Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker

Dr. David Hilfiker is the author of Urban Injustice. In 1985 David Hilfiker started the Christ House in Washington, DC to practice medicine in the center of the city. The Christ House is a medical recovery shelter for homeless men, where he and his family also lived. In 1990, he co-founded Joseph’s House, a community and hospice for formerly homeless men dying with AIDS. David Hilfiker is the author of Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, published by both Seven Stories Press and AK Press. Mumia Abu Jamal said of the book, “Hilfiker knows a good deal about an American which most folks in this nation have very little real knowledge, other than disturbing stereotypes, clichés, and misinformation . . . It is a welcome addition to a field that may, indeed must, one day spark change.”

Dan Falcone: I’m here with David Hilfiker, author of Urban Injustice. Could you tell me why you set out to write Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, and what brought about the book and the idea?

David Hilfiker: When I worked here, I came with the usual liberal assumptions that it was really kind of society’s structures that had caused poverty. But after working here two or three years and observing the behavior of the poor people I worked with, you know, they didn’t come in for their appointments, wouldn’t tell me the truth, they were addicted, they were abusive or receiving abuse, all those things. I started sliding toward that American point of view which says that poor people are responsible for their own poverty. If they can’t take advantage of medical care we’re offering for free, then no wonder they’re poor.

Fortunately, my patients instructed me and I kind of stayed with them. As I began to see mothers who were 13 and 14, it was hard to blame them for abusing their children if they were themselves, abused children. I realized that while there were certainly behavior problems, those came from someplace. It was obvious that they came from the ghetto, itself, the surroundings. But so the question for me was, okay, so where does the ghetto come from? And my first thought was, well, it must be something in black behavior. And realized pretty quickly how racist an assumption that was. So I wanted to study it. I just wanted to ask, how did it get here?

What I found out was that there’s really not a liberal history or a conservative history. The history is very straightforward. But it’s not easily available. I mean, there are a lot of historians who write about it, but it tends to be scattered all over the place. No one, at least I could find, had written something fairly concise that people could read. And so this is an attempt to write just my history of how the ghetto happened and to make it very clear that this environment was created by societal forces that the people who lived there had virtually no responsibility for it at all.

Dan Falcone: Have you seen any of the demographics shifting in terms of poverty, normally what people associate with race is class? In other words suburban equals wealth, and cities equal poverty, and while there are pockets of wealth or poverty in both, it correlates fairly close. Did you notice that or is that a newer phenomenon where there’s suburban poverty?

David Hilfiker: I don’t really know. My understanding is that when you get gentrification like you have in Washington, the inner ring suburbs are the places where poor people move out to. And so Montgomery County, which is, at least was, one of the wealthiest counties around, now has its own poor areas. But I don’t have any expertise in that, but I suspect it’s been going on for a long time.

Dan Falcone: You mention in your book, the redlining of cities and towns and housing districts. You go back to the post-World War II era and discuss the housing loans that were available to people and the mechanisms that caused white flight. Is there a specific event, time period or sources you were drawn to?

David Hilfiker: There’s a long, long history about the ghettoization. By 1930s, the ghetto areas were really quite solidly formed, but they were vertically integrated places so that they were well-functioning societies, that happened to be all black. And there wasn’t the same poverty. Blacks were poorer than whites because of discrimination, but there wasn’t the kind of poverty that we now associate with the ghetto.

During the Depression when everybody was poor and the New Deal arranged for programs to help everybody, one of the more important ones was the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage guarantee. Before that, you had to be able to put down about 50 percent of the price of the house before the bank would give you a loan for a mortgage, which meant that most people couldn’t buy homes. So the Feds said 10 percent, or seven percent was enough to put down. If the mortgage went south, then the government guaranteed the bank that it will get its money.

So that allowed two things. One, it allowed building in those areas, which meant jobs, and which meant money coming into the area. For the middle class, the first step in generating wealth is usually their home. So that’s where their savings went. The areas, all-black areas, were consciously red lined, which meant that those loans weren’t available there. The excuse that was given was that those were too risky of places, but it’s pretty clear that it was racial.

Now, at that time, that was perfectly legal. The Supreme Court would remove restrictive covenants in 1948, but for decades after that, that practice continued with the banks. So urbaninjustwhile it may have been unconstitutional, the banks practiced it anyway. To some degree they still do. I haven’t seen it recently, but the Post used to send out reporters every couple of years, black reporters, white reporters, who would go out to try to buy or rent houses. And they were always treated differently. So that goes on still to some extent. The biggest problem in terms of long-lasting poverty is so those black neighborhoods, a) didn’t get the money infusion that building programs give, but maybe even more importantly, b) they didn’t get a chance to build up wealth. And so you’ve got these wealth gaps of 10:1, 15:1, whites to blacks, and that started with that program. It was actually a very important part of maintaining the ghetto.

