Notes on A Confession of A (so-called) Black Gentrifier

March 22, 2011

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.

Suggested reading:

Black on The Block: The Politics of Race and Class in The City. Mary Pattillo.

Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class. Mary Pattillo.

Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It . Mindy Thompson Fullilove.

How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society (South End Press Classics Series). Manning Marable

Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Saidiya V. Hartman

15 Responses to Notes on A Confession of A (so-called) Black Gentrifier

  1. Imani says:

    I love Kenyon Farrow. I always have and I always will! EXCELLENT article. Just so on point!!!!!

  2. Anthony says:

    a question…

    what is a white queer person in an interracial (afro-carribean/white) relationship where both are currently economically in poverty (and on foodstamps) and living in a generally latino neighborhood?

    i think i see your point that there is no way around being a gentrifier if you are still culturally middle class and most especially white but how does that change in situations where that person’s life is extremely tied to a poc community?

  3. Kenyon Farrow says:

    Hi Anthony,

    I am not sure what city you’re from, and what nationalities comprise your Latino neighborhood, which I think shifts the discussion depending on what part of “Latino” we’re talking about.

    But let me say, specific to the black community–Black neighborhoods have almost always been somewhat multiracial. Particularly white women who were either in relationships with Black men, or whom had Black children, and living in white neighborhoods was not an option because they were rejected.

    Also, there is data from the Williams Institute study on Lesbian and Gay Poverty in the US that suggests that for gay white men, the only thing that drives their household wealth down is living in rural communities, or having a Black partner. So clearly white men in relationships with Black gay men are more likely to be poor either due to low wages and high unemployment for Black men, sometimes HIV status, and the fact that quite frankly, white men who are from poorer backgrounds are (probably) more likely to date Black men from similar economic backgrounds.

    So I don’t know if I can answer your question about how gentrification changes when it is poor whites in Black neighborhoods. I would likely say that poor white people without college education (who are in relationships with Blacks) and viewed by society as “white trash” are likely to not draw the same kinds of economic capital that white gentrifiers bring, precisely because of how they are seen vis-a-vis their proximity and relationship to Blacks.

  4. joe says:

    Kenyon,

    Nice piece. My lingering question here is about the importance of positionality in all these discussions, and how it often goes undiscussed. White “progressives”, of course, have an interest in claiming that gentrification is purely or largely economic, and they so argue. You, as a black college educated person who has lived in ‘gentrifying neighborhoods’, similarly have an interest in arguing that gentrification is largely racial. Each is arguing for the position that absolves themselves of responsibility for the changing face of NYC. While certainly your piece is much more valid than those written by said white ‘progressives’, it fails in a similar way.

    I appreciate you placing gentrification in the correct historical context and agree that displacement of people of color has been a constant throughout the history of this country (and let us not start talking about elsewhere). However, talking about gentrification without economics may be a stretch as well. The idea that blacks simply cannot be gentrifiers may be challenged by an examination of what’s happened in Harlem over the past decade.

    It is simply simplistic to divorce class from discussions of gentrification, just as it is inexcusable to talk about gentrification in ahistorical, purely economic terms.

    • Kenyon Farrow says:

      Joe–

      First, as I state, the black middle class can and do act in ways that marginalize and isolate poor and low income black folks in black neighborhoods. And yes, many of them are bourgie as hell and have bad politics. But I am also talking about capital and wealth, and whether the black middle class in the short term have benefited in the immediate from gentrification–they have been the first sometimes to buy homes in Harlem and Bed Stuy, but my point is that the Black middle class does not now, nor have they ever had the kind of wealth accumulation to actually produce gentrification and mass displacement. I have not seen data to support an argument that property values raise significantly when Black middle class people move into poorer Black neighborhoods–and the Black middle class is also vulnerable to displacement and dispossession as poor blacks quite honestly, and all of the historical examples (including the current foreclosure crisis) I name point to that. Especially when they have property that white people decide they want! I think I pretty much laid out the data about the black middle class that supports my argument, and the books I posted as reading material also support this.

