Black People Can Be Gentrifiers


Gentrification is a loaded term. So in this case Merriam-Webster got it right. The definition provides meaning that is stripped of socially assigned subtext.

According to Merriam-Webster, gentrification is: The process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents. Adhering strictly to that definition, I am contributing to the gentrification of Crown Heights, Brooklyn – as a black man. I was not born or raised middle-class, but I am now, having earned close to $70,000 in my most lucrative year at the age of 25.

When I set eyes upon the one-bedroom apartment that would end the oft over-exaggerated “epic” struggle of apartment hunting in New York City, it was inhabited by a family of five. They were nice enough to show me around the space, detail its shortcomings, and offer the remaining oxtail from dinner. I displaced that family to live in my preferred state of solitude. It seemed the mother and father sorely needed both their incomes to live there and support three elementary school-aged children. At $1,300 a month, my rent is more than the proverbial drop in a bucket to me, but I am not struggling to pay it (even as a “poor” graduate student).

Crown Heights has a dominant Caribbean and West Indian diaspora. There is also a history of tension with the nearby Hasidic Jewish community. With no known Caribbean or West Indian heritage, I have no connection to either side.  I often feel more like an adrift outsider than a resident. I hugged the outside of sidewalks and walked in the street to render myself nonexistent during the West Indian Day Parade. I remind myself that I have no right to be annoyed when I can’t understand a word of my super’s Patois-laden English. I enjoy the unifying exasperation of post-office dealings that take no less than an hour and a half.

This is where the main ingredient of race is added in society’s gentrification recipe and it begins to stink up the metaphorical kitchen. While Webster resists the urge to conflate, we as a society do not. Just as urban decay was characterized by white flight, gentrification is strongly associated with minority displacement. But am I committing a lesser crime than white “gentrifiers” because I can camouflage? No. I should not be judged with leniency in this situation or intolerance in another solely based upon the color of my skin. The acute guilt spawned from not even thinking about where or how the family I displaced is living tells me so.

So the answer to the question posed in the title is yes, and it’s simple because gentrification is solely an issue of class. Race is tied to gentrification because a grossly disproportionate number of America’s poor are people of color, but other people of color can displace their fellow minorities just as any white person can. The true issue lies in why the poverty imbalance has and continues to persist.

Our obsession with race in America constantly contaminates our judgment and distracts from the true issues at hand, extending far beyond gentrification. Young black men absolutely don’t deserve to be killed in the streets by police departments all over the country sworn to protect them, but the fact that any individual can be killed by police is the problem. Personal bias, whether it manifests as racism, sexism, elitism, etc., cannot be completely eradicated, but the changes in law enforcement policy, or gun control legislation, or whatever system that can prevent bias from being acted upon will not be addressed due to preoccupation with race.

The specific issue is actually irrelevant – whether it is gentrification, law enforcement policy, employment policy, or what have you – it is our everyday thought process that requires adjustment. Black people are accused of “using the race card,” invoking racial issues where they do not belong, but people of all colors are guilty of having the card in the deck. Race is the primary informant of identity, and is often preeminent as a filter of thought in guiding our interactions. This is true of individuals of all colors. We often apply racism to situations unknowingly because it is accepted as simply existing and persisting beyond our control. This mode of thinking must be transcended.

The exigency for a collective elevated consciousness regarding race should be treated as an epidemic, yet it is reduced to the innocuity of the common cold which people can continue to work and live through. Many people will not admit that they have the slightest racist tendencies, and while having thoughts driven by racial motivations and not acting on them is commendable, can we go a step further and interrogate ourselves about why we have those thoughts?

As possible solutions go, I am no philosopher. I am not a respected cultural critic. I am no legislator or politician. I am also not solely a black man who built an immunity to the digestive acids in the belly of the beast known as “the inner city.” I offer myself as a man who stepped outside of his mind's allegorical cave for once and saw how ugly and unsettling the shadows truly are.