Matt Driscoll

Seattle still isn’t dying, but white supremacy needs to. TNT columnist answers his mail

Misconceptions anger homeless veteran

In the March edition of "You rip, I respond," News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll responds to homeless veteran Kenneth, who is angered by a recent report on KOMO TV which he feels mischaracterized the crisis.
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In the March edition of "You rip, I respond," News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll responds to homeless veteran Kenneth, who is angered by a recent report on KOMO TV which he feels mischaracterized the crisis.

I appreciate the post you put out about KOMO. I am experiencing homelessness myself, and to see this made my blood boil! … (KOMO) specifically went to where the addicts were and made a false mindset about all homeless. … I am not an addict. I have a clean record. I am a vet! I will not stand by and let someone talk falsely about me or other homeless who are not able to afford the cost here. — Kenneth

I chose to start this month’s mailbag with Kenneth’s email for several reasons. Most of all, it highlights the complex realities of homelessness, a problem KOMO sought to boil down to inaccurate simplicities.

That’s misguided, disingenuous and dangerous. When journalism takes this approach, it intentionally erases stories like Kenneth’s, which is one of the many flaws of the “documentary.”

Before I go on, I’d like to acknowledge that I received a number of angry responses to my criticism of “Seattle is Dying.” I’m not trying to dodge those.

In that column, I called for a reboot of the way we think about and discuss homelessness, a problem that — unfortunately — has only become more pronounced in the aftermath of “Seattle is Dying.”

Most of the critical emails I received contended that I was somehow blind or oblivious to the problem. It reminded me of a well-known internet meme featuring a dog in a burning house. A thought bubble above the dog reads, “This is fine.”

Apparently, to some, anyone objecting to KOMO’s oversimplification is that dog.

That’s false. No one is looking at homelessness in the Puget Sound region and saying, “This is fine.”

On one end of the spectrum, there are people who see it as the humanitarian crisis. On the other end are those who see it as a problem of filth, drugs and crime that needs to be cleaned up. They’re hungry for simple answers and seem happy if those answers lay blame at the feet of people experiencing homelessness.

Then there are people somewhere in the middle.

For all parties involved, the questions become: What we do about it? How do we respond to homelessness? What works, and what does success look like?

As heated and fractured as our dialogue might be, that’s always a potentially helpful place to come back to.

Unfortunately, contrary to KOMO’s portrayal, there’s not an easy, ready-made answer.

We know there are a wide array of factors that contribute to homelessness. The lack of truly affordable housing — as Kenneth alludes to — is near the top. We also know that the area’s homeless population is not a monolith, and nearly every story involves its own set of complexities and challenges.

And, yes, as I wrote in the column, for the chronically homeless — those with the most pronounced barriers to service and treatment — we know that behavioral health and addiction are often contributing factors.

There are other things we know, too.

This week, during a state Senate subcommittee work session in Olympia, experts weighed in some of the current gaps in the system. An overall lack of housing — particularly permanent supportive housing — was mentioned time and time again. So was the cost and overall ineffectiveness of dealing with mental health, addiction and homelessness via the criminal justice system.

Which brings me back to Kenneth’s story, which took courage to share. It’s a good reminder that the broad-brush picture KOMO painted of homelessness in Seattle is distorted and wrong.

Need another example? Read David Kroman’s recent article in Crosscut. He tracked down and talked to Robert Champagne, a man KOMO focused its camera on as part of “Seattle is Dying.”

Champagne was assumed to be homeless but never interviewed. That’s indicative of KOMO’s blindered approach.

The truth? Champagne used to be homeless, but he’s not anymore. Permanent supportive housing, offered through Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center, got him off the street nearly four years ago. The process was long and required an individualized approach that met Robert’s specific needs.

On the day he was captured on camera and dehumanized by KOMO, he’d traveled to Target to buy laundry detergent.

The truth, in all its complexities, matters.

Wow, it is easy to now call out someone in today’s society. The definition of white supremacy is: the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society. So it is your belief that Jankanish believes that white people are superior because he disagrees with HB1314? … Name calling is so junior high. Let’s work on bringing people together, not adding fuel to the fire. — Kevin

Sorry, mailbag fans. This month’s offering is turning out kind of heavy, isn’t it?

My column described Mike Jankanish’s op-ed as “little more than 600 words of terrified white supremacy and jingoistic nationalism sprinkled with a few Abraham Lincoln quotes to make it more palatable.”

Obviously, I knew using the term “white supremacy” would be triggering for many readers, just as using “jingoistic” would send them to the dictionary.

Both are accurate. Here’s why:

Kevin is right, at least in the extent that white supremacy is generally understood — especially amongst white people — as referring to the conscious belief that white people are superior. In fact, he references the precise definition that pops up when you Google it.

In the same sense, racism is generally understood as a conscious act of hatred or violence against another race.

Many white people might then be surprised to learn that these narrow and singular definitions of both actually allow for the continuation of systematic white supremacy. (Shocking, I know.)

After all, if the only things that qualify as white supremacy and racism are overt acts of hatred — like, say, burning crosses, using racial slurs and firebombing churches — then few white people can be accused. That’s comforting, I suppose. Because having racism and white supremacy pointed out is typically painful and uncomfortable.

In reality, sociologists and writers who focus on race typically define white supremacy in far broader terms and with more nuanced, systemic reach.

It’s not simply skinheads and clansmen. It’s a system that — often unconsciously, since it’s what we’ve been socialized to accept — keeps white people, and white culture, at the top of social, political and economic hierarchies.

This comes with immense privileges, and in the process, the cultures, histories and stories of minorities are relegated to a lesser sub-category. Perhaps they’re celebrated during designated months or on special days, but they’re clearly different.

Under white supremacy, the “norm,” in other words, is white. Everything else falls outside this norm — and that has far-reaching repercussions. You see it in who has power, who gets heard, who makes decisions and who gets represented.

Jankanish argued that teaching diversity is divisive. Instead of creating space in the classroom for the cultures, histories and experiences of minorities, he advocates for assimilation under what he describes as “the common American culture.” That “common American culture,” of course, is historically very white.

This argument seeks to reinforce white supremacy, consciously or not.

In the weeks since my column was published, I’ve been told — repeatedly — that if this is what I mean, I need to use different words.

Nope.

White supremacy is what it is, and finding a way to say it that makes white people feel better is unnecessary.

What’s necessary is white introspection and, ultimately, action.

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