Why blaming the homeless makes people feel better

Homeless teenage boy and girl

Systemic Justice Project friend, Jay Willis, has recently been writing with insight and wit about the problem of homelessness.  This week, he published the following op-ed in Crosscut


In Seattle, the recent explosion in homelessness has transformed the issue into a public emergency, demanding immediate, large-scale intervention. But as the estimated price tags of policy proposals grow, the angry backlash against the city’s homeless residents has intensified. Today, it’s rare to see an opinion on how to address the ongoing crisis that doesn’t make extensive use of the CAPS LOCK key.

Why do people sometimes respond so negatively to those living in crippling poverty? There are a few simple, well-studied psychological strategies that people use to alleviate their inherent unease when confronted with severe inequality. Learning to better understand these unconscious thought processes can foster greater empathy, encourage realistic thinking about the issue, and spur progress toward meaningful solutions.

To illustrate, let’s use reactions to an op-ed I wrote in the Seattle Times last month. In it, I argued that when the city conducts a “sweep” to clear homeless encampments, it’s prohibited from unreasonably seizing and destroying residents’ personal possessions. Although Seattle can regulate its streets, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t apply only to people who can afford rent.

I know that the first rule of writing on the Internet is to never read the comments. But the responses were interesting, as they so neatly showcase one way homelessness is explained away as an unfortunate yet acceptable fact of city life. Consider, as some commenters did, the idea that it’s okay to not help homeless people, because they like being homeless.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 9.52.44 PMThe psychologist Melvin Lerner calls this thought process the “Just World Theory”: people prefer to think that they live in a fair, equitable society, and will find ways to view the world as such—even when it requires logical gymnastics to do so.

Do so many of us really think that Seattle’s thousands of homeless residents prefer it that way? When I’ve been able to speak with those who live in The Jungle, not one person expressed any fondness toward spending their nights in five decades worth of blackened highway runoff. But it’s deeply distressing to accept the alternative: that our society freely tolerates human suffering, and that the benefits of the most prosperous period in the region’s history so cleanly elude its most vulnerable residents.

So we do as all self-respecting Seattleites do after each promising Mariners spring that flames out by September: we rationalize, constructing a narrative that explains inequality as the consequence of choices made by free-willed individuals, rather than as a sign of serious societal problems that we are obligated to fix. Reasoning that unsheltered people like living under a freeway — no matter how absurd this is once you stop to think about it — makes this state of affairs much easier to accept.

Others choose to view Seattle’s homeless residents through the “Blame Frame,” a term coined by Jon and Kathleen Hanson. The idea goes like this: when talking about members of our own social group, we tend to attribute good outcomes to having good character. People “like us” succeed because they work hard, put in effort, and happily see it all pay off.

However, when something bad befalls people we consider similar to us, we are quick to explain and exonerate. Something beyond their control—a smart investment gone bad, an employer that went under, the market tanking at just the wrong time—is to blame. “He’s a good guy,” we might say. “Just had some bad luck is all.” After all, we know what kind of person they really are: a good one! Through hard work, they’ll be back on their feet in no time.

We do not afford this same benefit of the doubt to the disadvantaged. Instead, when confronted with bad outcomes experienced by members of other social groups, we blame those people’s inherent character flaws. Just as good people deserve good outcomes, bad people deserve their lot in life, too. “Homeless people do not deserve help because they are lazy drug addicts. They don’t want to work. They have no one to blame but themselves.” Or as two creatively-named commenters put it:

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 9.53.10 PMSeattleites complain all the time about rising housing costs and the region’s ever-shifting job market. But even as people bemoan the role of these phenomena in their own lives, when it comes to the rise in homelessness, they often won’t connect these issues to it. This is an insidious double standard. By relieving the inclination to develop a nuanced understanding of the plight of Seattle’s homeless residents, the Blame Frame allows us to feel little responsibility to help those who need it.

If all this seems intensely depressing, I present to you a case for hope.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 9.53.23 PM

This is a valiant attempt to resolve difficult, conflicting emotions. (Is it you? If so, email me, and I’ll buy you a drink.) The author first tacks to the concepts outlined above, asserting that homeless people who “like their way of living” do not “deserve” help. But just a few lines later, they acknowledge an important tension: they do want to help those who are homeless due to “bad luck.”

