I wrote earlier this week in response to a piece in Atlantic Cities on the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago and perceptions of "non-white gentrifying neighborhood". Check that post for the background of the case as I'm going to in a different direction here, but know that the idea was precipitated by that piece and by some timely retweets from @metroadlib and @tnopper (both essential follows), and a challenging post from Kenyon Farrow (@kenyonfarrow).
The post I'm referring to (found here) in response to a Washington City Paper article by a woman reflecting on being a "Black gentrifier". Farrow passionately (and correctly) attacks the notion of gentrification being primarily a notion of "privilege", a term he describes as obscuring or denying issues of underlying racial and economic injustice. But I think his call for a more historical framing of the Black middle and upper classes and their roles as primarily victims of violent displacement and continued racial discrimination (as reflected in household wealth and the fact that Blacks are still unwelcome in many mixed neighborhoods) mean that Blacks cannot be gentrifiers.
It is here where I respectfully disagree, but only to a matter of degree. Citing my earlier definition of gentrification from Neil Smith it is clear the gentrification is intimately tied to displacement and dramatic neighborhood character change. In the case of the fearful "Black gentrifier" in the City Paper column such a concern over displacement and social domination is legitimate. In that particular area, gentrification is a project primarily lead by Back people-- IF there is displacement. As I said in my earlier post, simply bringing new people in or having some neighborhood development redevelopment does not equate to gentrification. I think that if we are to challenge the idea of "Black gentrification" it is not to say that due to historical and current racial discrimination that middle class and upper class Blacks cannot be gentrifiers, but to actually see as to whether we're seeing the kind of wholesale displacement and social domination that accompanies what we commonly understand to be gentrification. I would charge that in the vast majority of situations given the precariousness of the Black middle class and the decimation of household wealth in the past recession that areas of so-called "Black Gentrification" are not gentrifying at all if we are to compare income, household wealth, and displacement risk factors. But that does not mean that Blacks cannot be gentrifiers just that given current socioeconomic contexts there is simply not enough pressure to warrant the label.
Farrow does point to a larger issue of the label and what he calls obsession with the "Black gentrifier" is used as a term that deliberately distracts middle and upper class blacks from the violence visited upon their communities by attempting to shift blame. It's a provocative thought and one that holds a bit of weight. My only counter would be that this is not unique to Black folks but it is a large undercurrent of progressive critique of gentrification and many urban development issues. Gentrification is often separated from larger development decisions and the vagaries of the market and politics of urban development. Gentrification is often referred to or situated as a natural, but unfortunate situation in which the participants have little power. It's grossest form, as cited by Farrow and Tamara Nopper (@tnopper, if you didn't guess), is in the self-serving question of,"where can white people go in the city?" deflecting attention from greater forces that encourage disinvestment then reinvestment and expulsion of blacks and poor people into a framing where gentrifiers can throw up their arms and say it's not their fault. My point is that such narratives are not unique in being leveled at Black people but it has multiple incarnations throughout our cities. Blacks may be more sensitive to such charges and there may be a disproportionate attention paid to it, but that also follows larger media narratives that highlight Blacks' negative issues and portray them as dominant.
In other words, stronger critiques of gentrification are needed, in general, and these narratives are not only leveled at Black people. Although, we make more entertaining targets because the idea of class differentiation within the black community is still wild to many white people. So, I wrote all of this to say that I believe that Black people can indeed be gentrifiers, but that the evidence right now does not point to some new wave of "Black on Black gentrification". But Farrow, Nopper, and other critical race and urbanist scholars are ENTIRELY correct when they note that the way we discuss gentrification and other urban development issues obscures the greater economic and political mechanisms that encourage gentrification, in the first place. These range from disinvestment and abandonment of neighborhoods by city government, intense and concentrated poverty, massive unemployment, large-scale redevelopment dependent upon resident expulsion, and "economic development" strategies built around real-estate development and the expansion of unequal, bifurcated labor markets that turn the poor into the servant class of the preferred "creative" resident.