In California’s Gentrification Debates, White Men from Liberal Media Silence People of Color
The gentrification conversation is privileging the wrong voices.
NOTE: I’m white. That doesn’t mean I can’t call these writers and media corporations on their structurally racist bullsh*t.
Update 2:23pm 5/10/2018: This piece has been edited to include specific reference to “A major California housing bill failed after opposition from the low-income residents it aimed to help. Here’s how it went wrong” by Liam Dillon.
Through April 20, there were 29 articles in total published about California’s proposed YIMBY upzoning bill, SB 827, across Vox, the LA Times, the NY Times, NY Magazine, CityLab (run by The Atlantic), and Slate. Every single one was written by a white person, or multiple white people. Excluding the two pieces written by the LA Times’ Editorial Board — 7 out of 9 members are white — these articles were exclusively written by white men.
Such overwhelming whiteness in these big media corporations is of course a huge problem in itself. But at the very least, these authors could’ve looked to the knowledge and experiences of organizations rooted in communities of color that have been fighting gentrification and a permanent housing crisis for decades.
Yet, in a shameful collective display of white arrogance, worries about gentrification and displacement were minimized or disregarded entirely as the writers nearly unanimously put forth supply-side analyses of the housing crisis.
My (extremely charitable) interpretation of why this happened: these white authors are blinded by their race and class.
SB 827 was dubbed “Urban Renewal 2.0” by the Black Community, Clergy, and Labor Alliance (BCCLA), and was vehemently opposed by nearly every single tenants’, anti-gentrification, and low-income advocacy organization across the state that took a stance on the proposed legislation. A coalition of 37 progressive grassroots organizations from LA, for example, argued that the bill would “exacerbate the very issue it seeks to remedy, especially in low-income communities and communities of color.” Meanwhile, it was supported by reactionaries like the California Apartment Association, the California and LA Chambers of Commerce, and tech CEOs.
But this was not the picture presented to the millions of readers of these mainstream liberal publications. The authors of these articles consistently framed SB 827 as a courageous and progressive approach, if perhaps slightly flawed, that would make huge advances towards ending California’s housing crisis — if only those cranky NIMBY (“Not In My BackYard”) homeowners would get out of the way.
These authors think of themselves as objective arbiters of truth, but their worlds — the newsfeeds they scroll through each day — are filled with other upper-class white people and their perspectives. Matt Yglesias is more likely to engage with worthless pundits like Josh Barro and this economist from the Koch-funded Mercatus Center than he is to read material published by Causa Justa, Right to the City Alliance, or Defend Boyle Heights (check out this article).
They live in a lily-white bubble, and this shapes how they learn about issues and whose knowledge they consider legitimate, resulting in the shallow, white-centric understandings of gentrification and the housing crisis that we get from these pieces.
A “housing bill” or a “displacement bill”?
Right off the bat, the framing of SB 827 as a sweeping solution to the housing crisis, and the near-universal presumption that this bill would actually make things better, shows what perspective these journalists are writing from.
Headlines abound with language like: “SB 827, a sweeping new bill that addresses California’s housing crisis” (Vox); “Sacramento’s sweeping housing bill” (LA Times); and “momentum builds for radical action on housing” (CityLab). Even otherwise decent takes giving room to low-income opposition, like this one from Liam Dillon, is misleadingly and patronizingly titled “A major California housing bill failed after opposition from the low-income residents it aimed to help. Here’s how it went wrong.”
The presumption that SB 827 would actually improve the housing situation seems to underlie most of the reporting beyond the headlines. For typical examples of this, look at the first few sentences from these two articles by the LA Times and NY Times — though the winner in this category is surely this article by Henry Grabar of Slate, which says explicitly in the headline that SB 827 would “solve state housing crisis.”
It’s not that these characterizations are plainly wrong. They could be true, but only from the vantage point of those that can afford to live in the new units that would result from SB 827.
