For the author, Jeff Chang, displacements in urban centers are just one expression of an even more important conflict in the United States.
By Brentin Mock,
CityLab Urban Life
Hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang released his third book, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, on September 13, a time in America when one could invest a good measure of faith in that title’s promise. The book rekindled the flame of optimism felt in Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song of the same name — one of the premier anthems of the Black Lives Matter sound-track. But ever since Donald Trump stepped in on November 9 and showed America who’s boss, that assurance has been cast in doubt.
And yet the second part of Chang’s book title — on race and resegregation — holds constant. The U.S. is, in many parts of the country, resegregating to levels not seen since before the Civil Rights Movement. As noted in a pivotal chapter of the book called “Vanilla Cities and Their Chocolate Suburbs,” the average white student attends a public school that is at least 75 percent white and lives in a neighborhood that is at least 77 percent white. Meanwhile, people of color are moving (or being pushed out to) the suburbs, and more white people are moving into the city. This reverse migration is often accompanied by the class and racial displacement of gentrification.
As unsettling as gentrification can be for many poor, black and brown families today, it’s not the total picture of oppression, Chang argues in his book. He writes:
Gentrification offers a peculiarly small frame for trying to understand these paradigmatic shifts. When rents reach the tipping point, when old industrial buildings flip or are razed for flimsy new ones made of glass and chipboard, when poor residents have to leave, the gentrification narrative hits its limit. It has the odd, counterintuitive effect of privileging the narratives of those able to hang on in the changing city. But what of those who are displaced? Gentrification has no room for the question, “Where did the displaced go?” Instead, the displaced join the disappeared…
Gentrification is key to understanding what happened to our cities at the turn of the millennium. But it is only half of the story. It is only the visible side of the larger problem: resegregation.
Trump ran on a campaign of racial exclusion that woke a sleeping giant of voters who, in many cases, see nothing wrong with returning to segregated polities — who, in fact, invite it. Now many Latino and Muslim immigrants, African Americans, queer and trans folks, and women are worried about whether they actually will be alright. Will they be OK in their cities of the sanctuary, or will they find themselves trapped in them while a political party that objects to their existing rules the rest of the states and federal government?
Chang was prescient in exploring these questions before Trump’s ascendance,
traveling to cities like Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of their uprising to talk to
activists and residents about their living conditions, both within and outside of
city centers. In We Gon’ Be Alright, Chang connects these grassroots movements
to the wider conversation about race in America held within pop culture, as heard
in albums like Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
CityLab spoke with Chang both before and after the presidential election, about
his book and how its lessons might be applied.
So, it must be asked: Are we really gonna be alright, living under this new president?
I don’t know, man, but I still trust and have faith that folks are gonna get it together. One thing we have now that we didn’t have in 2009, or even 2000, is an infrastructure of justice movements that are linked in so many different kinds of ways that weren’t before. If you remember, it took a little while for the antiwar movement to start moving. But now, after Occupy and the Movement for Black Lives, the Dreamers movement, Standing Rock, Reproductive Justice — people are really mobilized and communicating and making plans. That’s the thing that makes me think we have a shot at this.
When Obama was elected, we were dancing in the streets, and as soon as Trump was elected, people started marching in the streets, and it continues. I don’t hold any kind of Pollyannaish dream that one day it’s just going to stop and we’ll be able to go back to our fairy-tale world. But I do take heart in the fact that folks are already getting prepped.
You write in your book, “By itself, gentrification can’t explain the new geography of race that has emerged since the turn of the millennium.” Can you unpack that a bit more?
It’s inadequate because gentrification, just even as a word, is about the gentry, the movement of wealth into cities. It doesn’t account for people who are displaced and forced to leave the city. The anti-gentrification movement doesn’t account for where people are forced to move, and there is less of an infrastructure built up in the movement to account for what’s been happening in the suburbs. I think that’s why we saw Ferguson happen. Even before that, that was why Sanford, Florida, was the flashpoint for Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. These are things happening outside of the frame of gentrification.
That’s what’s important to grapple with: the imagination of what a transformed
society looks like, where it’s not just about bloodshed and retribution, but is also
But the reality is that people are forced to move and the management of the
suburbs is looking increasingly like the management of the inner-city during the
1980s, ’90s, and 2000s, with the politics of containment happening and the rise of states funded upon incarceration and intense policing. If we look at it in a larger sense, at the impact of resegregation that’s actually happening, gentrification is just a part of resegregation, which is the larger frame needed to understand what’s going on. And then we can understand the shifting geography of the race a bit better because we can put displaced people back into the picture.
So what’s the solution? Do people of color need to flood the suburbs to integrate them, to overcome the tyranny of racial gerrymandering, or can they accumulate and sustain political power from within the urban centers?
It’s about trying to think about the both/and. It’s about forcing the hand of these largely liberal cities to enforce fair housing laws and establish new policies that help to preserve longtime residents in their homes, to strengthen renters laws, to continue to push questions around redlining—because that has never gone away, and under a Trump presidency we can probably assume they’re going to intensify.
But to talk about what people used to call “metro-politics,” or a regional kind of politics, to be able to build up power in the colorized suburbs in the way that folks have been doing in Ferguson and the northern county of St. Louis, to push back against these types of insane debtors’ prison types of laws that are literally about containing the bodies of people of color, it’s really about trying to think about all of those things at the same time and building movements in those kinds of ways.