Racial integration should be a good thing. Here’s why it’s complicated.
Welcome to the Glad You Asked series, a shame-free zone where we tackle topics you’re too embarrassed to ask even your BFF about. Don’t worry, we gotchu.
In the most recent season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Titus makes the decision to Airbnb his apartment in order to afford a box of capes he saw at a medical supply store. His landlord, Lillian, is less than enthused by this idea.
“What were you thinking, bringing Internet people into our neighborhood?” she asks. “Don’t you get it? They’re hipsters. And that means gentrification.”
Experts estimate that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will reside in urban areas. But economists are quick to point out that the people who are moving into cities right now are largely white, childless and affluent.
It’s understandable that college-educated white Americans are gravitating towards urban centers where jobs are plentiful and mass transportation is easily accessible. They’re certainly not doing anything wrong by choosing to live in the places they do. But as physics and “Hamilton” reminds us, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And right now, the opposite reaction to an influx of white urbanites is gentrification.
What is gentrification?
In its simplest form, gentrification is a process in which formerly run-down urban neighborhoods get “discovered” and flooded with richer residents. This causes property values to increase, pricing out lower-income families and small businesses.
Gentrification isn’t a purposefully malicious act, but its effects are extremely damaging. Many lower-income residents are unable to afford home ownership, so when neighborhoods begin gentrifying, their rent prices skyrocket almost immediately. Landlords increase rent, driving people out of their homes, and this clears the way for those same landlords to rent those same apartments for a lot more money.
Neighborhoods are created by the people who live in them and often the people who make neighborhoods vibrant and culturally rich are the same people who end up being pushed out. This, ironically, prevents them from enjoying the benefits of the communities they created.
When people are forced from their homes, they’re not just leaving behind their apartments. Often they’re saying goodbye to their families and friends, their children’s schools, their places of worship, their jobs and home-grown businesses. These moves can be prohibitively expensive, and those with nowhere to go sometimes end up homeless.
Let’s talk about white flight
But wait! White people moving into areas that are predominantly inhabited by people of color is integration, and integration is supposed to be a good thing?—?right? Haven’t we already established that racially integrating schools can improve test scores, retention and college acceptance rates?
That’s a great question. Integration is a wonderful thing, but gentrification doesn’t lead to integration. Instead, it causes a forced exodus of poor people and minorities to make room for more affluent white people.
Gentrification is essentially the inverse of white flight. After World War II, white families migrated from cities to the suburbs in search of larger houses?—?and for some, to avoid the steadily increasing number of black and immigrant populations in US cities.
Now white people are coming back to cities, but the effect is the same. The people they’re forcing out are left to flee to far-away suburbs with lengthier commutes, or to cheaper neighborhoods within the city, which can cause overcrowding and ghetto-like conditions.
Gentrification’s harm can be seen in places like San Francisco, where the tech boom has made finding reasonably-priced housing within city limits nearly impossible. The startup culture has eliminated what was once a racially and socially diverse city, built on the backs of immigrants and artists. Cities like New York, Boston, Seattle, DC and Atlanta have also been similarly affected.
Gentrification is a big problem in America and it’s not going away any time soon. So support your local businesses because they might be gone sooner than you think.