I've been meaning to link to Shani's piece on black middle-class gentrification in Washington D.C. As it happens, because I'm late, I now end up commenting on the commentary about the story. Shani's has taken some heat for not interviewing poor black people in the story. From Freddie:
This is a several-thousand word article on the relationship between race and socioeconomic class, and about the tensions between old and new residents and poor and rich residents of a city and a neighborhood. Yet in those thousands of words there isn't a single interview with a poor, long-term, black resident. It's a glaring omission.
I'd like to add to that, because it's an important oversight. It's akin to writing an piece about nightlife in DC, and then only interviewing your friends about the places in your neighborhood. There are no interviews with neighbors, former residents who have been pushed out of the neighborhood, or really, anyone outside of Shani's immediate peer group.
I think that last part, is really key from a reporting perspective. If you don't reach outside your peer group, expect that your piece is going to be somewhat myopic. But with that said, I think it's really important to consider "Confessions Of A Black Gentrifier" within the context of journalism about gentrification, and the fate of cities in general.
I cut my chops writing and reporting about D.C. for five years. I've written and reported on the problems of cities, and the problems of black people, for fifteen years. In all the journalism I've produced and consumed in that time, on the subject of cities, in general, and on gentrification, at large, I've never noticed any shortage of quotes from the black poor. Indeed the standard conflict pits poor black vs. yuppie whites. More broadly, there's a recurring theme of black people being "pushed out" usually because of money.
Washington is a city, not simply with one of the most venerable black middle classes in the country, but with one of the most storied engines of the black middle class anywhere in the world (Howard University.) And yet, having consumed articles about gentrification in D.C., for over a decade, the city's black middle and upper-middle class is a phantom to much of the journalism. I don't recall much reporting on, say, the state of the Gold Coast up 16th street, or the state of the city's Jack & Jill chapter. Prince George's County is the only jurisdiction in recent American history to become wealthier, as it became blacker. I don't recall much reporting around the conflict inherent in that shift.
From my perspective, Shani is introducing a narrative, and an angle, we see too rarely in discussions about the problems of the city. There is no question in my mind, that more reporting--and specifically more reporting beyond her social circle--would have made Shani's story better. I hope she'll take up that challenge in the future.
But I also hope that the people challenging her now will follow suit, and do some writing and reporting, themselves. The biggest problem with this story is that it bears too much weight--there simply aren't enough stories like it. The same can't be said of the always booming industry of black poverty porn.
I'm not trying to be dismissive, on the contrary I'm aiming for a call to arms. We desperately need complicated, deeply-reported, long form journalism about black people. Don't like Shani's story? Make another one. Make a better one. Start now.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power