A Modest Proposal, Cont.

On a less satirical note, a lot of my discontent with our narrative of gentrification doesn't come from a lack of sympathy for the poor and working class of black America. On the contrary, it comes out of deep anger at how little effort we invest in understanding how things got this way, and our abiding desire to change the subject and engage in nostalgia, simply because the truth is depressing, annoying, and lacking in sufficient exoticism. 


In the world of politics, nostalgia is a kind of quitting. It says,"I can't deal with today, can we go back to yesterday?" But a particular yesterday, without its attendant problems unfortunately the facts of the thing are not very counter-intuitive nor contrarian, and certainly don't lend themselves to worship. 

We start with a group of people living as slaves for 250 years, in a nation that eventually bills itself as the land of liberty and free labor. We take what should be their wages and transfer them to someone else. For the last hundred years of that epoch we forbid them from marrying, and throughout we randomly sell off their kids, some of whom are actually our kids. We forbid them to learn to read. We subject them to random but frequent acts of sexual violence. We pass laws against that minority of them who are to achieve freedom ranging from bans on everything from voting to gun-ownership to serving on juries.  

We then are forced to grant them freedom, but we pass more laws against them structured to keep them from exercising any sort of political power. We subject them to the most prolific and wide-ranging campaign of home-grown terror in American history. We burn down their schools, and in some sections of the country are so ardent in our enmity toward them that we actually attack education for poor whites, for fear that it may help blacks by mistake.

We enact policies at virtually every level of government, and virtually every sector of society, with the intent of keeping down the values of their homes, keeping them from competing with us for jobs, keeping them from ever ending up in any kind of supervisory role over our ilk. We mobilize the entire culture arsenal in an effort to portray them as pariahs, mocking them in movies, singling them out in virtually every human function from drinking to eating, from swimming to dancing, from copulation to defecation. 

We do this for roughly 300 years. And then we develop a conscience, and for about 30 years we try to make up for what we've done, before deciding that our efforts constitute reverse racism. And then we sit around wondering why it is that a disproportionate share of black people can't live in a nice neighborhood.

This is the unsexy story of anti-black racism. I've spent the past 20 years hoping to find my way around it and discover some hidden secret narrative that would better explain the color line. There is none. This is it. I understand that this will not get fixed in this generation. It took 250 years to get rid of slavery. I'm not pessimistic -- I just think that war is long, and I have no expectation that it will end in my lifetime.

But when we talk about gentrification, understand that we really are talking about the result of actual policies endorsed, not simply by shadowy interests group, but by actual Americans, erected with the explicit intent of making sure that another group of Americans remain a permanent peon class. 

This is not the lens to view all of black America, but in terms of that portion that really is being priced out, that really can't experience a functioning neighborhood, this is a start. Gentrification is not magic. It's what our forefathers intended to happen.

And I mean "our." My previous readings into African history, as well as my current foray into German history reveal that there is nothing particularly "black" or "white" about any of this. It's one group humans doing to another group of humans, that which humans often do. I also am aware of the limits on a society to reform itself. I hold no special anger at my own society over those limits. Indeed, I'm quite proud of the progress we've made and expect, in the coming centuries, even more.

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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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