Yesterday, I visited a friend who lives uptown. Walking from her apartment back to the 125th street stop on the A, I was struck by the fact that almost every single person I passed was white. I thought this was Harlem. Turns out, according to Wikipedia, Harlem proper doesn’t really start on the west side until 125th street itself, and I was a bit south of there; but, as the Wikipedia article also states, “Harlem’s boundaries are elastic and have changed over the years, as Ralph Ellison observed: ‘Wherever Negroes live uptown is considered Harlem.’”
As I walked, I got to thinking about the stuff I’ve been writing about gentrification and all the thoughts I hadn’t written out yet. Lots of my thoughts have arisen in response to questions and statements like these, gleaned from the comments on this blog:
- “You and I are both concerned about being “priced out” of our homes, being unable to afford to live where we want. But you want to tell me where I’m allowed to live? How would you feel if all the boricuas were forced to live in a certain neighborhood? “They are” will be your inevitable reply, but that’s the point.”
- “It’s not the presence of individual white people that hurts communities like the one you are describing–it’s institutional racism, including the examples you have described of landlords charging higher rent to white renters and real estate agents considering white people as evidence of a safe neighborhood. Why is it his fault if other people react to his presence that way despite his good intentions?”
- “Isn’t saying white people shouldn’t move into minority neghborhoods just another way of advocating segregation? The danger of gentrification is very real, but that doesn’t mean that everyone should live only among people of their own race, or that a white person who moves into a minority community is automatically a negative presence–especially if he respects the culture and the people, and wants to get to know them rather than surrounding himself with other white people.”
So, with these and other responses to what I’ve written and said thusfar in mind, I wrote this on my long subway ride back to Brooklyn.
Let’s say I was living or just walking in a neighborhood that had, until recently, been almost completely a people of color neighborhood, and now I was seeing many more, new white faces in the area. If I also knew that the people of color who had moved away had gone on of their own choice, desire and volition, to neighborhoods just as nice or even nicer, and were able to preserve or reestablish their own ethnically and culturally-based communities, then I would not be angered by the sight of those white people.
Nor would I be angry if I knew that the presence of those white folks didn’t mean that people of color were leaving at all; that the people of color who had lived there for so long still lived there without fear of being priced out, and that their businesses, restaurants, cultural institutions and traditions stayed as well and were not threatened or pushed down to make room for mainstream, dominant, white culture.
However, that is not the case here, in New York City, at this time. This is not some natural, voluntary progression of the city that’s going on here, where people are choosing to move elsewhere and where neighborhoods are changing as a result. Here, I know, from clear, documented evidence, that white faces in low-income communities of color often mean the onset of gentrification, displacement, forced evictions, people pushed out farther from Manhattan and into poorer, more neglected neighborhoods. I know that this also often signals the breakdown of communities that people of color, especially immigrants, have worked so hard to establish in order to feel more safe and whole in this city; that ethnic cultures are being subjugated so that the dominant white culture might move in.
See, people of color don’t hate, dislike, distrust, or otherwise feel negatively about white folks just because white people are a different shade of skin, or look or act differently. No, it’s because, far too often, white people mean bad news for people of color. And that’s the case here, with the gentrification of POC communities. People of color aren’t just upset when they see white people moving into their ‘hoods because they want segregation for segregation’s sake – it’s because white people have so infrequently done anything good for our communities.
People ask why I’d advocate segregation by hoping that less white folks move into neighborhoods of color. In this sense, segregation is simply defined as the geographical separation of one race of people from another, and is de facto considered to be a bad thing. The thing is, though, that the push for desegregation, starting from the Civil Rights movement onwards, wasn’t motivated because Black folks and other people of color thought it would be nice to have more white people around. Integration wasn’t about creating some happy melting pot. No, segregation was so damaging and needed to be ended because it was explicitly used to discriminate against and oppress people of color. It wasn’t as if white folks and people of color were kept separate and were then given the same exact amount of privilege, services, and care by our government and other institutions; no, white people and people of color were separated out so that the vast majority of the resources, privilege and power in our society could be funneled directly to white people, while people of color were left with, in a word, shit. The point of school desegregation wasn’t so that little Black children could play with little white children; it was so that Black children could stop being relegated to abysmal schools and could start attending institutions that were actually well tended and cared for: namely, white schools.
Likewise, the urge for separatism that has at one time or another arisen in many oppressed groups – people of color, Native peoples, queers, lesbians, women – is not created in a vacuum. Separatism is a direct response to oppression; it is fostered by a desire to protect one’s community, to be self-sufficient and thereby not rely on a population of privileged oppressors that has done you nothing but ill for time immemorial.
Back to the gentrification that’s going on in NYC: Maybe those individual white people are not the ones who deserve the brunt of the blame for gentrification. As many have been quick to point out, there is an entire system of institutionalized racism which drives gentrification. Perhaps many those individual white folks do respect people of color and their cultures, and don’t mean any harm. Maybe they, too, are short on cash and are just trying to find an affordable place in the city.
Thing is, though – those white folks moving into el Barrio, Harlem, Chinatown, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and elsewhere – they represent, participate in, are complicit with, and benefit from those larger systems of racism and classism that drive gentrification. It goes beyond mere symbolism – those white faces are the physical manifestation of gentrification in neighborhoods of color. They are the living, breathing, walking, talking proof that your neighborhood is about to change in a huge way, that you and your neighbors might be priced and pushed out to make room.
Every white person who moves into a gentrifying neighborhood of color bears the burden of that responsibility. It doesn’t matter who well meaning or liberal you are, how much you respect your neighbors and their cultures, or how hard up you are, too. It doesn’t even really matter if you are fully conscious of and own your own participation in gentrification, though that recognition and personal responsibility is a really good and and necessary thing. Despite all of that, it is still your presence that will make those other, maybe richer white folks feel “safe” enough to move into the ‘hood; it is your ability and willingness to pay a couple of hundred extra in rent that will let that landlord pick you over that poorer, browner family; it is your faces that the real estate agents will point out when they’re trying to tout SoHa or East Williamsburg as “up and coming”; it is you who make up the target audience for the new, culturally white establishments that are replacing those of the people who lived there before you. All those “good intentions” you carry around inside of you aren’t worth a damn if you don’t really understand and cop to your responsibility for the situation and then – and this is really important – do something about it. Do what, you ask? Well, I can’t really answer that question for anyone, nor is it my job to figure out how white people can stop hurting my people. What I can begin to suggest is this: do your best to not move into gentrifying neighborhoods of color, for one; and, if you absolutely must do so, which I am frankly skeptical about since I’ve managed to avoid it myself, then it is your responsibility to do all you can to work against the tide of gentrification, perhaps by doing things like supporting local businesses and volunteering with and donating to community organizations working against gentrification and displacement or working more generally for racial and economic justice.
Yes, racism is completely institutionalized and embedded in nearly all of the power structures in our society. That, however, does not absolve anyone of their personal responsibility, culpability, benefit and privilege in those racist systems. And the larger powers at work behind things like gentrification don’t make an individual person’s participation any less harmful or threatening. When you dismiss the negative effets of gentrification, blame it on someone else, or refuse your own responsibility because that’s “just the way things are” and there’s “nothing you can do about it,” you’re only sealing the deal on your own complicity.