Across the United States, neighborhoods that were once historically Black are experiencing an influx of white residents. This phenomenon is known as gentrification, which Jackelyn Hwang and Robert J. Sampson define as “a process of middle- and upper-middle-class whites moving into poor, and often minority, neighborhoods,” in their article “Divergent Pathways of Gentrification: Racial Inequality and the Social Order of Renewal in Chicago Neighborhood.” On its face, gentrification may seem like a benign, even positive, force in these poor neighborhoods, but this essay will attempt to prove that it actually constitutes structural violence against these poor minority communities. In his article “Broadening Conception of Gentrification,” Chase M. Billingham points out that “…neighborhoods of varying types and characters (including those housing people with very low incomes), located in cities of varying size and geographic location, witnessed substantial gains in economic status through the 1990s (Ellen and O’Regan 2008, 2011) and the first decade of the 21st century (Owens 2012),” but then goes on to point out that “…primarily via the ensuing increase in the cost of housing, have the effect (either realized or potential) of contributing to the displacement of lower income residents who had previously lived in the neighborhood.” Although the increased wealth brought into these formerly poor neighborhoods by white gentrifiers might seem like a positive effect of gentrification, in actuality, this increased wealth brings up the cost of living, forcing current residents out of their homes.
In his article “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the social and economic processes that preceded gentrification. As Black people started migrating from the South to white neighborhoods in the North, white people began to notice that an increase in Black neighbors led to a decrease in their property values, which led to something known as “white flight.”
White residents would sell their homes at a discounted price to “block-busters” before their property value was completely diminished by the newly arriving Black residents, and these block-busters would then sell the same houses to Black families at exorbitant values with shady contracts that allowed them to “resell” the same house multiple times, claiming that missed payments on the house rendered the original contract null and void and the left the house in the block-buster’s possession (Coates, 2014). These exclusive actions were mirrored by banks engaging in redlining, the practice of denying loans to those considered to be a financial risk, and this practice served to segregate neighborhoods.
White flight made formerly white, prosperous neighborhoods into “ghettos” (Coates, 2014), all because white people found themselves incapable of living among Black folks in a truly desegregated society. Coates also talks about how property was often seized from Black people by the government and then turned into centers of capitalism, for example a country club or baseball spring training facility. He continues on to say that with this continued abject theft of Black wealth and property, we are owed reparations outside of what we are already owed for slavery. However, instead of getting reparations for past structural violence, gentrification, also known as “reverse white flight,” continues the historical displacement of Black people from their homes, once again only to accommodate the whims, not the needs, of white people.