      In short, the Black middle class recently was able to take advantage (in the short term) of the Clinton era community development and empowerment zones (but that benefit I think has been drastically overestimated, over the ways in which corporations really benefited along 125th Street, for example. And Black middle class people who had businesses or were the street merchants along 125th street were pushed out by Giuliani.), relaxed credit that made home buying easier, and whom had seen very low unemployment rates in the late 1990s. But after 2001, Black unemployment rates have not recovered, and Black people disproportionately got predatory adjustable rate loans (even when they qualified for fixed rate loans). So I actually look at this as, Black middle class was actually stripped of wealth (like they have been historically, regardless of whether they see themselves as allies to poor black people or not–the state and capitalism has not really treated them any differently) while that wealth went into the hands of whites. Black middle class folks have moved into poorer Black neighborhoods (that really have only been income segregated since the 1970′s-let’s not act like the Black community has historically been so income divided in its geography, that is a very recent historical phenomenon) because of some of the shifts in policy, but they ultimately were fleeced in the long run, feel me? It’s why Harlem got so white–Black people, even the black middle class, has gotten pushed out and now we’re all heading to the South. Furthermore, even if we know some really uncritical and elitist Black middle class folks, we can see that their politics have not really protected them–the fact that they may have (and I think not in all cases) some negative views of poor Black people, the fact that they’re still forced to live amongst them should tell you something about their actual social and political capital, or lack thereof. So again, I am not thinking as much about individual actions per se, though I name that those things are a real problem, I am talking about wealth and how it is distributed, and that I think white people and a lot of non-Black people of color are overplaying this issue of “Black gentrifiers” as a way to not deal with the real social and economic forces at play, and want to boil everything down to personal interactions and “privilege” without an accounting of the economy, labor, policy and capital–which can seriously be problematic (I’ve definitely had my fair share of fights with bourgie negros in Bed Stuy to be sure!) but I am also clear that their elitism is not a major driver of displacement of poorer Black people, mainly because the Black middle class is getting displaced at the exact same time! At best, they’re hanging by a thread! And I think a lot of us Black folks who have the benefit of education or some middle-class income have a lot of anxiety about our position–I think we should be critical and engaged with what we’re doing in communities. But I don’t think that if you, I, or half the Black people who have moved to Bed Stuy in the last 10 years had not moved there, poor Black people would not have been displaced. The dismantling of Welfare, criminalization of drugs and massive imprisonment of the last 20 years is much more highly culpable here in what is happening to poor Black people. Trust, I am editing a book about racial uplift politics in Black communities, so I am not interested in disguising problematic Black class politics, but I think that if we are blaming the Black middle class on gentrification, we’re way off the mark.

  5. Freddie says:

    “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?”

    While there’s a lot to admire in this sentiment, I’m not sure it’s ever the best thing to fail to consider your own behavior. “What should I do” seems to me to be the elementary moral question.

  6. Jaime Grant says:

    Bravo. Much needed. Glad you are getting the space to WRITE again!!

  7. abolitionista says:

    Kenyon! I first have to say thank you for writing this piece! Secondly I really appreciate your unflinching analysis of how the structural issues affecting Black people are not simply guided by a black/white racial divide but are increasingly becoming structured by a black/non-black divide. As such the term POC reveals itself as severely flawed when confronted with the structural displacement that Black bodies endure that does not condition the lives of others. Furthermore, your touching on the fact that displacement is a condition of Blackness as it is rooted in the transatlantic slave trade is an analysis that is precisely on point. Especially if you connect your point about the classification of Black communities as “dead” and gratuitously open for taking, to the designating of Africa as “Terra Nullius” as grounds for gratuitously taking bodies and staking eternal claim over the land. I can go on for days but your points are really well made. I think all should ponder the question you began this article with, where exactly do Black people go when someone decides they want our “homes”?

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  9. Kim says:

    Thanks so much for writing this. I am about to begin a project documenting stories from my neighborhood in North Philly, which is being gentrified. I am framing the project and gentrification around how displacement is a key tenet of anti-Black racism and central to the Black American experience. Thanks again. Sometimes it’s just nice to see someone else write what you were thinking so you know you not crazy.

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