Our Technocratic Overlords, Cont.

Matt offers his response to my post here:


That makes perfect sense. But I do think it's worth saying that the alternative being put on the table here is a conservative one, and the mere fact that the successful investor who doesn't like high property tax rates is black doesn't change that fact. After all, what concrete policy steps could the DC government take to avoid more people being stuck with the problem of rising property values that lead to higher property taxes. 

Well, I see two: 

1. The city could stop investing in improved public services and public safety. 

2. The city could reduce property taxes, especially on well-heeled property owners. 

That's not a wild-eyed or insane policy agenda by any means. Indeed, it's the fiscal agenda of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

He goes on to note that this is a conservative critique of liberalism. Maybe so. I think first, my own opinion on the demographic shift in Washington needs to be restated. Here I am responding, to fears of a Vanilla City in general, and  Marion Barry's anger that middle class black people are leaving the city, in particular:

The backdrop for Barry's hand-wringing, is the fact that Washington is apparently, now, barely a majority black city. Leaving aside the fact that African-Americans are still the largest ethnic group in Washington, Barry's logic encapsulates the problem inherent in the constant cries and lamentations over "displacement." 

The vast majority of "Ward 9" migrants are black people. (I have a call into the census bureau at the moment. I'll replace this with detailed stats as soon as get them.) And the ones Barry is talking about are employed black people. These are not the displaced poor. These are Americans exercising rights, which Barry, in his activist days, helped secure. 

Now, you can make a serious argument that city workers should have to live in the city that pays their salary. But that's not about preventing people from being involuntarily pushed out. That's about preventing people from voluntarily walking out. 

In all these stories about Washington's shifting dynamics, I've yet to see anyone, in any rigorous way, demonstrate why this shift is--in and of itself--bad for African-Americans. There's this implicit assumption that most black people who departed the District would have stayed if not for the hipster influx. 

But how do we know this? How do we know they aren't, say, fleeing the District's much maligned school system? Has anyone seen any numbers on precisely how many African-Americans were "displaced" and how many of them left? How do we define the difference? If my job prospects are better in, say, Houston then in the District, have I been displaced? Or am I, like Americans everywhere, participating in a market economy? Wasn't that the whole point of the struggle? 

I'm obviously sympathetic to the plight of the black urban poor. I'm sympathetic to arguments over the effects of drug laws. I'm sympathetic to arguments over the generational effects of red-lining and block-busting. I'm sympathetic to arguments over old-school racism and job discrimination.  But we seem to assume, that, all things being equal, most black people would rather live in big cities. Really? Certainly some would, but I'd see that assumption tested. 

And then I'd see it compared with the rest of America. And then I'd see us stop speaking as though Hell's Kitchen didn't happen. As though Little Italy isn't--at this very moment--fading away.

I repost this to point out that I don't really have much invested in the notion that a less Chocolate City is bad for black people. I've never seen that demonstrated in any concrete way. I'm not a historical romantic, and I don't believe that black people should enjoy immunity from the free market. Full and equal participation in the free market was much of what the struggle was about. Part of that equality is understanding that there's nothing particularly "black" about gentrification. Read Pete's comment here on the changes in Baltimore. 

But with that said, I thought Matt's original question--Why do people feel this way?--was worth pursuing, whether it leads you to a different policy position or not. This is of a piece with the mission of this blog. It's highly unlikely, for instance, that I will come to believe that plantation slavery was justified, but I would still like to know how its authors justified it to themselves. 

Less absurd, is the following--Progressives who believe in reform, should understand the hopes and fears of those who will be affected by their efforts. This is very different than saying progressives should make policy solely on those hopes and fears. But if, for instance, you're going to talk about housing policy in cities with substantial black population, you need to understand that you're talking about a constituency which, for much of the history of the modern American housing market, was discriminated as matter of national policy. They're going to require a kind of convincing that goes beyond, "Your thoughts are highly conservative."

Policy without politics is an abstraction. This is a feature of democracy, not a bug. It's not hard to imagine a Washington where an Adrian Fenty, who better understood this, and a Michelle Rhee who didn't fire people on national television, still held power.

MORE: Adam, who is himself a native and resident, on some of the possible policy remedies.

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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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