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Though I don’t have an answer to the question Elahe Izadi poses in her DCentric post about whether gentrification by non-whites should have a different name, I do think it’s worth connecting with a story the Post ran today about their black women in America poll. Elahe writes:
What’s your take: what does gentrification by non-whites look like? Is gentrification all the same, no matter the race of the gentrifier?
Almost a year ago, I argued in an essay for City Paper that being a black gentrifier is a complicated thing. One point I tried to get at in the story is that for middle class black folks, there tend to be much, much stronger connections to working class and poor extended family members than there are for middle class whites. To that end, I’d argue that in the case of gentrification, class is complicated significantly by race. Nonwhite people with the means to move into a “neighborhood in transition” are, yes, more likely to want the same things as white newcomers—coffee shops, bars, etc—but they are also more likely to identify (to some extent) with the folks who have been living there.
Back to the Post story. In it, examples abound of middle class black women who have put their own needs aside in order to help family members:
Several women interviewed said they put their own plans on hold so they could help others. The Post-Kaiser poll found that 60 percent of black women have loaned money to friends or family, with the rate rising to 73 percent among those who earn $65,000 or more. Margaret Wilson, 49, from Little Rock, said that she used some of her retirement savings to help her sister and brother-in-law stave off foreclosure.
“She’s always been my baby sister, and I feel that responsibility,” she said. “It’s really as simple as that.”
Kathy James, 41, a married social worker from outside St. Louis, said her sister, Janice Francis, came to her for financial help after both she and her husband lost their jobs over the course of 18 months in 2008 and 2009. James said Francis, 47, and her husband saw their $125,000 annual household income slashed by 75 percent and were close to losing their home.
James offered to loan them six months of mortgage payments and other living costs while the couple got back on their feet — even though she had been saving the money to return to school for her master’s degree. The couple hasn’t been able to start repaying her yet, but James said she won’t charge her sister interest.
“It’s what you do as family, really, so I didn’t really think too much of it,” James said in an interview.
She said Francis was like a surrogate parent to her after their mother died when they were children. So, she said, she sees any help she offers her big sister and her family as part of the responsibility the sisters have to take care of each other, which they have been doing for nearly 40 years.
“My family is my community,” she said. “Of course I have to think about my family’s future and how we need to ensure we are okay . . . If I was faced with the decision 10 times again, I’d make the same decision again 10 times over.”
Obviously these trends are not limited to black women, but they’re more prevalent in this group. And for that reason, I’d say that there may be a different, or at least more empathetic, result when degreed, middle-class people of color buy a house on a gentrifying block. Is it still displacement? In the time since that story ran, I’ve been gently scolded for calling myself a gentrifier by longtime black residents who say that I’m still “part of the family” by virtue of my race. Apparently that means I’m not displacing anyone, even though I grew up 2,700 miles away and have a dog and a bike.
I don’t know how true that is, but one thing I do know: The conversation around gentrification is so fraught (and reductive!) that complicating it a bit, the way Izadi is trying to, may be the more useful exercise.
Illustration by Robert Meganck