Asking for a Friend: Should I Put Up a Black Lives Matter Sign in Our Lily-White Neighborhood?

Asking for a Friend: Should I Put Up a Black Lives Matter Sign in Our Lily-White Neighborhood?

Asking for a Friend: Should I Put Up a Black Lives Matter Sign in Our Lily-White Neighborhood?

And another inquirer could move into the middle class by buying a house—but not without gentrifying.


Dear Liza, 

I recently moved to Portland, Oregon. I am black, my husband is white, and we have a kid in elementary school. Since the summer of 2014, I have been heartsick—like so many people—over the stream of reports on black people being murdered at the hands of the police. I haven’t been much of an activist since college, when I participated in the 1980s divestment movement. But I feel compelled to channel my fury and despair into activism now. Recently, I was able to join a local chapter of Black Lives Matter. I have been deeply moved by the wisdom and self-awareness of these young activists. 

I want to put up a Black Lives Matter sign in front of my house as a gesture of support for that movement. But I feel uncomfortable about it. It would embarrass my kids and make my husband feel awkward, and I would feel awkward too. We live in a neighborhood full of wealthy white people—mostly liberals—but the sign would still make our house stand out like a sore thumb. I’m also imagining awkward silences from the neighbors. Should I do it? Maybe it’s not worth the (perhaps imagined) loss of social capital, since what difference does putting up a sign in my front yard make anyway? Or is it cowardice to even think like that?

—Closet Radical

Dear Closet Radical,

As the mother of a 10-year-old, I understand not wanting to embarrass your elementary-school kid. My own kid, when I asked him, deemed your proposed sign “way too embarrassing. No one else on their street has a Black Lives Matter sign. Also, they are the only black people in the neighborhood? Mom! No—just no.” (Granted, my son is white and unlikely to be a victim of police violence.)

In your household, race magnifies this problem like crazy. Your family looks different from your neighbors’, but you don’t want to emphasize those differences. Making matters worse, Portland is 76 percent white, according to the US Census, and only 6.3 percent of your fellow Portlandians are black. Plus despite its present-day farm-to-table liberalism, Portland does not come by its whiteness innocently or accidentally: Oregon was founded as a kind of utopia for white supremacists, with its 1859 constitution banning black people from living, working, or owning property, as Gizmodo journalist Matt Novak wrote in a lengthy 2015 treatment of Portland’s history. In the 1920s, the city was home to 9,000 Ku Klux Klan members and frequent cross-burnings. White nationalists still have a presence throughout the state. That doesn’t mean you or your family need to be afraid of living in 21st-century Portland or of putting up a yard sign, simply that your perception of a very white environment is on the mark.

Still, Closet Radical, I notice that while your letter eloquently explains the reasons not to put up the sign, you don’t say why you want to. This desire deserves more space and attention.

You want to put it up for the same reason that you question that impulse: because the sign would let people you see every day know what you think. You ask: “What difference does a sign in the front yard make anyway?” In a 2015 study of the impact of electoral yard signs, Columbia University political scientist Donald Green and fellow researchers found that yard signs did slightly increase the advertised candidates’ vote share. It would be harder to quantify the effect of a Black Lives Matter sign, but this recent data does tell us that our politics are indeed shaped by learning more about our neighbors’ commitments. Your Black Lives Matter sign would start some good conversations. It would also let others know that the movement has a presence in your community, perhaps inspiring potential activists to find the local chapter.

And regarding the kids: It’s good to show them how to speak out against injustice, and it’s also OK to embarrass them. Go for it.

* * *

Dear Liza,

I’m in contract to buy a beautiful, 100-year-old, gut-renovated two-family house in an up-and-coming neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. I’m dumping my life savings into the down payment and tapping into my retirement for the closing costs. This feels like a big accomplishment for a single woman who worked hard for her money, and who paid 85 percent of her own way through college for her undergraduate degree (while working three jobs and never getting a day off) as well as 100 percent of her own way through grad school. I also come from a family where no one has ever lived in (let alone bought a house in) a high-density, overpriced real-estate market like New York City’s. I have just enough resources to make it happen. 

The born-and-raised Brooklyn house-flipper selling it to me said, “You’re in the hood.” Given the hipster coffee shops and restaurants recently cropping up, I’m not sure this will be true for long.

Here’s my question: I’m torn between my objections to gentrification and the fact that it looks like I’m going to be part of it. What do I do? Not buying the house doesn’t seem like a real solution: no house for me, and it will get bought by another gentrifier anyway. 

So with all that being said, do I have a moral obligation to rent either the one-bedroom unit downstairs or the master bedroom in my unit (I’ll live in the sunnier small room) below the market rate and invite someone with a background/profile that fits the neighborhood to join the house as a tenant at an affordable price? Even with every good intention, such a plan would be rife with paternalism and potential outright disaster. And how would I know that my below-market tenant is not an opportunist? As it stands, I’ll be making zero profit no matter the rent I charge, because I’ll be using the rent payments to abate the monthly mortgage, which will be a higher monthly obligation than I’ve ever incurred. 

To complicate things further, I can’t sustain my high-stress job forever and intend to transition within the next year. 
I would need as much rent as I could collect to have a rainy-day fund for unexpected repairs or hiccups with any tenant, given the monthly mortgage and the fact that I won’t have my salary to fall back on. Shouldn’t I be allowed to bank some rent for that (which would require the higher rents I could get)? Then again, many residents of this neighborhood don’t have these luxuries, so why should I get them—or, at a minimum, bring them here? In sum, do I have a moral or political obligation? (I feel that I do.) If so, what is it?

—Guilty Gentrifier

Dear Guilty Gentrifier,

You are right to buy the house. If you don’t, you’ll end up being a victim of gentrification yourself, since rent will increase anywhere you choose to live in the city.

Renting out part of the house below market rate is a generous idea, but I can’t see how it could be financially sustainable for you. You can barely afford this purchase as it is. If you do quit your job, you’ll have to raise the rent and end up displacing your tenant. You shouldn’t risk bringing chaos into someone else’s life by making a commitment you can’t keep. Nor should you choose to put yourself into an untenable situation—staying in a job you don’t want or sacrificing rental income that could help you—out of guilt.

Even if we live in a cardboard box, someone else is suffering more. That’s capitalism! Yet we still do have to look after ourselves. Don’t punish yourself for a situation that is not of your making—in this case, the senseless practice of allowing human needs like housing to be allocated by market forces.

This is the problem, not your own homeownership, and you should seek to remedy it by lending your social capital to the anti-gentrification struggle. Community groups in Brooklyn are fighting to preserve, improve, and expand public housing and to strengthen protections for tenants. Families United for Racial and Economic Equality organizes mainly in Fort Greene/Downtown Brooklyn and in Boerum Hill/Gowanus, while the Coalition for Community Advancement works in East New York and Cypress Hills. Find out who’s doing this work in your new neighborhood and join them.

Finally, be a good neighbor! When a neighborhood gentrifies, residents fear losing their community, often complaining that the new residents are unfriendly and self-involved. Say hello to neighbors on the street. Attend block-association meetings. Ask about people’s kids. If you’re able-bodied, offer to shovel older people’s walks in the winter. Such courtesies won’t destroy the Real Estate Board of New York, but they will make people happy to have 
you around.

Have a question? Ask Liza here.

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