When I was preparing to write the piece “Blacks Being Ethnically Cleansed from NYC?” I knew I was going to get 2 questions (which, quite predictably, I got):
1. What are white people supposed to do? (A question, I think best answered as Tamara K. Nopper responded to a thread on Facebook noting, “What if leftist and non-Black folks put as much thought into the question, where can Black people go where they are not subject to displacement/state and public violence as they do in the questions where should white people go and what should they do in the world? Why is so much intellectual, political, and emotional energy spent trying to figure out white people’s place in a progressive world?”)
2. What about Black gentrifiers?
Well as luck would have it, The Washington City Paper in DC published an article, Confessions of a Black Gentrifier, also on Friday March 18th–the same day as Charles M. Blow’s op-ed in the NYT my Ethnic Cleansing piece was inspired by. The story is mostly a narrative on the conundrum of being Black and middle-class, moving to a poor Black or working class neighborhood you’re not originally from, and all the angst and hand-wringing worthy of a 1930’s tragic mulatto pulp fiction novel (It’s a wonder this even got published so few facts exist in this article to support its bony reasoning—but perhaps I expect too much from journalism. But I digress.). Shani O. Hilton writes:
“The story of the black gentrifier, at least from this black gentrifier’s perspective, is often a story about being simultaneously invisible and self-conscious. The conversation about the phenomenon remains a strict narrative of young whites displacing blacks who have lived here for generations. But a young black gentrifier gets lumped in with both groups, often depending on what she’s wearing and where she’s drinking. She is always aware of that fact.”
This is not to say that Black people with higher incomes should not be critically engaged with the ways in which they play a role often in perpetuating classism that may exacerbate the isolation of poor and working class Blacks in neighborhoods under the onslaught of gentrification. So yes, middle and upper-class Black folks can open and/or patronize bourgie stores that don’t cater to tastes of the neighborhood, or are out of price range for most poor black residents. They can sometimes plead to police departments for increased policing of poor black people they feel uncomfortable around, whether or not any real “crime” or violence is taking place.
But I disagree with the definition of gentrification put forward by this article, and the premise that Blacks can be gentrifiers, per se. Hilton, on the other hand concludes that a
“’Gentrifier’ can’t be equated with ‘white person.’ After all, most poor people in this country are white (though it’s definitely a numbers game; whites are still less likely to be poor than blacks and Latinos—there are just more of them). The gentrifier is a person of privilege, and even if she doesn’t have much money, she’s got an education and a network of friends who are striving like she is, and she has the resources to at least try to get what she wants.”
According to Hilton, gentrification begins and ends with a discussion of privilege—a political definition that has destroyed any real critique of racial wealth and capital and their connection to anti-black state violence. I blame this definition’s ubiquitous use on the white anti-racist movement as well as “people of color” defined projects, that try to evade notions of racial and economic justice in favor of equating class or skin color privilege with the way in which white and non-Black bodies can not only exercise “privilege” but often also draw capital, wealth and resources to kick-start the seemingly never-ending process of Black people being physically displaced and dispossessed of wealth—which is not a phenomenon of the last 20 years.
So for me, gentrification is not just, or even mostly about, class to the exclusion of race. The problem with this article and most progressive analysis of gentrification is that they discuss it in very limited and ahistorical terms. I would argue (and forgive me if someone else has already said this) continual physical displacement is a condition of anti-Black racism since the beginning of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, and includes massive Black imprisonment, the adoption/foster care system, lynchings done to usurp land owned by Blacks, the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in 1921, the Great Migration, urban “renewal” projects of the 1940’s-1970’s and the recent foreclosure crisis, which disproportionately affected black women homeowners. I do believe that this question of “Black gentrification” is at best a shallow understanding of what’s happening when Black middle and upper income people move to communities that have been poor and working class Black. At worst, it’s a strategic attempt to draw attention (and culpability) away from the larger forces of white gentrification and capital that much more severely impacts the ability of poor and working class blacks to remain in their communities.
So if the “gentrifier” can’t be racialized as white but boils down to economics, how come the Black middle-class, despite their income drive property values DOWN when they move into white neighborhoods, even if they make similar or equal amounts of money as the whites in that community? Why is the Black middle-class not as able to live among people of similar economic status who are not Black (in large numbers) even if they so desire to? And if many Black middle-class people choose to live in mixed-income Black communities, what does that say about their experiences with racism even if they have the income and credit to live elsewhere? This has everything to do with race and less to do with income or education.
If we understand dispossession and displacement as a particular condition of Black experience, history and current events would show us that the Black middle class is barely holding on to its position. A 2010 study by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) at Brandeis University showed:
- From 1984-2007, the racial wealth gap among Whites and Blacks increased by $75,000 — from $20,000 to $95,000. Financial assets, excluding home equity, among white families grew from a median value of $22,000 to $100,000 during that period while African Americans saw very little increase in assets in real dollars and had a median wealth of $5,000 in 2007.
- By 2007, the average middle-income white household had accumulated $74,000 in wealth, an increase of $55,000 over the 23-year period, while the average high-income African-American family owned $18,000, a drop of $7,000. That resulted in a wealth gap of $56,000 for an African-American family that earned more than $50,000 in 1984 compared to a white family earning about $30,000 that same year.
So how did this mythical Black middle class come to dominate the discourse on gentrification over the last couple years? Clearly, the Black middle has lost wealth, and therefore in no real position to cause the massive upheaval in Black lower-income neighborhoods over the same period. So many of those people who may have moved to buy homes or businesses were much more likely to face foreclosure (loss of wealth), and may not have been able to keep their homes of businesses due to rising property taxes when white gentrifiers moved in.
Why are Black middle-class people never talked about in terms of neighborhood “revitalization?” I am not advocating it, as it would still have very elitist connotations, but the point is, we hear the terms revitalization, renewal, progress, and development when white people (hipsters, activists, artists, yuppies, white gays and queers, etc), immigrants, and “students” move into Black neighborhoods. Why are Black neighborhoods by default spoken of as “dead?”
The article takes place in DC, which is somewhat of an outlier because state & federal public service jobs are one of the few sectors in the economy that African-Americans have any kind of foothold, and those jobs do tend to be more stable (See 2011 State of the Dream Report by United for a Fair Economy). But with a Republican takeover of Congress and calls for fiscal prudence (which means cutting jobs where many Blacks are likely to work, in the social service federal agencies and the US Postal Service), DC middle-class may not be as immune as they have been (and they haven’t been immune as the article states. The Congress controls the budget for the city, and its own infrastructure has been horribly underfunded for decades, which is why many Black residents refer to the city as a colony). Even if Black middle-class people have returned to some urban and poorer Black communities, will they be able to retain their wealth over time? History would suggest not.
The article hints at but does not analyze what one of the Black middle class residents names—his “protection and participation” as a part of the middle class depends on how he’s dressed. If he is dressed in sweats or in things that don’t socially mark him as middle class, he is subjected to similar kinds of hostility from white residents as well as from law enforcement. So white residents are made safe from law enforcement by virtue of race—for Blacks, wearing the wrong clothes quickly changes one’s position. But I know from personal experience having lived in gentrifying neighborhoods that white people still act in terror no matter how I’m dressed, and have also been assaulted by police officers, clothing style no matter.
Despite the anxiety many upper-class or educated Blacks may feel about their position in helping to displace poorer Blacks, we have to really look critically at whether “Black gentrification” is really even possible, or whether it is a tool to use the anxiety of the Black middle class to distract attention from white and/or non-Black culpability in Black displacement and dispossession.
Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It . Mindy Thompson Fullilove.
Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Saidiya V. Hartman