Opinion: Why is a black resident in Berkeley 13 times more likely to be unhoused than a white person?

Discriminatory policies play a role and Berkeley should examine its policies to make sure they don’t contribute to this injustice.

Some years ago, after helping serve a meal at a soup kitchen, my then five-year-old son asked, “How come most of the people there had dark skin?” I floundered as I tried to answer in terms a young, innocent child could understand. His question –and our society’s refusal to reckon with it–came back to haunt me when I looked at the stark racial disparities reported in the 2019 Everyone Counts! survey of Berkeley’s homeless population.

Blacks are nine percent of the general population of Berkeley and 57% of the homeless population. Comparing black and white percentages of Berkeley’s total population, a black resident is thirteen times more likely to be unhoused than a white person.

Berkeley’s not alone. Across the United States, blacks are thirteen percent of the general population and forty percent of the homeless population. The National Alliance to End Homelessness cites several factors that contribute to this extreme disproportionality, including housing discrimination and higher rates of poverty, incarceration and untreated mental illness.

At a recent talk at Zellerbach to discuss his new book, How to be an Antiracist, American University historian Ibram X. Kendi presented a novel frame for examining racial inequities: They exist either because there’s something wrong with black people or because there’s something wrong with policies (historic and contemporary). Because I reject the notion that there’s anything wrong with black people, I turn my attention to policies and practices that have a discriminatory impact but persist due to racist rationalizations positing black inferiority. Housing policies and practices, lending policies and practices, education, health care, employment, criminal justice — in every one of these arenas, reams of studies show how blacks suffer discriminatory treatment, sometimes intentional but often as a function of the unconscious biases that virtually all Americans of every race carry to some degree.

In her groundbreaking new book Biased, Stanford psychologist and MacArthur “genius” grantee, Jennifer Eberhardt, details the social science research that demonstrates the intensely negative impact of unconscious bias on the lives of people of color. Black customers are thrown out of Starbuck’s and hotel lobbies for no reason; black drivers are pulled over and arrested at higher rates than white drivers; job applicants with black-sounding names are half as likely to get a callback; black patients receive substandard medical care; black students are more severely disciplined for infractions; black defendants have to pay 35% higher bail for the same offense.

If unconscious bias insinuates itself into every facet of life—and laws and policies do not rise to the challenge of defending against this outcome—then it’s little wonder that a lifetime of being on the receiving end of such bias would render someone more vulnerable to poverty, housing insecurity, poor health and, ultimately, homelessness.

Here in Berkeley, overt racism is relatively rare, and our community has come together in powerful ways in recent years to denounce hatred and bigotry and affirm our values of inclusivity and humanitarianism. At the same time, not even Berkeleyans are immune to unconscious bias nor to a related cognitive error called “availability bias” which leads us to overgeneralize observations of individuals to a broader group. For example, I might know a person of a certain race who is irresponsible or hedonistic or dishonest and this may lead me to assume (groundlessly) that most or all members of that race possess that trait. It’s an easy enough mistake to make and, when it’s made thousands of times by millions of people, it has devastating consequences for the maligned group. Individuals, Kendi beseeches us to understand, are not representatives of their race or ethnicity. Nor is a homeless person with behavioral problems representative of all unhoused individuals.

Berkeley is transforming from a socioeconomically diverse community to a predominantly white, affluent city. In 2010, 14 percent of Berkeleyans were black compared to nine percent today. Median income in Berkeley has, since 2000, gone up much faster than in California as a whole. (The poor aren’t getting rich—they’re moving away). This is a racist (and classist) outcome even if was not driven by a racist intent. I believe poor and non-white people have as much right to make Berkeley their home as anyone, and I support policies and programs that make it possible for them to do so.

As Berkeley struggles to address the homelessness crisis, I urge our city to add racism to the short list of root causes and to evaluate–every time it considers whether or not to approve a new ordinance, program, or housing development, or decides how to allocate Measures O & P funds–what it will mean for the ability of low-income and people of color to continue living here. Either black people brought homelessness on themselves by being 13 times inferior to white people, or our political system has failed to redress centuries of overt and hidden racism.

Erica Etelson is a Berkeley resident, former human rights attorney and author of "Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide."