The District of Columbia is being sued for gentrification. A lawsuit against DC alleges that “The city is intentionally trying to lighten black neighborhoods.” Gentrification does “lighten” black neighborhoods but the issue is far deeper. Gentrifying neighborhoods are warzones. Gentrification is a battle for physical spaces in cities but in the ultimate sense, a fight to maintain white power and dominance in America. Babies of color now outnumber white babies, who will be in the minority by 2050. Cities are power centers — of government, commerce and culture. To control cities is to maintain white power, even in an emerging majority-minority America. Gentrification is war and black people sit in the crosshairs.
The Civil War was launched, in part, because Southerners could not match the electoral muscle of their industrial counterparts in the North. Despite their hatred of Abraham Lincoln the South simply did not have the numbers to beat him, so they fought. Whites today are waging a different type of war in order to avoid being relegated to insignificance socially and politically — gentrification. Illinois has 18 congressional districts, 7 contain some portion of the city of Chicago. The Illinois General Assembly has 59 senate districts, 20 contain some portion of the city of Chicago. All this means over one-third of the state’s political power is tied to one city. To the degree blacks in Illinois — 15 percent of the state population — have enjoyed political influence, it has been a function of our concentration in the city. In 2010 the city was roughly one-third black. A gentrified Chicago erases any reasonable possibility of black political power in the state for at least a generation.
The average white 26 year-old moving into Bronzeville, Brooklyn or Northeast DC may not think of gentrification in terms of war. Black people, however, can’t afford not to. The fate of black America rests on whether or not we are erased from the American city. The viability of white power in this century, conversely, hinges on the ability of whites to populate urban centers. The urgency of the matter has activated a variety of forces against black communities, including the police, financial institutions and the gentrifiers themselves. Consciously or otherwise, these forces are not simply fighting for space in urban centers but the continuation of white power.
This war is not simply theoretical, it features armed and hostile combatants. When gentrifiers move into historically black neighborhoods they utilize an often lethal force — we call them police. “There’s some evidence that 311 and 911 calls are increasing in gentrifying areas,” Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson said in a recent interview with The Atlantic. Neighbor-related complaints to 311 disproportionately originate from gentrifying neighborhoods, according to research done by Dr. Joscha Legewie, a sociologist at New York University, and Dr. Merlin Schaeffer of the University of Cologne. Legewie and Schaeffer found that that neighbor-related complaints (read gentrifiers complaining to the authorities about their new neighbors) to 311 were 26 percent higher in transitioning neighborhoods. Often this takes the form of complaints about music or other longstanding practices in a community but it can be deadly.
Alex Nieto’s body was mutilated by 14 bullets from police. Nieto was shot at the age of 28 because he was a man of color living in a San Francisco neighborhood he’d lived in his entire life — it just happened to be a gentrifying neighborhood. On the evening he was killed, gentrifiers thought Nieto to be suspicious so they called the cops on him; in his own neighborhood. Minutes later Nieto was dead. Nieto’s case just happens to be one of the more “Googlable” ones but we shouldn’t think it unique.
What happened to Nieto is ultimately rooted in a long tradition of whites using law enforcement to police the movement of black bodies, a tradition which gentrification brings into focus. This feature of American life extends at least to The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In essence, law enforcement across the nation was tasked with finding and returning anyone suspected to be a slave. Ordinary white people were empowered and bound by law to police black bodies and control black life. It is in our collective DNA for whites to monitor black motion and use law enforcement to restrict it. It manifests when black men at a Starbucks are arrested for sitting. It first happened to me as a seminary student, when cops were dispatched to question me for the crime of walking. Gentrification only intensifies this dynamic. When an influx of whites suddenly find themselves in regular and immediate proximity to people of color, a war of subjugation is inevitable.
Our conversations around gentrification are far too shallow. It is disheartening that longtime black residents are suddenly priced out of communities they’ve called home for generations. It is also a cruel irony that these black residents are generally replaced by well-to-do whites who wanted nothing to do with said communities just ten years prior. But the implications for white power and dominance in a changing America are far more important. Cities have long been beacons of diversity. As these power centers become more monolithic, however, how that power is radiated and exercised could determine the fate of black people for the next 100 years. Another century of uninterrupted white power holds menacing and even terroristic prospects for black people. America’s financial institutions are doing their part to secure that outcome.
*Part 2 Forthcoming*