Inequality’s a tourist

Generally, you have to look pretty hard not to see the inequality all around. But being away from home sometimes makes it even simpler.

[You can see this essay in higher quality on my Flickr site.]

Strangers you only see in passing are flattened out, ready to be slotted into the social categories already arrayed in your mind. Take one step forward, say something, or just look someone in the eye, and that can all fall apart. But last Sunday, taking a break from the American Sociological Association‘s annual meeting for a self-guided walking tour around downtown Atlanta, I just took some pictures.

And what would make you want to take a walk more than this view from the hotel window?

Glitz and decay, wealth and poverty, are such common contrasts in big cities everywhere. I can’t help thinking pictures of these are just somewhere between banal and trite. To read them, you don’t have to look deeply or know anything, the history of the buildings…

…or the lives lived on their lawns.

You can look at the contrast in the city around you, but for the conference tourist, the contrast is you, too. It’s walking past poor Black men on the street.

Or — in the case of the more ambitious traveler or local athlete — running past.

It’s probably the case that the more different someone is from yourself, the more likely you are to look over their individuality and see them as a placeholder. But race/ethnicity, class and gender in America shape that social distance phenomenon in unique ways (which is why we have the problem of cross-racial witness misidentification).

But on my walk I set out to objectify or simplify the rich Whites, too. Like this church-going dad…

Or the guy with the frappachino in the stroller’s cupholder, the weekend stubble and comfort clothes, loading the all-in-blue blond boy into the SUV.

I don’t know my Christian denominations, but each of the nearby churches attracted its own crowd, each with a guy at the front door welcoming folks when they arrive…

…and seeing them off when they go.

Finally, I found the sights beautiful, idyllic…


… (objectifiably) poignant…

…and reassuring (not).


Filed under Me @ work

4 responses to “Inequality’s a tourist

  1. Very nice photo esssay. I wish I could have been there.


  2. I think it’s more than just being in a different place—I had a similarly eye-opening class experience during a conference in Atlanta. It’s something about the central area’s layout. I was attending a meeting of the American Musicological Society, and walked from my hotel down to the MLK memorial. What was most depressing is that the area is still flat broke, and the panhandlers hustle for money by pointing out different landmarks of the Civil Rights Movement. I felt like a little part of me died. Then I got back to my conference, where everyone was running off to papers about European art music, and I had a hard time seeing the point.


  3. I agree, Lester. Seems they built the conference infrastructure in a poor area and it didn’t “take” (i.e., successfully displace the poor).


  4. mumsyjr

    I live in the Atlanta area, and actually the conference area is fairly representative of the metro area as a whole in terms of the stark contrasts of class and race side by side…as well as the plethora of different denominations of churches (I’ve been here, on and off, for nearly a decade and I still hear new ones…I only recently discovered what is really meant by “primitive baptists”). You have to get out a good half hour from the city to reach the white-washed burbs where they’ve managed to effectively render invisible the class/race divide (which is obviously still there).
    By the way, love this blog. 🙂


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