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  • Writer's pictureDr. Tré Watkins

Book Study - Gentrification

Book Study - Gentrification 

Living in Inglewood, not a day goes by without hearing or seeing something concerning gentrification. With a new football stadium and public transportation line being built, rising home prices, and visible resident demographic shifts, the City of Champions is a microcosm for studying this societal phenomenon. A Google search on the topic will leave your head spinning with combating narratives—head to Twitter or Facebook, and plenty of fake news from all sides. 

As the saying goes, “There are no simple answers, just oversimplified ones,” given the inseparable relationship between race and class in America, approaching this topic through a societal lens may provide a more complete and nuanced look at gentrification.  Here are a few resources that I have found helpful in understanding housing policy and how instrumental it is in shaping our lived experiences.

The Color of Law

In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein meticulously details how the US Government, beginning as early as the 1930s, created separate and unequal living conditions for Black and white citizens across the country. The book’s core argument lies in the differences between de facto and de jure segregation. Believers of de facto segregation would like people to believe that the isolation of white and Black residents is the direct result of personal choice. The worst case scenario is that individual actors (real estate agents, insurance companies, private homeowners, etc.) discriminated against potential Black homebuyers, which, thank goodness, has mostly been solved thanks to the Fair Housing Act passed in 1968. 

However, as Rothstein brilliantly highlights, the US government participated in de jure segregation through explicit racial public policies such as blockbusting, racial zoning, economic zoning, restrictive covenants, income suppression, and job discrimination, which limited access to quality schools, safe neighborhoods, and wealth building for the vast majority of Black Americans. Residential segregation is a well-known commodity of the South, and recently, there has been extensive literature on similar, if not worse, conditions in the North and Midwest. Rothstein chooses a different approach by leading the book with a chapter focusing on the identical conditions in America’s bastion of liberalism, the San Francisco Bay Area. This book is extraordinarily detailed and shifts the lens through which the conversion on housing segregation is viewed from the unintentional to the State contrived. 

Richard Rothstein, in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates: 

How to Kill a City - Peter Moskowitz

Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the case of housing policy, if during the mid-twentieth century, the US government actively promoted residential segregation through explicit and implicit racist policies, resulting in the mass exodus of white Americans from urban centers to the newly formed suburbs, what would the opposite reaction be? According to Peter Moskowitz, the loss of revenue from white flight and subsequent disinvestment in metropolitan cities set the ideal conditions for what we are experiencing today in gentrification.

A native of the West Village in New York, Moscowitz identifies with many individuals who feel that the makeup of their community is being hijacked by incoming upwardly mobile - and often white - residents who fail to appreciate the existing cultural values. But, in How To Kill a City, Moscowitz clarifies that the personal is always political by establishing the argument that gentrification is a city-led system that values capital generation over people. Similar to The Color of Law, the book focuses on different areas of the United States (New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York). Although each locale has different circumstances, what remains constant across these cities and many others is that gentrification, similar to suburbanization, results from a government-led strategy to stimulate revenue production through real estate.

Peter Moskowitz discussing How to Kill a City at the Cities for All Conference

The Case for Reparations - Ta-Nehisi Coates

Before esteemed author, journalist, and public intellectual Ta-nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for his insightful memoir Between the World and Me and penned the cultural phenomenon Black Panther comic series, he made “The Case for Reparations” (featured in his recent anthology We Were Eight Years in Power) an acclaimed essay which takes a historical look at the intentional disenfranchisement of Black people in America from slavery through Jim Crow and on to mass incarceration and gentrification. Through the story of Clyde Ross - a Chicago resident who, like many African Americans, fled the Jim Crow South in search of more true freedom during The Great Migration - a crack in the American Dream of equal opportunity is revealed, providing evidence to the words of Malcolm X who said: “as long as you are South of the Canadian border, you are in the South." Ross’s story illustrates how co-conspirators of the city, banks, and real estate industry used the nefarious methods of redlining, restrictive covenants, and predatory lending to create what we now refer to as the racial wealth gap. 

Recently, the topic of reparations has been re-introduced into public discourse, so much so that a few candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination have offered their opinions on the issue.  But why exactly should Black Americans demand restitution for the lingering effects of racist policy and action by our government, given the progress in civil rights that has been gained over the past few decades?

“One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration,” Coates writes, “A nation outlives its generations.” Suppose America is ever going to reconcile its maltreatment of African Americans. In that case, it will be through critically examining the past and discovering exactly how our current circumstances came to be.  Part ethnography and part history lesson, Ta-Nehisi Coates provides a roadmap to reconciliation through eloquent and powerful storytelling and social analysis.

Ta-Nehisi Coates discussing “The Case for Reparations”

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