Gentrification – Race, Class, Or Both?

Let us conduct this thought experiment.  Person A finds a car that they can purchase from person B for $1,000.00.  Person A knows person C who will buy the car for $2,000.00.  Person A buys the car from person B for $1,000.00 and then later that day sells the car to person C for $2,000.00.

Question: What percentage of the $1,000.00 dollar profit does person A owe to person B?  Does person A owe anything to person B? Did person A cheat person C?  I submit that person A does not owe anything to person B other than the agreed upon $1,000.00 price for the car.  Furthermore, person C should not feel cheated because it is highly probably that person C could have found the same deal that Person A found, but Person C had neither the time nor resources to do so.  Replace the car with housing or neighborhoods, and you have gentrification.

Gentrification is a very often used and misunderstood concept in America.  It is especially misunderstood in the black community.  The general perception of gentrification in the black community is that white people artificially drive the price of black neighborhoods down by allowing crime to increase, not enforcing local ordinances like cutting grass, and redlining.  When the cost of the property in these black neighborhoods gets too low, the white people go into the neighborhoods and buy the property thereby displacing the former residents.  The white people then reinvigorate the neighborhood with expensive condos and single-family homes that upper middle class and upper-class people (usually white) can buy and move into, completely changing the racial demographics of the neighborhood.

Before we can examine the veracity of this theory, we need to discuss a few subjects first.

  • Where did gentrification start
  • Why does gentrification occur predominantly in urban America
  • Is gentrification about race or class or both

The Origin of Gentrification                                                                            

Most Americans believe that gentrification started and is practiced solely in the United States, but that is far from the case.  The term gentrification was coined in 1964 by a British sociologist Ruth Glass when referring to the alterations she observed in the social structure and housing markets in certain areas of inner London.  Early definitions of gentrification tended to focus on the residential housing market and the rehabilitation of existing properties. However, since then the definition has widened to include vacant land usually in prior industrial use and newly built designer neighborhoods. Initially confined to the West, gentrification has spread globally.

Due to social mobility and a growing middle class globally, we find gentrification in cities as far spread as Shanghai, Sydney, and Seattle. This process can also be observed in regional centers such as Leeds in England and Barcelona in Spain.  

Watch this four minute YouTube video by Dr. Bob Lupton of FCS (Focused Community Strategies) that explains the historical derivation of the concept of gentrification.

In case your missed it go back and listen to Dr. Lupton at time index 2:40 where he details when looms were supplanted by machines that could created fabric thousands of times faster than the loom, and that this technology was driven by hydropower (water).  This caused the factories to move closer to rivers, and therefore cities and population centers moved closer to bodies of water i.e..: rivers, lakes and the coast.  This is an important concept to understand before we move into the next section of this discussion.

Urban America

Gentrification is a phenomenon that has generally occurred in urban America where the highest percentage of minorities reside.  This has led to the perception that race is the leading motivator to implement this population displacement strategy.  The question is why do a higher percentage of minorities live in large cities and is this just an American phenomenon?

Let us look at the geographical distribution of the largest cities in the world and examine if there is a through line.

What do you notice about the major on this world map regarding their location?  All these cities are located on the coast or by a lake or a river.  Why is this important?  According to clearly you’ll need access to water for drinking. Location near to a large body of water is also useful for transportation and trade. Local access to a plethora of natural resources is obviously also highly beneficial as you need this stuff to build cities.

So, is this applicable to the cities in the U.S.?  Let us look at a map of the United States.

This map shows that the majority of the largest U.S. cities are located on the coast or by lakes and rivers.  Let us look at the 5 largest cities in the U.S.:

New York – established 1624

Chicago – established 1833

Houston – established 1837

San Francisco – established 1776

Los Angeles – established 1781

These cities were formally established between 1624 and 1837.  Think about that for a moment.  New York was established before the U.S. was a country, and Los Angeles and San Francisco were established before California was a state.  Why?  Because of their geographic significance. 

If you are asking what all of that has to do with gentrification, hang in there with this next subject and it will all begin to make sense.  This next subject is industrialization.  By 1878 the United States had reentered a period of prosperity after the long depression of the mid-1870s. In the ensuing 20 years the volume of industrial production, the number of workers employed in industry, and the number of manufacturing plants all more than doubled. 

