Interesting thoughts from a reader who asks to be identified simply as G.:

I’m a long-time reader of American Conservative and have some thoughts on the Poverty & Culture posts and Sh*thole Countries posts.

While it was a good thing that this issue got discussed for about a week on American Conservative, I think there was a missed opportunity to really draw some takeaway conclusions from it all.  I think what got missed was framework for all of the discussion, which I’ll attempt to lay out here in a couple parts.

I noticed that the objections from your readers to living in “Sh*thole” communities or having people from those communities move into their neighborhoods fell into roughly 3 distinct categories:

1) Objections to things like noisiness, smelliness, unkempt appearances of people and buildings, poor hygiene, leaving garbage strewn about, etc. 

2) Concerns that those people in posed a direct threat to the safety of others

3) Concerns that those people in brought about corrupting values & poor morals

I think that Conservatives and Christians ought to considers each category separately.  A problem I saw with the discussion last week is that a lot of your readers were leaving long comments that jumbled all three categories of objections together, to the effect of “…you wouldn’t want to live near people that were in gangs where there are shootings all the time and they would try to get your kids into using drugs — also they leave garbage everywhere and play loud music all night”.  To which another reader might reply “well, I lived in a poor neighborhood that wasn’t very pretty and it had a lot of garbage everywhere, but the people there were the kindest, most honest, hardworking, generous, people ever.”

So I saw a lot of people with personal anecdotes going round and round with counter-anecdotes without being able to conclude anything.

So I might pose the essential question as this: Is it morally right for religious conservatives (or really, whoever) to object to living near people from impoverished communities on the basis of:

  1. aesthetics and cleanliness? 
  2. concern for their personal safety and the safety of their communities? 
  3. concern for the potential corruption of the morals of their children?

I think I’d not even bother trying to defend the first item, since it has the least grounding in Scripture and also tends to be a secondary concern for most people anyway when they are more urgently concerned about defending the safety and values of their children.  So I think it would be helpful for your readers to put aside all complaints about peeling paint and couches in the front yard and so on in order to focus on the other two questions, and safety always seems the most pressing, so I’ll focus on that one.

Is it morally right for religious conservatives to object to living near people from impoverished communities on the basis of concern for their safety?

The more I read everything posted on this subject over the past week, the more I began to recognize that readers were framing up this question in several different ways that matter a lot for how a religious conservative might go about answering it.  Let me try to rephrase:

  1. Is it right to object to moving yourself and your family into an impoverished community?
  2. Is it right to object to a whole bunch of people from an impoverished community moving into your neighborhood?
  3. Is it right to object to a single person or a single family from an impoverished community moving into your neighborhood?

The way that the question is phrased makes a huge difference in the answer for a lot of people, and a lot of your readers kept posing point/counterpoint examples and anecdotes that were really addressing these different versions of the question.

One reader asking “would you want 10,000 people from the ghetto suddenly coming in and swamping your community?” got answered by another reader “well, we had this nice family move in down the street that came from a very impoverished community and it was okay”.  The difference  in this questions is magnitude and speed of change, and the underlying subtext that people have in trying to answer the question is how well they feel that they can adsorb outsiders into their own community.

Which brings me to the key point in this long e-mail. How does one judge the relative risk posed by outsiders?

I’d say it has to do a lot with cultural signals (i.e., what message do signs, symbols, gestures, etc. convey in a culture, and how are they interpreted outside of that culture?)  Here’s an interesting item.  Sometime in the last month or so, a Mainstream Media publication (I think it was NY Times?) carried an article about an LGBT couple traveling through some red states and they had some encounters with the people that left them frightened for their safety and traumatized with fear.  This got picked up by a numbers of conservative websites who were outraged that an elite coastal publication would insinuate that ordinary folks in red states were hateful and violent and so on and so on, but I couldn’t help but think that it’s a matter of how the LGBT couple was interpreting the cultural signals that they saw as personally dangerous to them, while in the context of the community they have a more neutral or nuanced meaning.