This person recognizes that so much more probably goes into homelessness than any one individual’s decisions. And like many of us, he or she is trying to work these dissonant feelings out.

To be clear: the psychological concepts presented here are natural and unconscious. This means that no one — including you or me — is a malevolent person for sometimes wondering if homelessness is a lifestyle choice, or for wanting to blame the homeless for their own misfortune. But acknowledging how our reactions to complex social problems fail to capture all sides of the story is a critical missing step in Seattle’s discourse on homelessness.

By better understanding what goes on in our own heads, we can help foster more critical thinking about what causes homelessness, and, just maybe, how best to solve it.


See related articles:


The Illusion of Color-Blindness


From Harvard Gazette:

According to Yale Professor John Dovidio, “Whites spend a lot of time pretending they don’t see race.” But, he said, unconscious bias is pervasive, and unconscious biases by whites impact nearly every aspect of black lives, including vital areas such as health care and employment.

Dovidio, the Carl Iver Hovland Professor of Psychology at Yale University, was the guest speaker at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ second Diversity Dialogue of the year. “But I Don’t See Color! Consequences of Racial Color-Blindness” was held Dec. 2 at Harvard Hillel.

Biases are built into our society and it’s normal to absorb them, said Dovidio to the audience of more than 150. “Subtle bias by well-intentioned people is one of the hardest things to overcome.”

Prejudice is embedded in the way people think, which makes it insidious, he said. “If I see a person of color and I claim to be color-blind, what color do I see? White. And that’s racist.”

Dovidio cited several studies that showed disparities in interactions between physicians and patients. He said a 2003 study found, “Race-discordant visits are shorter, involve less positive affect, and are less participatory.” Another study, he noted, reported that 57 percent of blacks say they experience discrimination “often” or “very often” in interactions with white physicians.

Implicit bias by white physicians, he said, results in fewer verbalizations, shorter visits, and faster speech. They are less patient-centered. In response, the patient is less involved and there is less clinician respect. Further, the patient does not like or trust the clinician, and lacks confidence in him or her, according to the studies cited by Dovidio.

In the workplace, Dovidio said he does not buy managers’ arguments that “We tried to have a diverse [field] of candidates, but couldn’t find any” when filling job positions. He said senior leaders should not care about good intentions, but only about results.

“If you value something, it’s the outcome that matters,” he said. “If you want diversity in the workplace, you have to fight for it.”

Dovidio said unconscious bias in the workplace frequently prevents blacks from getting jobs. He cited research that showed that in a pool of black and white candidates who may be slightly deficient in qualifications for the same job, the white candidates are more likely to be chosen. White deficiencies are more likely to be overlooked or forgiven. Hiring managers often cite the deficiencies in the black candidates to justify not hiring them. In other words, he said, “White candidates get the benefit of the doubt. If there is some ambiguity, the black person suffers.”

* * *

Returning to his extensive research regarding race and white bias against blacks, Dovidio cited what he called “aversive racists” who “sympathize with victims of past injustice, support principles of racial equality, and genuinely regard themselves as non-prejudiced, but at the same time possess conflicting, often non-conscious, negative feelings and beliefs about blacks.”

These negative feelings, Dovidio said, “are rooted in basic psychological processes [e.g., social categorization] that promote racial bias. In addition, the negative feelings that aversive racists have toward blacks do not reflect open hostility or hatred. Instead, aversive racists’ reactions typically involve discomfort, anxiety, or fear.”

Dovidio concluded that contemporary bias is subtle and unconscious. But he said there are ways to confront it. He suggests that organizations create strong diversity committees, involve people of color, and make diversity part of employee performance reviews.

* * *

Read entire article here.

More Student Voices


finally and fully embrace the difficult task of understanding and reckoning with our history. We must acknowledge the magnitude of American racism—including the way it poisons our own community—and recognize the urgency of pulling it down.

He wonders whether

students, with their unique sets of experiences informed by their own reading of history, are more closely attuned than he realizes to some truly deep obstacles to change?

