Want to Turn the Pitiless March of Gentrification Into a Parable of Progress?

Want to Turn the Pitiless March of Gentrification Into a Parable of Progress?

Want to Turn the Pitiless March of Gentrification Into a Parable of Progress?

The New York Times shows just how it’s done.


An article in the March 3 edition of The New York Times caught my eye as an illustration of what Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields describe as “racecraft”—the alchemy that vests the fiction of race with an apparent natural existence—and how it can obscure the class character of a political program through racial mystification.

“‘Excuse After Excuse’: Black and Latino Developers Face Barriers to Success,” by Colette Coleman, announced a “stark representation crisis” of Blacks and Hispanics in real estate development, especially “at the top of the market,” which is problematic “because that’s where developers can have the most impact on communities and drive the most economic growth.” This is also, it turns out, a domain where the much-touted “racial wealth gap” is acutely important: “A racial wealth gap means that many aspiring Black and Latino developers don’t have such investment-savvy friends and family with discretionary dollars.” In the words of one developer, “Most people in our community don’t have an uncle or a friend that could bring that to the table up front.”

Coleman notes that Black and Hispanic developers who do manage to “pierce the ceiling at the top of the market often outperform their white counterparts in terms of typical transaction size,” and that “on the lower end—developers [making] up to $350,000 annually in revenue—Black and Latino developers also surpass their white peers in terms of average revenue.” These findings, drawn from “Breaking the Glass Bottleneck,” a report prepared by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, the “social-impact consulting group” Grove Impact, and the Siegel Family Endowment, suggest that Black and Hispanic developers can actually be at least as successful as their white counterparts. Yet the article discusses specific impediments that limit their participation in high-end projects and remedies for overcoming them—which mainly hinge on substantial increases in public and private aid to minority developers.

Why should Black and brown real estate developers’ success be a major concern for anyone else? Coleman argues that these developers are “more likely to understand and address the needs of their communities” and “more likely to hire Black and Hispanic employees than are white-owned businesses.” But the “Breaking the Glass Bottleneck” report does not substantiate those assertions. Its claim about increased employment assumes that new minority businesses would add jobs without displacing current residents. That’s an incredibly rosy assumption—especially considering the extent of social dislocation invariably associated with large-scale redevelopment initiatives.

Besides, the contention that Black and Hispanic developers are in closer touch with the “needs of their communities” is pure racecraft. Coleman indicates that providing affordable housing, which really does meet a need, “is often the path [those developers] have to take to break into the industry…. But its potential profits are limited, and experience in affordable housing doesn’t necessarily translate into the minimum qualifications that a lending institution will require for more lucrative projects.” And how exactly is the pursuit of “more lucrative projects” in step with the “needs” of Black and brown communities? A sleight of hand that equates developers’ interests with those of the racial “community” enables evading such questions.

Argument by synecdoche—representation of a part as the whole—is a common feature of racecraft. It is an example of what the Fieldses call the “surface camouflage” that can mask class or other meaningful distinctions within a population. In invoking “community,” Coleman posits two linked mystifications. One is common as well in economist- and developer-speak: the representation of “economic growth” as good for everyone. Generations of savage redevelopment, including a terrible and ongoing record of disruption and displacement, should make us question that notion, especially now, as acute shortages of affordable housing plague much of the country. Coleman’s claim that increasing “diversity” among large-scale developers “matters”—again, we might ask, to whom? And how?—simply assumes that greater Black and Hispanic presence in large-scale development is in the interests of those broader populations. Which in turn relies on a presumption—also erroneous—that Black and Hispanic developers operating at the “top of the market” will be more sensitive to nonwhite residents’ concerns than their white counterparts are.

And that erroneous presumption in turn encourages a view that trickle-down economics—which Senator Tom Harkin once referred to as the equivalent of feeding the chickens by giving more oats to the horse—works among nonwhites even as we recognize that it does not in any other population. Yet through the alchemy of racecraft, “gentrification” has been magically recast as a problem of racial/cultural insensitivity or the displacement and abuse of nonwhite populations—rather than a straightforward political-economic project of publicly supported, privately appropriated, rent-intensifying redevelopment.

As Touré F. Reed and I have argued elsewhere, when “the primacy of market forces disappears into moralistic and racialized debate, the inclusion of nominal representatives of the groups held to be adversely affected appears as a satisfactory compromise.” Bluntly put, characterizing gentrification as a racial/cultural problem leads directly to easily accommodated demands for equal-opportunity access to the plunder that is the foundation of the regime of relentless upward redistribution. So Coleman’s brief on behalf of aspiring Black and brown developers, like the recent media focus on a racial wealth gap that exists most meaningfully between the richest 10 percent of whites and the richest 10 percent of Blacks, is yet another instance of a class program that, thanks to racecraft, comes disguised as racial populism.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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