The suburbanization of social justice


The social justice Christians who are flocking to cities may be too late. Where were they in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s? By 2008, the suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country, according to a recent Brookings Institution study. In the near future, the more progressive justice-oriented Christians will be in the suburbs not the city. Perhaps American Christians concerned about the poor should stop chasing poverty, plant themselves in whatever neighborhood they find themselves, and love whomever comes and goes as housing trends change over time.

Many Christians equate poverty with "inner city" or "urban" areas populated by black people, which is nothing less than factually inaccurate, patronizing, and, some would argue, racist. This wrongheaded caricature overlooks the reality that poverty in America is predominantly suburban, rural, and white. According to the latest census data 44 percent of America's poor population is white while 25 percent is black. Why then does "the poor" have a black or brown face? Even though a larger percentage of the black population is poor compared to whites, for poverty to be associated primarily with blacks in the inner city may suggest a latent white-messiah, neo-paternalist mentality among those who believe their "whiteness" is what black people in the inner city need. Because there are rarely, if ever, calls for Christians to flock to suburban and/or rural contexts to help "the poor," one wonders if all this justice talk has more to do with race patronization than "poverty," as some would argue.

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I'm not saying that cities do not have real needs or that these trends are seen equally in every major city in the United States at the moment. Sound economic thinking, however, reminds us that supply and demand follow people with disposal income, hence the reality of gentrification and the suburbanization of poverty. Organizations like the Christian Community Development Association will need to radically rethink their rhetoric about social justice and its "relocation" principles in an America where poverty is suburban, rural, and white.

Is it not likely that many evangelicals flocking to cities for justice are actually going there as consumers, using "justice" as an excuse to live in "cool" places? Loving the city is different than loving the actual people in that city. City governments prefer yuppies and hipsters to the poor, so new housing, retail, and entertainment opportunities are making former "ghetto" neighborhoods attractive, while shifting lower income people to the suburbs. According to Brookings:

"Between 2000 and 2008, suburbs in the country's largest metro areas saw their poor population grow by 25 percent---almost five times faster than primary cities and well ahead of the growth seen in smaller metro areas and non-metropolitan communities. As a result, by 2008 large suburbs were home to 1.5 million more poor than their primary cities and housed almost one-third of the nation's poor overall."

This new trend teaches us that "relocation" as a principle of justice is not necessary and may not always be what is most needed. It also tends not to consider the long-term economics of poverty trends nor the generational housing pattern shifts. Moreover, "the poor" never represent a static community. People move in and out of poverty, and Christians constantly moving to find them could discover rehabbed apartments, Whole Foods, Starbucks, and sushi restaurants right where the poor used to reside.

In end, if you're a suburban social justice-minded Christian, you don't need to move to the city to find "the poor," because they are coming to an apartment complex, trailer park, or other subsidized form of housing near you. Are suburbanites ready to receive them? Moving to the city is great and you don't need to appeal to justice to sanctify it. Seriously. What's wrong with moving to the city for the consumption of cultural options and opportunities, to save on auto expenses, and to live more efficiently? Besides, most cities could use the beautification and economic face-lift that gentrification brings.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of The Political Economy of Liberation and Black and Tired. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.


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