The myth of Black gentrification
- Published: 14 May 2011
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15 May 2011
The Washington City Paper in DC on 18 March 2011 published an article called Confessions of a Black Gentrifier. 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.
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 critically engage with the ways in which they may perpetuate classism and exacerbate the isolation of poor and working-class Blacks 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 the 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. In my experience, the word ‘privilege’ is used in a way that reduces that class or skin color privilege to an ability to move through certain social spaces with more relative ease than those without it.
Skin color privilege, in the way it is often deployed, then removes the centrality of being Black, no matter what the skin tone or hair texture, as the least desired and most vulnerable position. There is a refusal to talk about how 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 an not a phenomenon of the least 20 years, but extends well beyond it.
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 (as discussed in my article “Blacks Being Ethnically Cleansed from NYC?”) 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 1940s-1970s 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.
- 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 class has lost wealth, and is 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.
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.
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 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 in gentrifying neighborhoods that white people still act in terror and police officers will still assault me, no matter how I’m dressed.
Discussions about gentrification often provoke the question, “What are white people supposed to do?” As Tamara K. Nopper has said (in response to a Facebook comment),
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?
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 further 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.
- Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Saidiya V. Hartman
Kenyon Farrow is a writer, speaker, researcher and community organizer who blogs at http://kenyonfarrow.com where an edited version of this article first appeared. His key interests are issues at the intersection of HIV/AIDS, prisons, and homophobia. He has been named one of Advocate magazine’s “40 Under 40” LGBT Leaders in the United States for 2010, and one of Black Entertainment Television’s ‘Modern Black History Heroes’ for 2011.