Dan Falcone: Well, as a teacher, and someone in education, especially history education, it’s very hard to break through the propaganda. My point is that while some poor people are making bad choices and acting irresponsible, most observers aren’t making the connection with the structural and historical foundational elements of the society and so they think crime is purely a cultural dilemma. So how do you make an impact in education in connecting the history to the present?

David Hilfiker: I think there are a couple of things. One is that on the left, it’s really easy to generalize and be abstract, and so it basically becomes your opinion. I’ve got my own opinion you’ve got your opinion. So one of the things is to try to get out of that liberal mode of trying to convince somebody and just give them the facts. Simply state this is what happened and then there’s no controversy about it. It’s not a matter of creating another kind of history that comes out from the conservatives or whatever. State what objectively happened. The conclusion that you draw from this is that you’re not trying to indoctrinate somebody you’re just trying to inform them about what happened.

The other way that I get to do it is by being a physician. I tell stories about my own patients and when you focus on stories that show what went into shaping these individuals, it’s a story no one can argue with. Certain kinds of abstract forces, you can argue with, but if I tell you about a particular person, you either have to think I’m lying or do what you can with the story.

Dan Falcone: Mostly I hear abstract arguments from the right; such as the reason why the cities are not progressing is because there is a dependency structure. That is such a powerful American sentiment amongst people that either embrace it and voice it or are smart enough to subdue it and silence it, but they still might think it.

So for example, just in terms of poverty and our own benevolence, I was trying to show students an article from The New Nation. It’s a foreign newspaper, the Bangladeshi newspaper. It was talking about millennium development goals, something that this elective course was in fact studying and the article questioned the MDGs and their alleged commitments. So when they see “millennium development goals,” they’re accepting the preset definitions. When you look at the resources, however, much of it is devoted to bailing out financial institutions or given to corrupt governments willfully.

David Hilfiker: Okay, but even those facts you give need more specificity to convince a student. To say that the banks are making money off of it, that’s really a generalization. You can give anecdotes, but anecdotes don’t prove anything. I think that when you’re educating people who either don’t get it, or don’t know the basic facts, you need to be really specific. I used to go out and speak to medical students. That’s where a lot my ideas about teaching and how to talk to people came. I know how to sound like a leftist and I believe you’re correct in all those things that you were just talking about. But they still don’t convince people. When you make kind of these specific things that they can’t argue with, really, then I think that’s more effective.

Dan Falcone: That’s interesting. I found a study by a Harvard urban planner who could show why the Washington Nationals play in a really nice baseball stadium and the DC schools are in decay. The default assumption is one’s private and one’s public. If you are willing to dig a little and find the work of the urban planning scholar at Harvard, however you can simply read that there’s public subsidization for even the private baseball stadium. Even here with solid factual presentation, there’s unwillingness or a sort of a resistance to accepting.

David Hilfiker: American individuals really don’t believe in social forces. We believe that the individual makes her or himself. My wife’s from Finland. And it’s much more an American trait than it is European, for instance. So we distrust people who say this isn’t really the individual’s fault, this is societal forces. You ought to be able to make your way out of it. So yeah, there are a lot of different people resist those kinds of stories and studies, for sure.

Dan Falcone: So, how were you shaped intellectually? Could you tell me something about your education or how you became interested in social justice?

David Hilfiker: I grew up in a home that was interested. My father’s a pastor. In the late forties he ran a social work house in St. Louis between the poor whites and the poor blacks. I grew up, at my very youngest, in an integrated urban neighborhood. Not fully integrated, but we had blacks and whites both coming to the center. My parents weren’t activists but were always concerned about racial and other kinds of justice issues. I went to Yale just at the time of the Vietnam War, and so this kind of 1950s optimism, confidence, that was sort of the first crack in it for people like me. I was over in Germany for a year as the war was just kind of growing. The attitudes of the Europeans toward it were really strongly against war and so I came back with a prejudice against it. I got involved in the anti-war movement.

When I went to medical school, it just didn’t make any sense to me to compete with other doctors for patients. If you’ve got too many doctors, well, then, go someplace else. And I was very interested in working with poor people. I don’t know exactly where that came from, but a sense of justice, I think. I worked in a very rural county that had poor Native Americans at one end and poor whites on the other end. But otherwise it was a normal community with a real mix of lower class, middle and upper class folks. So you get a very different attitude toward poverty. You know people when you’re their doctor or whatever.

