When we think of ethnocentrism we typically think of it in the context of being applied to other countries, cultures and religions. However the term is not confined to these contexts. Ethnocentrism describes the act of dissecting and judging any particular group against the consensual norm of ones own group. Generally speaking this creates the a set of mental conditions in which the observer immediately assumes that his own views and norms are held as the logical or superior standard of comparison. This phenomenon affects more than obvious cultural differences and extends to include any and all groups of people with a likeness. Upon dissection of this idea the lines become murky as to what constitutes a “group”. This mental bias can be increasingly seen in America with consensually accepted opinions and labels used to categorize homelessness.
These specific groups of people do not consist of any particular ethnicity but instead potentially included all people of all walks of life. Recent statistics on the issue of homelessness are staggering with approximately six hundred thirty six thousand people sleeping transient every night. While the United States homeless population has decreased about one percent since 2011 this is primarily due to government initiatives during the fiscal crisis. These programs are due to be phased out if they do not get an extension on funding. (The National Alliance to End Homelessness, 3) While it is encouraging to hear the homeless population has decreased, that one statistic does not give an accurate and complete picture of the situation’s severity.
In the current economy homelessness is a group that more and more of us could potentially fall into. Even though the percentage rate of homeless has decreased nationally, it has actually increased in twenty four states as well as in Washington D.C.. In eleven of those states the increase was by more than twenty percent, while Wyoming had a staggering increase of homeless families in 2011, over three hundred and ten percent. Yes, you read that correctly, three hundred and ten percent. ( The National Alliance to End Homelessness, 17)
Roughly forty percent of those that are homeless do not have access to shelter of any kind. Thirty seven percent of the homeless population consists of children; over a million children experienced homelessness between 2009 and 2010 alone. In the United States 6.2 million low income households spend over fifty percent of their income on rent or housing, leaving them dangerously close at all times to homelessness themselves.
With statistics such as these it is surprising that the general population does not perceive this problem as a community or social problem, but instead tends to point fingers of blame as to why things are this way. There is disagreement about the causes of homelessness which are argued ranging from shortage of federal housing subsidies, economic downturn, family violence, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and mental illness. These are a few of the most popularly cited reasons, there are varying additions to this data set in any given locality (Reeser, 10).
With such a fractured set of conditions it becomes very difficult to ascertain what the most direct cause is for the epidemic as well as presenting various reasons that often create biases in the public eye. These biases tend to result in situational classifications such as “People are homeless because they use drugs” or “If people made better choices they would not be in that position”. These different ideas are latched onto by society en mass and then attributed to the problem at large as the cause.
Generally speaking the public holds the opinion that the homeless cause their own condition and are essentially at fault for their position in life. While this generalization may be true in many individual cases, when it becomes a blanket reason for the entire problem we enter into very dangerous waters. The homeless are perceived for being at fault for their own homelessness, thus making the state of homelessness no longer a community issue but instead a community drain (Reeser, 11).
If “they” are at fault then they are essentially to blame not only for their condition but also for the need to help them. This causes resentment within the population as financial hardship abounds, people feel victimized for having to help others who in their view, put themselves in that situation.
This social division is increased even more by the same ideas of responsibility being projected onto the homeless through shelters and social workers. This is a phenomenon that has been labeled as medicalizing homelessness (Lyon-Callo, 329). Essentially, creating a personal condition out of a social one. The tactics used to direct and help the homeless are in fact counterproductive because they negate the need for massive social reformation and societal problem solving.
When statistics are viewed side by side for many of the issues the public perceives to be the cause of an individuals homelessness interesting trends are seen. For example the addiction argument for homelessness is a really popular one. That people are in this situation due to drugs or alcohol, but information shows a substantial amount of these problems are evident in the non homeless population. While the numbers are admittedly higher in the homeless subset, the correlating data in the non-homeless sector shows that this cannot be the only deciding factor (Reeser, 10).
In addition a staggering amount of homeless individuals that admit drug or alcohol problems indicate substance abuse became commonplace only after dealing with the hardships of homelessness, job loss, and financial ruin.
This divide among people based on housing and socioeconomic status effectively creates a separate perceived group of individuals. Even if they happen to be the same race or ethnicity as the general population, the homeless are perceived as a separate group all together and interacted with as such. This is where ethnocentrism comes into play, with the non-homeless population of the United States being viewing, dissecting and judging the homeless through the standards of their own economic lives.
The division as well as the multiple reasons assumed to create homelessness become memetic realities in our society. As a meme the idea spreads, reproduces and evolves as it spreads. In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins quotes a colleague by the name of N.K. Humphrey .
“Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individuals the world over” (Dawkins 156).
When we take that idea and view the topic of homelessness with it in mind, we are shown a very scary possible scenario. The easy acceptance of division as well as blame for the homeless condition. These cultural memetics spread through society until they are accepted as common knowledge and accepted truth. The danger here is not only the uninformed but affecting opinion but also the responsibility shift off of us as a people to the individuals in hardship.
With this shift, society is excused from any responsibility for causing or contributing to the problems and instead put into the role of savior to those in need. Instead of feeling that this is something that we should work on as a community, it becomes something that is viewed as giving, charitable and outside of the realm of responsibility.
- Lyon-Callo, Vincent (2000), Medicalizing Homelessness: The Production of Self-Blame and Self- Governing within Homeless Shelters. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 14, 328-345. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/649502
- Reeser, Anya (2011). The General Public’s Perception of a Local Homeless Crisis: Why Help? California State University Journal. Retrieved From http://www.csustan.edu/honors/documents/journals/elements/Reeser.pdf
- Dawkins, Richard. (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. 155-156 Retrieved from http://www.rubinghscience.org/memetics/dawkinsmemes.html
- National Alliance to End Homelessness (2012) The State of Homelessness in America 2012
- [Data File] Retrieved from http://b.3cdn.net/naeh/9892745b6de8a5ef59_q2m6yc53b.pdf
- Photo Credit (Public Domain): http://www.mypublicdomainpictures.com/2013/04/a-homeless-man.html