Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Gentrification: It's complicated

[Delvecchio Faison is the artist who  painted "The Only Constant is Change". The painting depicts the impact of gentrification in Durham, NC. To see more of Faison's work, go to Faison's instagram page here]

  • Gentrification is complicated.

For some, it’s the celebration of communities that rise from the ashes after decades of decay. For others, it’s the displacement of black and brown people to make space for white people fixated on life closer to the action.

There are stories that relate both the good and the bad regarding gentrification. Some talk about the reduction of crime and fine dining and coffee shops in those buildings that were eyesores before the growth. Others talk about skyrocketing housing cost and the changing demographics. Where did the black folks go?

As municipalities grapple with ways to place their arms around how to discuss what it all means - it’s too much to hug when our arms are too short.

Capturing the essence of gentrification requires more than an analysis of current public policy statements. I mean, it’s easy to blame the boom of inner city growth on corporate entities fueled by greed and an obsession to dismantle communities. Getting at if that’s fact or fiction complicates the conversation. Hindsight is 20/20, but can we assume a plot that imagined all of this?

That too is up for debate.

There are a few givens. Maybe, just maybe, it’s best to start the conversation with what we know to be true. Again, some will dispute the truth of my suppositions.

Like some say in their relationship status, it’s complicated. 

A reflection of white privilege

Here we go.

There’s always danger when a person uses those two words in the same sentence – white and privilege. It’s one among the many phrases (systemic racism being another) used to indicate the advantages that come with being white. It’s perceived as an attack, but these statements are meant to move things forward in ways that make for a happy union.

Who remembers those good ole days?

White people hate it when black people explain things related to race (is blacksplaing a thing). Yes, this is a heated discussion accompanied with “what you mean I got privilege when I was born poor down in rural Mississippi?” In other words, “I got mine, and don’t blame me”.

But, that’s not the point. What is the point when I assert gentrification reflects what it means to function with white privilege? It conveys the power of naming worth and marketability.

A community labeled as blight becomes a gold mine when given the sanction of white people. Their approval of worth radically shifts the value of property. These communities are no longer quantified as havens of massive poverty, prostitution and drug related problems. Once named as diamonds in the rough, they become hotspots for hipsters willing to transform these communities into those shinny diamonds.

The power of their privilege is in making their dreams come true. Their very presence is enough to convince others to make the journey into the land oozing with potential. The power of white privilege is in their numbers. Being there is enough to attract others.

“If Becky and Harvey say it’s safe, it must be safe. Right?”

But, there’s more.

A reminder of systemic racism

Getting to the what requires considerable reflection on the how. In other words, how did we get here in the first place?

Let’s begin with my owning the “here we go again”.

Systemic racism is another one of those terms that budges the rage of some white people. How dare you blame it all on a system, when you blacks have failed to do your part.

This is where I insert rolling eyes and comments about your great-granddaddy. But, let’s press forward.

As much as we hate pondering the implications of history, how we got here is critical in fully understanding why and how gentrification is a burden rooted in historical and systemic racism. It is part of an ongoing practice of public policies that hinder the advances of black families. It echoes the manufacturing of policies aimed at maneuvering the placement of black bodies to extend profit for white people.

Be it government policies that denied black soldiers GI Bills after serving in the military, public policies that redlined areas acceptable for blacks to live, the construction of black ghettos to cage black folks into manageable areas for law enforcement to sustain a system of systemic poverty, urban renewal projects that eradicated black business districts across the nation or the exodus that drew masses of white people to suburban communities after the integration of public schools – housing in America has been used, both historically and today, to foster systems used to maintain systemic racism and economic disparity.

Gentrification continues the American legacy of moving black bodes to benefit space utilized to profit white business interest. Regardless of the intent and motivation, understanding gentrification necessitates an evaluation that reflects the history and context of housing trends in manifesting the power of white privilege and systemic racism.

Undoing the stigma of ghetto

Now comes the tough part. Like I said, this is tough work that requires more than a causal glare.
As much as this is about white privilege and systemic racism, it is also about how we name space. Historically, black space is demonized in ways that signify unwelcoming environments to be avoided. The perception of space to escape is displayed as part of the lore of black America.

The ghetto is the escape of “moving on up” for the “Jefferson’s” and the dream of the characters in “Good Times”. The movement away from black space, into the world of white America, is the evidence of making it. The movement out is proof of success beyond the restrictive play of ghetto life.

The “ghetto” is a place of confinement under strict regulations and restrictions. These are quarters of overcrowded housing and extreme poverty. These are places where the justice system has a different set of rules to limit movement among those grappling to find ways to break free.

Notwithstanding the terms used to define these communities, the virtues related to living in “the hood” outweigh the categorization of those who call it home. The naming of the public persona of the boys and girls who live in the hood is a matter that deserves critical critique beyond the negative nuances that shape how people think.

But, this is a discussion about gentrification. Getting to the now involves how the power of white privilege is used to undo the stigma regarding life in the perceived “ghetto”. This is about the renaming of black space. This is about undoing the shame of life in space carved out and redlined to advance an agenda aimed at protecting the interest of white people. This is about changing the rhetoric involving black space as part of a public policy agenda.

Thus, this is, in some ways, about the construction of terms to undermine black space to foster policies to police and incarcerate black men and women. This is about demonizing areas, and the people who live there, to regulate their movement.

What you trying to say?

I’m glad you asked.

The questions and solutions related to gentrification go much deeper than many assume. Like most of what fractures America, it all comes back to America’s unwillingness to concede how race and racism shows up in practices and public policies that support systemic racism.

There he goes again, blaming it all on racism.

Sorry, but a casual study of American history brings us back to the core of all our problems.

The devil didn’t do it. Racism got us here.

Well, that is the devil, isn’t it?

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