A Hard Look at Gentrification


The press blames black flight from major cities on whites, but history and the numbers show that's not true.

Whenever we talk about gentrification it really is a good idea not simply to understand who's coming and who's going, but precisely when the coming and going happened. In reference to our conversations around Washington, D.C., it's really important to understand that the black population was falling in the city long before the arrival of hipsters, interlopers, and white people in general.

Washington's black population peaked in 1970 at just over half a million (537,712 to be precise.) It's declined steadily ever since, with the biggest decline occurring between 1970 and 1980 when almost 100,000 black people left the city. Whites were also leaving the city by then, but at a much slower rate--the major white out-migration happened in the 50s and the 60s.  

By 1990 whites had started coming back. But black people--mirroring a national trend--continued to leave. At present there are around 343,000 African-Americans in the District, a smaller number, but still the largest ethnic group in the city. I say this to point out that the idea that incoming whites are "forcing out" large number of blacks has yet to be demonstrated.



A slew of newspaper articles assume the truth of gentrification. But any proponent of the gentrification thesis (explicit or implicit) needs to fully explore and answer the following question: Is white migration into the city forcing black migration back out? 

Speaking as though this is the case because it "feels true" isn't evidence. Indeed it's the flip side of blaming white migration to the suburbs on riotous, criminally inclined blacks. 

I don't say this so much in defense of hipster interlopers, as I do in opposition to the theory that black people are, solely, the thing that is acting upon them. Understanding the vestiges of white supremacy isn't the same as understanding black people. There needs to be a lot more agency in this discussion. There also needs to be a lot less nostalgia.

One that note, I'd mention that "Chocolate City"--like most majority-black cities--is a recent innovation, covering the last half of the 20th century. As late as 1950, there were more whites than blacks in Washington, and the city was still gaining white residents. By 1960--pre-riots, mind you--their numbers were falling precipitously.The shift was seen, at the time, as a bad thing. Still  it would be facile to conclude that the latest shift back is a "good" thing.

More likely, we are using a local matter as an inadequate substitute for a broader national situation that still plagues us. The fact is that the two parties--those blacks who remain by choice or otherwise, and those whites who are returning--are not equal. In the District, you are looking at a black population that is reeling under a cocktail of an ancient wealth gap, poor criminal justice policy, and economic instability. On the other side, you have a well-educated, well-insulated white population with different wants and different needs. 

There is much more here to consider about what that means, about what people feel like they're losing. Even as I interrogate the statistics, I maintain that people are not stupid, and that it's critically important to understand why they feel as they do. Black people have not owned much in this country. And yet, in the later years of the 20th century, we felt like we felt like we owned many of America's great cities. 

We didn't. 

I suspect much of our present angst can be traced to the lifting of that illusion.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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