It's a nice time to be a gentrification defender!
First, a lengthy article with the wonderfully accessible title "Is Gentrification All Bad?" runs in New York magazine. And this week, we're blessed with a writer calling Spike Lee racist for pointing out basic gentrification facts. Writing on "Time Ideas," Columbia linguistics and literature professor John McWhorter takes Lee to task for his use of the term "hipsters" (well, since it's Spike Lee: "motherfucking hipsters").
At the level, defending gentrification is an inefficient use of editorial space. Gentrification doesn't need a PR team, because a likely majority of those who are troubled by it as a principle are actually gentrifiers in practice. Whether it's Columbia University itself or a writer like myself landing in an already gentrified New York neighborhood, the fact remains that most New Yorkers are gentrifiers -- whether they're first wave or latter-day arrivals.
But though McWhorter presents his article as an interrogation of Lee's language, he begins by casually dismissing the idea that gentrification is a problem at all.
Basically, black people are getting paid more money than they've ever seen in their lives for their houses, and a once sketchy neighborhood is now quiet and pleasant. And this is a bad thing... why?
Lee seems to think it's somehow an injustice whenever black people pick up stakes. But I doubt many of the blacks now set to pass fat inheritances on to their kids feel that way. This is not the old story of poor blacks being pushed out of neighborhoods razed down for highway construction. Lee isn't making sense.
Of course, it's true that some black people are profiting from gentrification. But McWhorter's presentation of Lee's argument is a convenient perversion. Lee's entire point isn't simply about the presence of white people, but about a government response that doesn't exist until white people move in.
So, look, you might say, "Well, there's more police protection. The public schools are better." Why are the public schools better? First of all, everybody can't afford -- even if you have money it's still hard to get your kids into private school. Everybody wants to go to Saint Ann's -- you can't get into Saint Ann's. You can't get into Friends. What's the other one? In Brooklyn Heights. Packer. If you can't get your child into there ... It's crazy. There's a business now where people -- you pay -- people don't even have kids yet and they're taking this course about how to get your kid into private school. I'm not lying! If you can't get your kid into private school and you're white here, what's the next best thing? All right, now we're gonna go to public schools.
So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why's there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why's the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!
McWhorter ignores all of this and fails to address the fact that Lee wasn't casually referring to "white people" or "motherfucking hipsters" as a lazy pejorative. This is an important distinction: Time and time again, those accurately using the word "white" to refer to a group of white people are deemed "aggressive" or, as McWhorter calls Lee, "racist." It's not racist to identify white people, but it remains a political act in today's America, one predicated on whiteness being an invisible norm against which people of color are contrasted. (McWhorter, for example, freely uses the word "blacks.")
"Just as 'thug' is a new way of saying the N-word in polite society, Lee's 'm---f--- hipster' epithet for the new whites of Fort Greene is a sneaky way of saying 'honkey,'" McWhorter writes. Behold the false equivalency. Calling people "hipsters" or "white" is not the same as referring to black people with a word that's a stand-in for the N-word. Is the NYPD brutalizing "white hipsters"? This reads like a sequel to "Accidental Racist," where LL Cool J tells Brad Paisley, "if you don't judge my gold chains, I'll forgive your iron chains." Hey, Spike, if you forgive the hipsters' beard transplants, they'll forgive you for being a -- as McWhorter calls you -- "grouchy bigot."
Referring to white people isn't even something controversial in McWhorter's other pieces for TIME. When the writer commented on the murder of Jordan Davis with a gesture at respectability politics ("surely, if we could roll back time, we would make Davis turn down the music") and argued for ignoring the racism of well-compensated "Duck Dynasty" stars, he regularly employed the words "white" and "white America." It's even more unclear, then, why Lee's use of a common term for "young white people in Brooklyn" is so offensive.
Let's return again to McWhorter's unsupported argument that "this is not the old story of poor blacks being pushed out of neighborhoods razed down for highway construction." Fort Greene, where Lee was speaking, experienced a 29.6-percent increase in white residents from 2000 to 2010. Consider also the fact that my "South Village" neighborhood is a historic district because rock bands performed there, while Harlem lags behind in preservation. Perhaps there are fewer highways to be constructed, but the "razing" and reconstructing of cultural history is alive and well in New York.
Lee also spoke at length on the absurd rebranding the real estate industry visits upon longstanding neighborhoods (Stuyvestant Heights becomes "SpaHa," Bushwick becomes "East Williamsburg"), another example of where gentrification erases history. McWhorter, again, skips over this in favor of taking Lee to task for his "hipster" word choice.
McWhorter knows that phrases like "razed down" and "Lee growled" support his argument that the only cultural violence that's occurring is Lee's "expletive-laced" invective. What his argument has in style, however, it utterly lacks in substance.
A few days after after Lee's speech, someone spray-painted "Do The Right Thing" onto the house next to his old Fort Greene home. The vandals also smashed windows in the door. Lee's father still lives in the neighboring home.