Matthew Rozsa explains the difference between the perception of equality and the reality of discrimination.
A friend recently observed that I’ve developed a reputation for anchoring my editorials with quotes, and as the year 2014 reaches its close, a particularly choice one by Anatole France comes to mind as capturing the zeitgeist of our times:
In its majestic equality, the law forbids the rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.
What France identified was an eternal truth brought into particularly stark prominence over the last twelve months—namely, that if a society (a) claims to treat all individuals equally but (b) wishes to perpetuate inequalities, it will simply create rules that apply to all but only adversely impact some. As long as the premises of our social contract remain egalitarian in theory, the individual suffering in reality can be comfortably abandoned.
Make no mistake about it, though: When it comes to the perception of equality before the law, we care very much about keeping up appearances.
The fiasco over Fort Lauderdale’s treatment of its homeless population is particularly instructive. Back in October, the city decided to restrict how its residents could feed the homeless, including only permitting one feeding site per city block and requiring groups handing out food to be within 500 feet of each other – and at least 500 feet away from residential properties. This was on top of ordinances banning panhandling at busy intersections and sleeping on public property, both of which came out earlier this year.
It’s important to note that Fort Lauderdale isn’t an anomaly. Since January 2013, more than 20 cities have restricted charity for the homeless. The arguments used in those municipalities are the same as those made by Fort Lauderdale residents: Foremost among them is ineradicable class prejudice, manifested here in the callous assumption that the indigent secretly enjoy depending on charity and will be discouraged from ending their poverty so long as safety nets like food banks continue to exist. In addition, as Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless pointed out to MSNBC, “economic development and tourism don’t mesh well with homeless folks and the agencies that serve them,” with business leaders throughout America pressuring their city officials to treat their poor like eyesores akin to, say, dilapidated buildings or littered sidewalks.
While Fort Lauderdale’s contempt for its least fortunate is far from unique, however, it made the mistake of painting that disdain in colors that were just a shade too vivid. It actually has a long history of being excessively on-the-nose with this issue, but things came to a head when it arrested a 90-year-old chef named Arnold Abbott for feeding the homeless from a public park. The national public, suddenly faced with the spectacle of a nonagenarian serving up to two months in the slammer for a public act of basic human kindness, turned against the city. Beyond the understandable empathy for Abbott himself, the public seemed to collectively recognize that the precedent established by a society that could arrest a man like Abbott was fundamentally absurd. After all, by the same erroneous logic used to arrest a law-abiding, taxpaying, thoroughly respectable middle-class citizen for giving away free food in a public place, Fort Lauderdale would (indeed, if one is to insist on logical consistency, should) make it illegal for anyone to share their property with strangers in public. This poor reasoning had always been an integral part of the city’s law, of course, but it took a real-life drama to entomb its abstract fallacies into a flesh-and-blood tragedy.
Soon Mayor Jack Seiler was unconvincingly attempting to paint his city’s laws as efforts “to ensure it [feeding the homeless] is carried out in an appropriate, organized, clean and healthy manner” as Fort Lauderdale’s public image began to take a serious hit. Although the controversy has temporarily died down thanks to a judge’s order that the city suspend the law for 30 days while all sides enter a mediation, it is unlikely that the issue will disappear entirely. Even if Fort Lauderdale finds a more socially respectable way of marginalizing its homeless, which doesn’t seem likely, the odds are strong that another local government at some date in the near future will commit a similarly clumsy PR move in handling its homeless community.
Then again, on a deeper level, this isn’t just about homelessness. It’s about the bright shining hypocrisy of a society that wants to profess a basis in equality before the law while using that same law to discriminate against the disadvantaged. Whether it’s police shooting unarmed black men without punishment in Ferguson and Staten Island, or states that still fight legalizing marriage equality for its LGBTQIA citizens, the internal struggle is the same. On the one hand, we can recognize that our legal structures often disadvantage those who are poor and/or part of a minority group, and then rectify those inequalities to create true individual liberty. Barring that, we would have to openly admit that our individualist ideology—the same one regularly used to do things like blame the poor for their own suffering—is no longer operational, and will thus soon be replaced with one that directly imposed different sets of laws for each class.
If 2014 has made one point clear, it is that popular loopholes like the one spotted by Anatole France are becoming too obvious for the general public to ignore. A change, one way or the other, is in order.