For others, this bill spells intensified displacement and the loss of their communities, as argued by the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Housing California, and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation: “SB 827 will fuel the displacement of low-income communities and communities of color by investors and speculators who seek to build higher-income developments. Even with the March 1st amendments, nothing in the bill prevents or mitigates both the direct and indirect displacement that will occur as a result of the proposal.”
But not once do we see SB 827 referred to as a “gentrification bill” or a “displacement bill.” It’s clear whose opinions are really being reflected in this coverage.
Even when concerns about gentrification and displacement are mentioned, they tend to be mid-way down the article, and they certainly don’t capture the stakes involved in what is fundamentally a life-or-death struggle for entire communities. The journalists act as if mentioning opposition from poor people and people of color is a box they have to check before moving on.
(Finally, some articles act as if there is no opposition at all from low-income communities, completely ignoring their existence. See these two from Matt Yglesias, and pieces by Thomas Edsall and these three YIMBYs that were given platforms by the LA Times and CityLab.)
“Capitalism works for me, so it will work for you, too”
Another troubling pattern involves the supply-side understandings of gentrification and the housing crisis that we get from nearly every single author. Look at how the default framing in all these articles is that the current crisis is caused fundamentally by a lack of supply. “Almost everyone agrees” that California has an “acute” or “longstanding” or “severe housing shortage” due to the “basic problem [that] it is difficult to build housing in California.”
Meanwhile, they ignore inconvenient facts that seriously complicate this interpretation, like Oakland, New York City, and San Diego County all possessing more vacant homes than homeless people, and the state of California sitting on a surplus of 300,000 units for renters with above-moderate incomes. They don’t ever mention the role of AirBnB in taking units off the market and driving up rents, nor the foreign investors and Wall St. firms (like the private equity giant, Blackstone) pouring billions of dollars into urban housing markets. (Here’s a notable exception from Benjamin Schneider.)
Ultimately, they completely discount alternative analyses that argue forcefully that capitalist institutions — and the system of capitalism itself — built on a political economy embedded in white supremacy, lie at the root of the crisis. For example, this 80-page report from Right to the City Alliance states plainly that “corporate and individual control of property to maximize private gain is the fundamental problem with the current housing model.”
BCCLA’s statement also directly refutes these supply-side theories: “It is an insult to your own intelligence and to our history of struggle to suggest that the powerful financial interests that every day evict us, engage in predatory lending, and rob us of our limited wealth are suddenly in favor of policies to break up their lucrative system that profits from our continued oppression and exploitation.”
But capitalism has been good to these white guys. They worked their way up our so-called meritocracy and now have jobs writing for big media companies. Again we can see how their race and class shape how they see the world, and lead to their analyses that tell us the way to solve the housing crisis is to expand the reach of the market, that we shouldn’t focus on the people and corporate institutions making a killing off of squeezing and displacing poor people, and that strategies like rent control actually do more harm than good. Meanwhile the profit (and eviction, and displacement, and resegregation) machine keeps on spinning.
Ultimately, the narratives coming out of these large media corporations benefit the powerful white people and white-dominated institutions that make enormous sums of money actively investing in real estate. They also serve to comfort a large portion of their readership, white yuppie city-dwellers who, instead of being made to feel like they’re partaking in a destructive system rooted in “capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism,” can simply think of themselves as rational consumers in a housing market with artificially constrained supply.
I’m not saying this is conspiratorial. Matt Yglesias doesn’t ignore the existence of people of color that disagree with him and write trash takes on gentrification because he’s in cahoots with real estate interests and gentrifiers. And the larger problem of the whiteness of corporate media is in large part structural, a product of these media companies existing as capitalist institutions and being accountable only to their shareholders.
But we should be aware of who profits when all these white writers refuse to even consider arguments that label racial capitalism as a fundamental part of the problem, and downplay concerns over displacement. There are material consequences when these are the narratives seen by influential people that read these liberal publications. In this case, real estate investors win, and poor people and people of color lose.