And I think that this the same reason that your readers were giving wildly different answers on their comfort with people from impoverished communities (at least, whatever impoverished community they were thinking of) – if people are familiar and comfortable with the cultural signals from an impoverished community, they tend to see them as less threatening than if they are unfamiliar with the signals (at least, they know enough about the culture to distinguish a neutral or nuanced signal from an “I’m going to harm you” signal).

To illustrate with examples, what does it say about the danger posed by a person from an impoverished community if they:

Drive a truck with a gun rack?

Carry a switchblade knife?

Display a Confederate Flag?

Display a Black Lives Matter sign?

Have tattoos? 

Speak a foreign language most of the time?

Talk with inner-city slang?

Talk with a thick backwoods accent?

Make references to Allah?

There really isn’t an objective answer to these questions – it’s a matter of perception, and that perception is largely informed by who a person is and how much experience they have with members of that community.  It’s kind of why our country had such a tough time talking about Charlottesville – everyone can agree they saw a big scary crowd threatening and intimidating mostly harmless folks, but which side was which for outside observers hinged a lot on which culture they understood and identified with better.

So back to that original question, “Is it right for religious conservatives to object to living near people from an impoverished community on the basis of concern for their safety?”  It’s almost not an accurate question – if the people in question are from a familiar, but impoverished community, the overall objection seems to drop off substantially (the person in question is less seen as a suspicious outsider or invader and instead becomes someone who got themselves out of a bad community and into a good community, which is admirable for a lot of conservatives).

Indeed, many people make a conscious decision to move back into an impoverished community that they originally came from in order to live near family members or simply to be among  people like themselves.

But to ask the question in this way “Is it right for religious conservatives to object to living near people from an UNFAMILIAR impoverished community on the basis of concern for their safety?”, well it’s also not a great question because I think I’ve made a case over the last several paragraphs that human beings are generally not good at assessing the relative threat posed by people from communities whose symbols, signals, and cultures they are unfamiliar with.

To wrap up, here’s a related thought: when it comes to the topic of immigration, one of the major complaints from conservatives is that immigrants aren’t doing enough to assimilate (after all, it was immigration that started this whole “Sh*thole countries”/communities discussion).  But I’ve wondered a lot about how assessments of assimilation and integration are made, who makes them, and what benchmarks are used to determine if outsiders are assimilating well or not (usually it means that the immigrant has or has not adopted many of the local customs).

And I almost wonder if the question can be turned around and also asked as “how well are the communities assimilating their newcomers?” as in, are they doing enough to understand the cultural signals retained from old communities?  In other words, if a community brings in outsiders and doesn’t make a good effort to understand the meaning of cultural signals, the longstanding members of the community can misconstrue the situation as being much more dangerous than it actually is (there may still be a threat from these people, but it has been inflated through misunderstanding).  Regardless, social trust in these communities plummets as a result of inflated assessment of risk.

Final thoughts: we (as in, human beings in the 21st century) are probably having a tougher time assimilating people into our communities than we have in the past because of our epidemic of loneliness and isolation.  If we never physically walk over to speak with our neighbors or spend time with them in person, we can’t begin to understand them, or their cultural symbols, or even begin to assess their moral character or hope to influence it for the better.  And we all know at least one big reason why: we spend WAY too much time behind our TV’s, computers, and smartphones.

So to return to the fundamental question of “Is it right for religious conservatives to object to living near people from an impoverished community on the basis of concern for their safety?” — it probably hinges on an honest assessment of whether we are making a real effort to know people coming in from those communities and to assess them accurately and as individual people, or are we making generalized guesses based on a few good or bad encounters.

Discuss.

I have to tell you all that despite the criticism from outside (e.g., this woke Washington Post editorial writer who, I would bet cash money, does not live in the poor part of town), I’ve really enjoyed the discussion on this blog of a morally complicated issue. Thanks to all who have contributed.