Remember when the nation’s capital was so black that Parliament Funkadelic nicknamed Washington, D.C., “Chocolate City”? Maybe you’re old enough to remember when California’s Bay Area was so black that it birthed the Black Panthers and everyone knew what Sir Mix-a-Lot meant when he rapped about an “Oakland booty.” If you’re too young for that, you definitely remember when Jay Z and the Notorious BIG were “Brooklyn’s Finest.”
These days, D.C is more of a caramel-latte-colored city. While the black population reached as high as 71 percent in the 1970 census, it now stands at 47 percent. Blacks are no longer the largest ethnic group in Oakland, and the New York City home of Biggie, Jay Z and Spike Lee is now the poster child for large-scale, sweeping gentrification.
Gentrification is changing the nation, and with it, the face of the American political landscape is slowly shifting. Areas that were once no-brainer Democratic strongholds are slowly transforming into whiter, more affluent regions where party lines have been blurred in the last decade. As cities across the country become more diverse, their black populations have decreased significantly, leaving the traditional base of the Democratic Party struggling for a foothold in national politics and diminishing the power of the black vote.
Have you passed by the new artisanal peanut butter and jelly “sandwichery” that popped up in place of the corner deli that sold the greasy Philly subs? Have you noticed that fewer of your neighbors have pit bulls, and more of them have teacup poodles? Has there been a curious increase in the number of white guys wearing flannel shirts and ironic glasses on your block? Then your neighborhood is probably gentrifying.
Merriam-Webster defines “gentrification” this way:
the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.
Simply put, it is the slow transformation of a poor or lower-middle-class neighborhood into a haven for upscale business and homes. Gentrification usually results in the ousting of the area’s longtime residents—by either legal force or economic displacement.
Have you ever studied the universal laws of humanity? For instance, when you were a teenager and called “shotgun,” everyone agreed that you got to ride in the front seat. If you visited your grandparents and sat down in the large, overstuffed comfortable recliner, you got your butt up when your grandmother entered the room, because the entire family agreed that was “Grandma’s chair.”
Well, America doesn’t play that shit.
Gentrification is as old as the United States itself. When Europeans landed on American soil and wiped out the people of the First Nations, they called it “settling.” Over the course of U.S. history, it would go by many names, including “manifest destiny,” “migration,” “westward expansion” and many other euphemisms. At the heart of the “American dream” and the idea of capitalism lies the barbaric, Darwinian precept of taking land from the weak for the benefit of the strong. America has one golden rule:
He who has the gold gets to pack people in reservations, send them on the Trail of Tears, make them sharecroppers or force them out of their apartments to build high-rise condominiums.
To understand the implications of gentrification for American politics, there are two factors that must be considered:
- the demographic makeup of the two major political parties
- the demographic makeup of American cities
When it comes to the Republican Party, the No. 1 distinguishing characteristic for a GOP voter is whiteness. Apart from the category of religion (70 percent of Mormons vote Republican), every other ethnicity and demographic group leans Democratic. According to Pew Research, Democrats hold an edge among women (52 percent to 36 percent), blacks (80 percent to 11 percent), Asians (65 percent to 23 percent), Hispanics (56 percent to 26 percent), Jewish voters (61 percent to 31 percent) and younger voters (51 percent to 35 percent) and at every level of education.
It is a long-held presupposition that urban areas are the heart of the Democratic Party because they traditionally hold more minority votes, but a number of historical and economic trends are upending this political assumption. Since 1984 America’s biggest cities have voted increasingly Democratic in each election, culminating in 2012, when 27 of the 30 most populous U.S. cities voted for Barack Obama. Everyone assumed that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in in the cities, so she concentrated on gathering electoral votes in rural and suburban areas. Then, on Election Day, something funny happened:
For the first time in 30 years, Democratic votes declined in the biggest cities.
Maybe it was the post-Obama effect of a decrease in minority voters. Perhaps it was Clinton’s unpopularity among large swaths of people. But her narrow loss may have occurred because cities are getting whiter. Maybe gentrification did this.
According to 2015 U.S. census data, the 50 most populated American cities are slowly getting whiter. In 2015, Governing magazine published a study that divided the census tracts of the 50 biggest cities to determine which ones were “gentrification eligible.” It concluded that “gentrification greatly accelerated in several cities. Nearly 20 percent of neighborhoods with lower incomes and home values have experienced gentrification since 2000, compared to only 9 percent during the 1990s.”
