How should we deal with newcomers?

The Atlantic had an interesting piece recently about how gentrifying neighborhoods attract more police resources, due to calls from the newer residents, and how this disproportionately affects racial/ethnic minorities. I think it reads more productively as a criticism of policing rather than of gentrification per se, though the author doesn’t seem to, but more interestingly it evokes a widespread social issue. To begin my explanation, let me highlight these passages:

When low-income neighborhoods see an influx of higher-income residents, social dynamics and expectations change. One of those expectations has to do with the perception of safety and public order, and the role of the state in providing it. The theory goes that as demographics shift, activity that was previously considered normal becomes suspicious, and newcomers—many of whom are white—are more inclined to get law enforcement involved. Loitering, people hanging out in the street, and noise violations often get reported, especially in racially diverse neighborhoods.

In 2013, the city of San Francisco launched Open311, a mobile app that allows residents to easily report public disorder like loitering, dirty sidewalks, or vandalism by snapping a photo and sending their location. The app can feel altruistic; residents, for example, are able to report the whereabouts of homeless people who seem to be in need of assistance. But some worry that the dispatches can result in unnecessary citations or harassment. And while broken-windows policing remains controversial, a 2015 poll suggested that it’s still largely accepted by the general public, so when people see something, they’re likely to say something. After the app launched, 311 calls increased throughout the city, and one study showed that gentrifying neighborhoods saw a disproportionate spike.

Butler, who recently wrote the book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, believes that this is a result of newcomers refusing to assimilate to longstanding neighborhood norms. [emphasis added] “Culturally, I think the way that a lot of African American and Latino people experience gentrification is as a form of colonization,” he said. “The gentrifiers are not wanting to share—they’re wanting to take over.” One of the tools they can use to take over public spaces, he argues, is law enforcement.

This is interesting, and it reminds me of the neighborhood where I lived in Alexandria, Virginia, only in reverse. There was a lot of very recent immigration, largely Salvadoran, as there has been all over the DC metro area. Granted, I was a newcomer to the neighborhood, but of similar SES and background to the longer-term residents. Being from the US-Mexico border, this immigration doesn’t bother me, but I noticed it bothered a lot of other people because the Salvadorans, to use the language of the article, ‘refused to assimilate to longstanding neighborhood norms’ regarding noise, cleanliness of public spaces, junk cars parked on the street, etc. Indeed, this is a common occurrence all across the country, and for the last decade or more has been a simmering issue. This cultural friction is one of the reasons for the surprising result of the 2016 presidential election. The Atlantic’s political wing tends to regard people who are upset by immigration as, well, deplorable. No doubt some are motivated by racism, which is indeed deplorable, but cultural frictions exist that aren’t motivated by racism. (For the record, in my ideal world immigration rules will be greatly liberalized relative to current rules.)

So which is it? Are newcomers wrong for “refusing” to assimilate to longstanding area norms, or are older residents wrong for not accepting the changes? There’s no simple answer, and I don’t mean to suggest the writer of the article or anybody else thinks there is. I don’t think we’ve had much public dialogue on the issue, and I’d like to, especially as so much governance happens outside of formal systems, and better public understanding of good rules and norms would help us resolve more social issues with nuance and wisdom before they became political issues resolved with neither.

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