What it means to be a “we”

Today I read a really interesting idea in the New York Times. Columnist Jay Caspian Kang proposed that maybe it’s time to treat the “unhoused” (a.k.a. “homeless”) as a protected group. If this were to happen, he foresees three main effects. First, it would become illegal to discriminate against them. Second, the authors of the report he’s citing believe that talking about them as a group would help to humanize them and gradually reduce the stigma of homelessness. And third, treating them as “a people” could, they hope, increase support for building more, and more affordable, housing.

Here in Eugene, Oregon, we have an extremely high rate of homelessness (the highest in the country, in 2019), and along with all the great many attempts to try to help them, our local governments also put a lot of effort into keeping them out of sight. (I have to say, the homeless situation has really transformed our public library, with dozens of people finding it a good place to sleep away the afternoon, since maybe it’s not safe to sleep outside at night.) Figuring out how to solve this problem is a high priority.

I’ll get back to the homeless idea in a bit, but first I want to explore what it means to be “a people.” There’s a word for that: “entitativity.” (I always think that word has too many syllables, but no, there it is. It’s related to “entity.”) It means thinking about the group as a thing in itself, not just as a collection of individuals who have something in common.

Now, entitativity is not always good. In fact, it’s a theme that comes up all the time in genocidal thinking. Nazi Germany is an obvious and classic case, telling its Jews that they weren’t real Germans, that their true identity was based on their religion. With the power of the state behind it, entitativity for a minority group can become so much worse than simply persecuting random individuals who have that defining trait.

On the other hand, when people in power make a point to visibly include all the minorities as part of “us,” it can be a powerful protection against genocide and other forms of inter-group violence. After the end of apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela made a big point of referring to the primarily white members of the South African rugby team as “our boys.” This symbolic act that was both deeply meaningful for the team members and, of course, indicative of an overall attitude of being one people, not just a majority group with a deep and valid grievance against a minority group. In more abstract terms, thinking in terms of a larger “group” is good when it’s about inclusion, creating stronger ties that help inhibit persecution within the broader group on the basis of sub-group traits.

Mandela_rugby

Entitativity is also good when it creates an interest group, giving its people a voice and a chance for a share of the power within its larger society. It also empowers others to support them more effectively. I’m thinking of our late local senator, Wayne Morse, and his work on the board of the NAACP. I’m also thinking of gay people and their allies, supporting legislation to protect their rights.

But a few smaller harms come to mind. One is that it can mean that the particular interest of sub-groups can become relatively neglected. One friend has mentioned that she identifies more strongly with being Japanese-American than Asian-American; the Americans of Japanese ancestry have a particular and painful history in the United States that should not be forgotten. It’s important to honor the rights of all Americans with Asian ancestry, but there are so many different ways of being ethnically Asian, and each of them needs its own voices too.

Another smaller harm is that there can be a temptation to resist group membership for status reasons. I’m thinking of an essay by Tressie McMillan Cottom, where she described going to a party where everyone had dark skin and African ancestry, but those who had come more directly from Africa or the Caribbean considered themselves to have higher status than those whose ancestors had been enslaved within the United States. Relatedly, I’m remembering how empowering it was for Black Americans when Barack Obama chose to identify as one of them, rather than as mixed race or Kenyan-American.

Back in July I wrote about George Packer’s recent Atlantic essay and his new book. Packer described four narratives metaphorically at war in America, and I dissected his analyses, explaining that only one of them was really a group narrative (meta-narrative). The point that Packer was making really comes at an earlier stage in the group-narrative process, the process of identifying the protagonist, the “we” that is the group under consideration.

So let’s look at his four groups again. The Trump fans (“Real America”) are saying that the relevant group is their group, and they identify that group with America and the American story. The cosmopolitans (“Smart America”) generally think about humanity as their relevant group; they want us all to survive and thrive together, and national governments are one of the most effective places where we can act on behalf of humanity. The libertarians (“Free America”) are basically saying, “don’t group me.” Black Americans (“Just/Unjust America”) are saying that whatever the group “America” may do, wherever it’s headed, we need to include them; they matter too. The whites who want to be their allies are examining and hoping to dismantle barriers to doing so. These are all valid positions, but it’s sobering to recognize that as someone who cares about our group, in some ways I actually have more in common with the more benign Trump fans than I do the “don’t bother me” libertarians.

Then let’s look beyond the people that Packer was writing about – I’ve already alluded to the tensions and complications of what it means to group all Asian Americans together. Likewise for Latino/a Americans – the interests of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexicans are hardly identical, and treating them as a “group” is problematic.

Entitativity is especially fraught for indigenous Americans, the only category whose group membership can potentially give them special legal rights. Ever since the Europeans started settling North America, the entire history of the Native nations has been caught up in whether each tribe legally exists and the authenticity of its members’ claims to membership. A great many tribes have been “terminated,” giving the descendants of its members no meaningful way to sustain their sense of community. Other Indian nations require its members to have some minimum fraction of ancestry in its enrolled membership – a “Blood Quantum,” often at least 25% (one full-blooded grandparent). Given the very low rate of marriage between people enrolled in the same nation, it won’t be that many more generations before some nations go extinct. (For a great discussion of these problems, see “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker.)

So now let’s turn back to the proposal to treat the “unhoused” as a group. Clearly it would do some good things – it would make it easier for the weakest among them to be protected legally, and it would change the character of arguments against making their lives better. It would shift discussions away from blaming them for their prior choices and focus more directly on what they can do next.

On the other hand, in order to claim the legal protections to which they’d become entitled, it seems likely to me that they would have to register as homeless. This could become a source of shame for some of them – having to accept a label and an associated official history for something one had hoped was only temporary? Not great.

elmontThe groups I discussed earlier were all determined by ancestry, and homelessness generally is not, excepting children living with their parents. But there are other non-ancestral groups that one might identify with, for example, being LGBTQ or being neurodivergent. Members of these groups are encouraged to take pride in their status and to note the strengths their status gives them that the mainstream may not share. Would this be true for homelessness? I find it hard to picture many of them taking vocal pride in it, but I could be mistaken. I guess there’s always Doonesbury’s Elmont.

Another group that has something in common with homelessness is… students. Just as homelessness is a status or identity that one wants to move beyond, most students want to stop being students. But they’re being students by choice, for a purpose. It’s a positive thing to have become a student, and once they’ve graduated they’re encouraged to stay proud of that affiliation. (Go, Ducks!) Again, the parallels with homelessness fall apart.

What it comes down to is that identity groups are people with group-stories, meta-narratives. These stories tell where they’ve been and where they’re headed. They can be the story of an entire nation (or all of humanity), or of its sub-groups. And for these sub-groups, they either have their story defined for them by the mainstream powers-that-be, or they get to tell their own stories (which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the point of critical race theory – stories are more valid if they’re told by their own people, not made up by others).

And so, I’ll leave you with this important question: What does it mean to have a group story for a group that no one wants to be in?

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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