What's Race Got to Do with It? Looking for the Racial Dimensions of Gentrification

By Kirkland, Elizabeth | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

What's Race Got to Do with It? Looking for the Racial Dimensions of Gentrification


Kirkland, Elizabeth, The Western Journal of Black Studies


"White people walking their dogs." This simple sight has eyebrows raised and heads turning, in a predominantly black area of Nashville, Tennessee, which is said to be in the early stages of gentrification. The spotting of white dogwalkers--along with spanking new condos squeezed in between shotgun houses, a razed public housing project, and elegant crepe myrtles and street lamps newly planted alongside the once-bedraggled park--is heralding the vaguely familiar but undeniable transformation that is generally perceived to be, at least in part, racial. In urban lore, the pre-gentrified neighborhood is inhabited mostly by African Americans or other people of color when the rumblings of change begin, and the rumblers are typically white--white, upper middle-class, professional homebuyers, displacing the original residents.

It is, then, astounding that so very little of the scholarly endeavor around gentrification focuses on the issue of race. One might assume that much examination would have addressed the racial dimensions of gentrification, but one would be wrong. Although racial identity is frequently acknowledged in gentrification literature, race as a subject of direct inquiry and serious concern is conspicuously absent from many investigations of gentrification; it is even missing from most published definitions of the phenomenon. The result is that, urban lore notwithstanding, we know little of the ways in which the process of gentrification affects persons differentially depending upon their race, or of the degree to which gentrification supplements and exacerbates the historic and contemporary systems of racial residential segregation. This article reviews the relative handful of outright investigations of the racial implications and impacts of the gentrification process, and suggests that gentrification may well be found to play a significant role in perpetuating and supplementing the racist, segregating systems that have formed our residential landscape.

Definition of Gentrification

A considerable amount of time, space, and academic credential has been devoted to defining gentrification, since the term was first coined in the 1960s. In the course of scholarly investigation of this phenomenon, the definition has been refined in numerous ways, all of which incorporate an essential nod to gentrification's inherent class transformation. In The Encyclopedia of Housing, gentrification is explained as "the process by which central urban neighborhoods that have undergone disinvestment and economic decline experience a reversal, reinvestment, and the in-migration of a relatively well-off, middle- and upper-middle-class population" (Smith, 1998, p. 198). Likewise, gentrification has been defined as "the replacement of low-income, inner-city working-class residents by middle- or upper-class households, either through the market for existing housing or demolition to make way for new upscale housing construction" (Hammel and Wyly, 1996, p. 250). The concept encompasses nonresidential urban change as well, and may thus be expressed simply as "the production of urban space for progressively more affluent users" (Hackworth, 2002, p. 815). Gentrification is also characterized as fundamentally a struggle between a community's use value--the many facets of worth of the neighborhood to its original residents--and the exchange value of the property therein (Perez, 2004). Aside from abstract definitional phrases, academicians also refer to the more obvious, recognizable aspect of gentrification: a certain nebulous but know-it-when-you-see-it perspective that takes into account the lived experience and observations of urban dwellers and users. For example, the appearance of a Starbucks coffeeshop has been described as a siren of gentrification, and part of gentrification is the change in the essential character and flavor of a neighborhood (Kennedy and Leonard, 2001).

Regardless of the numerous and varied attempts at explaining the phenomenon that is gentrification, the literature continues to acknowledge the difficulty of defining gentrification, and the definitions themselves continue, for the most part, to omit reference to race and ethnicity. …

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