18 June 2013


This post was inspired by a Facebook post of a Friend which said: “Gentrification: Ethnic cleansing, with a liberal twist!”

That's a little ripe. “Ethnic cleansing” is a euphemism for racist genocide. Gentrification is bad, but it just isn't in that weight class.

It rubbed me particularly wrong because that post was the latest word in an ongoing discussion I've been seeing about gentrification, which I've been following not just because it's a hot topic right now but because I'm soaking in it. I'm one of those liberal bourgeois Whites who has recently moved into a neighborhood largely populated with Blacks and other people of color.

There are good reasons why many people resent Gentrifiers like me. Yes, people like me are creating disruptions that can ultimately result in serious hardships for the less-prosperous residents of our neighborhoods. Yes, we are as a rule maddeningly naïve about the effects we are creating. Yes, this betrays the liberal political agenda we think we represent. Yes, bourgeois liberal Whites' smugness about our political and cultural liberalism is often annoying as hell. Yes, we have a deep responsibility to get more sophisticated about how national and local politics and governance create a context in which our migration into urban cores and other neighborhoods has destructive consequences. Yes, we need to not only become more sophisticated but also to become more active in changing those politics. Yes, we have generally failed to even make gestures in the direction of meeting those responsibilities.

But I don't believe that this migration of bourgeois Whites is simply destructive. If I did I wouldn't have participated in it.

So the Facebook post got under my skin because while I respect why people gripe about Those Gentrifiers Moving Into The Neighborhood, if we just stop the conversation there we will miss a necessary broader discussion. I want us to ask how gentrification is part of a greater process that raises the cost of housing, why the housing market is structured such that a migration of bourgeois Whites squeezes poorer people of color, what people moving into a neighborhood can do to support the community they have entered, and a hundred other questions about the political, economic, and material context which makes this migration of bourgeois Whites a problem. If we get stuck on cultural resentments we will lose that bigger conversation.

(A friend says that the big villain here isn't White people, it's capitalism. You may not want to join that chorus, but you should be thinking at that scale.)

It's frustrating and a little weird because the current wave of gentrification is driven partly by something which should be the opposite of a problem. Gentrifiers emerge from a generation of bourgeois Whites who just don't have the kind of bigotry which produced the white flight from the cities of their parents' and grandparents' time.

I don't want to imply that we Gentrifiers are devoid of bigotry, that racism is over, that there's no problem. The process of racist injustice is still working. There's still plenty of White bigotry backing it up. Part of that process of racist injustice is Gentrifiers naïve and disinterested in how the process works or in our complicity in it — supported by forces working to keep Whites naïve and disinterested.

But I cannot believe that we have to take bigotry's weakening grip on White people as something that just creates a problem. There has got to be an opportunity here. Every time I see the racially-mixed patrons of bars and restaurants in downtown Oakland I think “this looks like the America I was promised”. I say looks like because gentrified Oakland is not really the better America we want ... but the fact that it's starting to look like it should be a place from which we can start to build it for real.

Note: I've rewritten this post in response to a friend who rightly took me to task for the implications of the original version.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your post, and I think these stats are Relevant To Your Interests. http://thefrontsteps.com/2013/06/03/san-franciscos-gender-sexual-preference-income-ethnicity-marital-status-and-more/

Rhett Aultman said...

Well, and while we're going to discuss gentrification, I think it's worth noting that some of these migrations are the result of macroeconomic forces. I didn't move to Oakland to sample its charms and pretend I'm a pioneer. I moved to Oakland because my wife and I found a house we could afford there. Now, I work in tech, and she makes nearly as much as I do, and a house in north Oakland was what our monthly budget could shoulder safely. And the house we bought had been vacant for some time, and before that, it was a rental with a very hands-off landlord, so our neighbors who are native to the neighborhood are glad we're maintaining and improving the house.