To the suburbs. To rural areas. In 2010, for the first time in American history, the U.S. census showed that a majority of blacks, Hispanics and Asians lived in the suburbs. For most of America’s history, segregation, redlining and poverty confined minorities to centralized, usually urban, areas.
But now cities are having a resurgence, and white people are moving back to urban areas—making cities more expensive to live in. Because of this, there has been a slow migration into the once lily-white suburbs that were historically off-limits to people of color. Simply put: Affluent white people like living in cities now, so minorities can no longer afford to.
When minorities are displaced or relocated by gentrification into suburbs and rural areas, the black vote becomes far less concentrated, which means that black voting power is dissolving into a sea of suburban whiteness.
But if the black and Hispanic population is growing nationwide, how does that hurt the Democratic Party or the black vote?
Have you ever been the only black guy at a party filled with white people? The band never plays your music, the potato salad sucks, and before the night is over, someone will say something slightly racist to you, like, “Let me get you a drink, buddy. Let me guess what you’re drinking: Hennessy? Crown Royal?”
Political power is a lot like a country club soiree. In most urban areas, minorities traditionally had political input because they were a large share of the population. Even if they couldn’t choose the DJ, the music was diverse enough to keep them dancing. Now, instead of having centralized areas of political power that elect black mayors, senators and congresspeople, blacks are sprinkled throughout the country and must dance to conservative, “alt-right,” small-government legislative melodies while pretending to like pro-life potato salad.
Let’s forget the glitz and glamour of national politics for a second. The laws and policies that affect the lives of everyday Americans happen on a local level. As the Republican Party’s demographics dwindle, the increasing numbers of whites in cities, combined with the scattering of minority voters, have resulted in GOP control of state legislatures and governorships in 25 states, and partial control of 20 more. Thirty-three state governors are members of the Republican Party—more than any other time in the past 94 years.
Remember Chocolate City? A majority of D.C.’s City Council is now white. Most of Brooklyn, N.Y.’s state and local officials are, too, and only three of Oakland’s eight City Council members are African American. Nationally, the 115th Congress is the most diverse ever, but it is still dominated by lawmakers who are largely white and Republican. Only 8.9 percent of Congress is black, compared with 13 percent of the population, and while every statistic shows that the country’s demographic makeup favors the Democratic Party, the Republican Party’s advantage keeps growing
State legislatures are no different. In fact, 80 percent of America’s population lives in states controlled at least partially by Republicans. Blacks make up less than 9 percent of state legislatures and hold a whopping zero percentage of governorships. If you wonder how states like Georgia—which was on the verge of turning blue in 2008—remain solidly Republican, all you have to do is read how Atlanta’s white population—the only threat to GOP control in the state—is growing faster than any other American city.
Aside from its dispersal of voting power, think about the practical implications of gentrification. National and statewide candidates whose elections depend on black support won’t be able to canvass black neighborhoods, visit black places of worship, or walk into barber shops and beauty salons. People won’t meet at black churches and community centers to get a ride to the polls. Gourmet chocolatiers don’t usually hold voter-registration drives.
- Realize that every neighborhood is your neighborhood. Even if you don’t live there, if the black vote is weakened in a city or state where you live, it weakens your voice, too. Fight rezoning laws that target minority neighborhoods. Create tenant unions that inform people of the local landlord laws.
- Vote in every way. This seemingly goes without saying, but voting doesn’t just mean showing up at the ballot box on Election Day. Go to primaries for local and state elections. You should have the phone number and email stored in your phone of every single person who represents you. Show up at City Council meetings or stream them online. Patronize local and neighborhood businesses. Shop in your neighborhood first.
- Take the fight outside the neighborhood. If a city wants to create zones for developers and commercial businesses in poor neighborhoods, require that the same rules be enacted in the more affluent neighborhoods.
- Fight all gerrymandering and redistricting plans that follow unnatural boundaries. The ones that lump all minorities into one district weaken the voices outside those boundaries, and the ones that divide a single minority neighborhood into smaller pieces are usually attempts to fragment a voting majority.
There is an old African proverb that beautifully encompasses the perils of gentrification. Its meaning has morphed over time. It was once a rallying cry to the beautiful black and brown people who shared homes, streets and a culture, but it has transformed into a warning for everyone who fears having the soul sucked from their neighborhood. It was made famous by the famous orator Christopher Wallace, but if you stand near the bike-share station in front of the high-end boutique where the corner bodega used to be, you might hear it uttered by a passerby, or feel it blowing in the wind:
“Where Brooklyn at?”