Coming here to the inner city, I joined a faith community that was really important to me and then the radicalization came from seeing what happened in the inner city, this city, seeing what those causes were. I was very skeptical of militarism and began to get a very, very critical eye of what happened around me. I’m really interested in the politics of it all. Many wealthy societies crumble because privileged wealth does not really take care of their infrastructure or the “other,” the poor. That’s what’s happened to lots of different societies in history.

Daniel Falcone: When did you start noticing Christianity being used to promote politicians that were twice-born Christians or when did you start to notice this Christian right evolution?

David Hilfiker: My understanding is that it started with anti-Communism in the fifties, and with that the strong anti-Communist right wing used Christianity versus a Godless Communism as a way of sort of building up this very conservative anti-Communism. Communism, of course, was very connected with poverty. That’s one solution to poverty. We don’t believe that. This is who we are; individual faith, individual work, those kinds of things.

Dan Falcone: Like the gospel of wealth?

David Hilfiker: Yes, the prosperity gospel is not Christian, but it is taught as if it were. Another place that I learned about it was going around and speaking to medical schools. And it was often the Conservative Christians who went after me the most when I tried to talk about poverty. I mean, not unpleasantly, but they were the most skeptical. I’m a Christian and there are very, very strong radical voices within the Christian church; Dorothy Day just as kind of an example, Daniel Berrigan, AJ Muste, etc.

The conservative church is preaching the same message that corporations and right wing politicians are trying to, so they have allied themselves by using social issues, abortion, homosexuality, issues that the politicians don’t care about at all. This is breaking down a bit with the recognition that we are the 99 percent; that the increasing inequality affects poor Christians, too.

Dan Falcone: One thing I noticed in the elections was that on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were being confronted by the Black Lives Matter movement. And they had really no understanding of it. Maybe it’s because of a devotion to government that long. It was disheartening that the Democratic side couldn’t understand mass incarceration or didn’t want to listen to views associated to addressing it.

David Hilfiker: My guess is Bernie has had almost no experience with African-American issues, he comes out of Vermont. Hillary was on the board of Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund. So the Clintons are familiar with African-American issues. Why she isn’t able to embrace the kind of the stuff that’s been happening over the last couple of years, I don’t know.

The thing that’s important to recognize – and until Michelle Alexander wrote The New Jim Crow, nobody knew about mass incarceration. I mean, I knew all the facts because I grew up in it. But I still hadn’t put it together the way she did. So it’s only been four or five years that this anti-mass incarceration movement has been going on. Nobody put it all together until – I mean, even the Black Caucus hadn’t put it together.

It started with Nixon and they were political decisions. The Southern strategy separated poor whites from blacks used coded language. They couldn’t use racist language anymore, but to use coded language or subtext in the Republican Party to make sure that the whites knew that they were not going to take it from the blacks. Reagan came along, started the drug war.

So you know how Reagan made it all worse. Once the Republicans in the late seventies started being tough on crime, and that was so successful in our culture, that the Democrats jumped onboard right way. During the eighties and nineties, you could not be called soft on crime and win an election. You know, for the reasons that you talked about earlier, about “the othering” and the mistrust and not knowing poor black people. It wasn’t until the last couple of years that you could even talk about doing something to reduce sentences without getting attacked by opponents. So it’s gone on for about 40 years.

Reagan’s gift and talent was the use of subtext; welfare mothers, face of the predator, welfare cheats, etc. My understanding is even as he told it over and over and over again, that anecdote emerged about the welfare mother who earned 150,000 dollars a year because she had 12 names or whatever.

Dan Falcone: In Urban Injustice, you refer to the black pathology theory of Daniel Patrick Moynihan delivered, correct?

David Hilfiker: Moynihan’s work and his use of that phrase proved really unfortunate. Although he understood at the time that jobs were the issue. He reported to Johnson, we need jobs, and the tangle of pathology was what most people believed. It was a very unfortunate choice of words, in part because he stopped liberal evaluation of the inner city for 25 years. Nobody was willing to look at the inner city. No white sociologists were willing to look at the inner city for fear of getting clobbered the way he did.

It was only when a guy named William Julius Wilson, a black sociologist in the eighties, came along and started talking about ghetto-related behavior, which is another more accurate way of talking about a so called tangle of pathology. He began to talk about that in important ways, but the conservatives had a field day with black urban poverty between Moynihan and William Julius Wilson because there were no opposing voices. The liberals weren’t willing to speak out. So it was very devastating, in terms of American history, a really unfortunate constellation of events.

Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.