own way it’s darkly riveting, like watching an edifice slowly crumble to the ground as the dust rises and the debris flies.