He also critiques the effects of focusing on “dry technical issues”:

Issues of race are inextricably woven into the broad blanket of American law. The ideology of white supremacy and racial difference was at the epicenter of this society’s birth and upbringing. And it has settled deep in this country’s blood and bones, including in the gigantic, complex bundle of laws and court cases and customs that determine how we govern ourselves.

So when law schools presented with roomfuls of pliant young minds acquiesce in reducing major areas of law to “dry, technical issues,” they play a role in entrenching a system with racism in its marrow.

And suggests that even a seeming neutral, rational argument

often reflects a documented tendency of societies to legitimize the structures that have long secured dominant-group entitlements. Social psychologists call this tendency system justification theory. If this impulse to preserve the status quo drives much of the opposition to affirmative action, then it too is a formidable obstacle to change.

Coby conludes:

Harvard Law School vows in its mission statement “to educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and the well-being of society.” To advance justice in our particular society, where the methodical administration of racial injustice has reigned for centuries, we must commit to uncovering the roots of the ideology of racial difference and breaking them out of the stubborn, hard-packed ground so many of us have comfortably trod for so long.

Read Bianca’s full article here and Coby’s here.

Whitney Benns on the ongoing reinvention of American slavery

Whitney Benns, a friend of the Systemic Justice Project and Justice Fellow has a fantastic piece in The Atlantic on forced labor in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. After describing scenes that are virtually unchanged from antebellum slavery, including especially the race of various participants, Whitney looks at the history of slave plantations transitioning seamlessly into sites of prison labor. Her piece forces us to ask how we rationalize the continuation of practices that we all agree are immoral, and she runs through some of the justifications we might give ourselves for ongoing slavery, from ‘rehabilitation’ to ‘fairness’. It is a powerful piece that deals with a particularly horrific example of our ability to use categories and flimsy arguments to choose when to care, and reminds us that the first step to changing this practice may be to look beyond individual actors to systems. As Whitney explains,

individual narratives are not enough. When we focus on the individual, it’s easy to miss the context. The context here is undeniable, and it is made clear by the very first frames of Angola for Life.

As the camera zooms out and pans over fields of black bodies bent in work and surveyed by a guard, the picture that emerges is one of slavery. It is one of a “justice” system riddled with racial oppression. It is one of private business taking advantage of these disenfranchised, vulnerable workers. It is one of an entire caste of men relegated, as they have long been relegated, to labor for free, condemned to sow in perpetuity so that others might reap.

Read the whole piece here.

Obesity: A matter of personal choice?


Two articles that reflect very different conceptions of what causes obesity, and therefore how to address it.

First, in the LA Times, a report that diet and exercise alone are no cure for obesity:

For most of the nation’s 79 million adults and 13 million kids who are obese, the “eat less, move more” treatment, as currently practiced, is a prescription for failure, these experts say.

Meanwhile in Britain, the Conservative government has proposed withholding benefits payments for those who could, as the Guardian puts it, “do more to help themselves…lose weight”:

People who cannot work because they are overweight or suffering addiction problems could be threatened with losing their sickness benefits if they do not accept treatment under plans due to be outlined by David Cameron on Saturday.

Under proposals that are likely to be met with resistance from charities and some medics, the Conservatives will consider whether to reduce payments worth about £100 a week for those they consider could do more to help themselves by going on medical programmes designed to make them to lose weight, stop taking drugs or give up alcohol.

The issue really comes down to whether obesity is a matter of personal choice. Prime Minister David Cameron believes it is:

[P]eople have problems with their weight that could be addressed, but instead a life on benefits rather than work becomes the choice.

While Christopher Ochner in the LA times suggests the opposite:

“What really bothers me working around and with clinicians, is that some of them–a disturbing percentage–still believe it’s all about personal choice: that if the patient just tries hard enough, and if we can just figure out how to get them a little more motivated, then we’d be successful. And that’s just not right.”

The disconnect makes you wonder who benefits from the myth that diet and exercise are a cure for obesity. The documentary “Fed Up” suggests that the food industry, and particularly the sugar industry, had a lot to gain by pretending that Americans were gaining because of calories and exercise, and not because of the increasing quantities of sugar in the food that is all around us.