Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Socially-Minded Tangent

This is unrelated to anything anyone is probably hoping to read about on this blog, but I find it interesting so, too bad.

photo credit: Yana Paskova for The New York Times

The gist of it is that an old hotel in Elmhurst (Queens, NYC) has been converted into temporary housing for homeless families. The neighborhood is primarily populated by Chinese immigrants, who are seriously displeased about having a bunch of homeless black and Latino people around. The Chinese residents of Elmhurst have launched racially-tinged protests against the shelter residents, and the shelter residents are hurling racial and xenophobic epithets right back.

I don't live in NYC but this conflict hits close to home for a few reasons, and is tangentially related to some of the work I'm doing here.

A few things that stood out to me:

1) Racism (on both sides) between Chinese and blacks runs deeper and more fierce than many other Americans realize. Because virtually everyone in China belongs to the same race/ethnicity, many immigrants' only exposure to African Americans comes through word-of-mouth, media, etc. which tend to bias them against blacks. So when Chinese immigrants come to the US, they have these incredibly prejudicial ideas about African Americans: guns n' gangs, drugs, hookers, etc. My own neighborhood in College City is actually majority black with a substantial Chinese minority, and the street crime (muggings, shootings, car thefts) between these two groups is not insignificant. And anecdotally, given I have a lot of contact with Chinese immigrants (at an elite, hard-science-focused university), many of them truly are terrified of blacks. So it doesn't surprise me that this particular situation in Elmhurst has gotten so inflamed.

2) We have NO feasible, reliable solution for homelessness in the United States other than public and subsidized housing. NONE. If everyone in the country were able to go out and get a good job and put a down payment on a house in a safe neighborhood with good public schools and still have money left over for groceries and gas and utilities and clothes, they would do it. Homelessness is more complicated than that. So the rest of society doesn't have to like it, but they will have to put up with having shelters and housing projects in their cities, because that's all we've got. Nobody wants to live in a shelter, but they would rather live there than on the streets, especially when there are kids involved. And the fastest growing segment of the homeless population by far is families with kids, now comprising something like 40 percent of the entire homeless population. It's not all single male vets with schizophrenia. And these kids need roofs over their heads.

3) That being said, it is entirely possible that the government did target a predominantly immigrant neighborhood to put a relatively undesirable institution. That is also not fair, and the residents of Elmhurst should have had more say in the timing and design of this particular project. It is unlikely, for example, that you would see a homeless shelter open in a more affluent, primarily white neighborhood.

Ahem. Okay I'm done. Back to your regularly-scheduled programming.

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