When was the last time you fundamentally changed the way you looked at an important issue?
I recently finished two books, Evicted by Matthew Desmond and Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, that tackle important social issues (housing for poor folks and urban policing, respectively) and completely changed the way I looked at them. As an added bonus, both books are gripping page turners, allowing readers to develop intimate relationships with their compelling and nuanced characters (all of whom were real people). Both made me cry more than once.
What were their unique perspectives?
Urban housing for the poor: In our normal debate (happening mostly on the left), one side rails against gentrification and high end development, while the other side (which I am generally on) prioritizes a huge increase in city-wide development to relieve supply/demand pressures and lower prices/rents for all. Evicted sidesteps that entire argument by showing that neither approach will offer what very poor families fundamentally need - a lot more money (i.e. subsidies) to pay for housing.
Urban policing in Black neighborhoods: In one of our most challenging national conversations, one side argues that we just need to crack down more on crime and support police, while the other side (including me, broadly) argues that racism and overly draconian policing techniques are the primary problem to address. Ghettoside makes an fundamentally different argument - the biggest problem with urban policing is that we are not solving Black homicides, which leads communities of young Black men to take justice into their own hands (as happens all over the world when governments lose their monopoly on legitimate violence).
Note that neither of these arguments aim to split the difference between two competing views. Rather, they shift the entire debate by asking (and answering) fundamentally different questions. They remind us of the power that lies in setting the terms of the debate, in deciding which questions get asked (and answered) in the media and at dinner tables, in think tanks and at DC happy hours. They don’t negate other important arguments and theories (I’m still a YIMBY and saying Black Lives Matter), but they expand our vision of possible solutions to our most vexing problems.
How did they accomplish this?
Although their resumes are very different, I can’t help but notice the similarities between what Desmond and Leovy brought to the table in their respective projects:
I am immensely grateful to each of these authors for writing these books, and encourage anyone who is even marginally interested in these issues to check them out.
I’d love to hear from others - what was the last book that fundamentally changed the way you looked at an issue?