Many of these factories were built in northern cities and these new opportunities caused The Great Migration.  The Great Migration was the relocation of more than 6 million African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West from 1916 to 1970.  This population explosion of Americans from the South along with increasing immigration from Europe cause a huge increase in housing in these northern cities.  This housing had to satisfy two requirements: it had to be erected quickly near the burgeoning factories being built, and it had to be cheap.  Think about that for a moment.  Large amounts of housing in prime locations in New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco was being constructed in record time to accommodate the millions of new workers who needed a place to live.

This is pivotal to understanding the distribution of African Americans in the U.S. today in the age when gentrification began to accelerate.  In the 1970s through the 1990s you had another phenomenon take place in America called white flight.  Generally, this is the migration of white people from the suburbs to separate themselves from then upwardly mobile black Americans who were moving into those geographic areas where white people had generally moved due to their social matriculation from working class to middle/upper middle class.

While this was going on the racial majority started to see opportunities in the inner cities where they could move back into the voids that were left by black Americans.  It was a win-win for those mostly white upper middle-class Americans.  There was a significant percentage of black Americans who were able to move out of the urban centers of America into its suburbs.  This left large swaths of inner cities abandoned that were closer to the jobs where mostly white executives were employed.  This was a perfect situation for this group.  They were able to move back into the coveted inner cities where they would be closer to their employment for pennies on the dollar.  The last impasse to their migration was the remainder of black urban residents who had not yet attained enough social mobility that they were still stuck in these underfunded and under resourced inner-city areas.

So, they did what countless groups have done in similar situations throughout history.  They paid a premium to the remaining residents to obtain their real estate so that those remaining tenements would be torn down and replaced with shiny new condos and single-family homes.  It seemed a mutually beneficial transaction.  The black residents received far more in the way of compensation for their properties than the ever would have had they remained, and the upper middle class was able to relocate closer to their jobs with new home in which to reside.

However, we know that is never the way that it is recorded in history.  The revisionist history was not that the black residents sold their property willingly.  The new history being written was that blacks were beguiled into selling their valuable property at a discount so that white people could surreptitiously obtain their properties.  This interpretation ignores the causal effect of individuals moving into these neighborhoods with the means to improve it as the main motivating factor for the locality’s appreciation.  This brings us to the larger discussion about gentrification in America.

Race or Class or Both

As a discussion specifically from the black perspective on this subject have real estate investors been specifically targeting black people as a race to obtain their property at lower prices to take advantage of them or did they pay a premium to those black residents so that they could maximize their investment?  Might black residents have held out for more return on their investment were they aware of the subsequent investment that was going to take place in their neighborhoods?  Perhaps.  But whose responsibility was it to lay bare all the metrics in this transaction?

The question that black people need to ask themselves is why is the intersectionality of race and class/resources so often black = poor?  What causes gentrification so often to occur in black areas? Why are black people so often seemingly targeted in what is a voluntary transaction?  Why are black people so often ignorant of the larger financial gain in these transactions?  I submit that that it is far more complicated than we believe or have been led to believe.

Our neighborhoods are not being targeted because we are black.  They are being targeted because they are valuable.  This is far less a race conversation and more a conversation about class and wealth.  What we really need to ask ourselves is why can’t we access the capital to benefit from this untapped wealth in our communities?

Racism, white supremacy, and economic stagnation exist in black America.  I see it every day.  With that reality in mind we as black people must find a way to remove the excuses.  We must locate the investors who will allow us to participate in upward socio-economic mobility.  We must also admit that everyone is not going to be rich.  Black people as a group would have more wealth if not for the systemic barriers to our acquisition of wealth, but there would still be uneducated and poor among us.  We do ourselves a disservice whenever we look at these realities in our communities and immediately assign racism as the first reason for underachievement when we see it. 

The road to where we are has been long and winding, and it will be equally such to our shared destination.  Let us not fool ourselves.  In the direst of circumstances some of us have been as successful as any among us regardless of race or the head start given to others in life.  So, is gentrification a racially motivated tactic to displace black people from valuable underdeveloped inner-city real estate?  That is what happens but that is not what it is.  Gentrification is simply those with resources acquiring what they want.  The answer is to become a member of the group of those with means.

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