Gentrification and Its Discontents

June 6, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

This Facebook post by a Rutgers history professor has gotten picked up by the usual right-wing suspects – Breitbart, Washington Examiner, Daily Caller, New York Post, etc.

Here’s a clearer version of the text:

OK, officially, I now hate white people. I am a white people, for God’s sake, but can we keep them — us — us out of my neighborhood? I just went to Harlem Shake on 124 and Lenox for a Classic burger to go, that would [be] my dinner, and the place is overrun with little Caucasian assholes who know their parents will approve of anything they do.

Slide around the floor, you little shithead, sing loudly, you moron, Do what you want, nobody here is gonna restrict your right to be white.

I hereby resign from my race. Fuck these people. Yeah, I know, it’s about access to my dinner. Fuck you, too.
Facebook removed the post. Rutgers is investigating. The official university statement says, “There is no place for racial intolerance at Rutgers.”

All these reactions have the same take-away – this is race hatred. That’s understandable, I guess, since Livingston  (no relation to me, btw) says, “I now hate white people.”  FB and Rutgers are concerned. The right-wing media are delighted. See, they say, it’s really the leftists who are bigots.

They’re missing the point. It’s not about bigotry, it’s about gentrification.

Imagine that you’re a committed leftist. With perhaps a hint of romanticism, you identify with the oppressed – the poor and the Black. Maybe you’re also looking for an apartment in the city. What better place than Harlem? The awful years – the closing third of the twentieth century – are now just a bad memory; still the name still carries a hint of risk, of danger. But the name also throbs with the rich history – Duke Ellington and James Baldwin and the Apollo. That’s the Harlem you want to move to, the authentic Harlem where you can still call Lenox Ave Lenox Ave and not Malcolm X Boulevard.

So you take apartment on 117th, and when people ask you where you live, you don’t say “SoHa,” the term coined by the real estate rebranding geniuses. You say, “Harlem.” You get to know the stores, the restaurants, even some of your neighbors.

But after a few years, you see the neighborhood changing – more White faces, kids in their twenties. Starbucks is everywhere, and there’s a new a Whole Foods that seems to be all glass. This is not what you wanted. This is what you were trying to escape. You wanted Harlem’s authenticity, its soul. But that is waning, and in its place, Privilege.

You go to that newish restaurant you like, Harlem Shake, that opened a few years ago, and all you can see are White kids. Why are you surprised? You should have seen it coming. Look at this place with its umbrella-shaded sidewalk tables, its menu that includes a Veggie Burger ($17) and Kale Caesar. (“Kale Caesar,” you think, “We who are about to diet salute you.”)

But tonight, it’s too much. It looks like an outpost of the Wharton school. You think, “I just don't want little Caucasians overrunning my life. Please God, remand them to the suburbs, where they and their parents can colonize every restaurant.”* 

So you go home and vent to your Facebook friends. They’ll  get it. They’ll appreciate your dilemma — hating White people and yet, “I am a White people.” They’ll know you don’t mean all White people, maybe not even most White people —just these Jakes-come-lately in Harlem. They’ll understand the internal conflict of the White lefty in a gentrifying neighborhood, an internal conflict that’s reflected even in the dilemma over which pronoun to use. —  “can we keep them – us – out of my neighborhood?”

It’s like Chris Rock’s rant, the one where he says, “I love Black people, but I hate Niggas.” The audience laughs. They get it. But you can imagine the reaction from Breitbart, et al.,  — “Self-avowed Black-people-hater Chris Rock said in a racist rant. . . .”

The Internet is no place for ambivalence. The right-wing media could grasp the humor and irony. They just deliberately refuse to. College administrators seem truly incapable of even minimal subtlety. Oh well, Chris Rock won’t play colleges any more either. They take everything literally.

“There is no place for racial intolerance at Rutgers.” Apparently there’s also no place for ambivalence, irony, and humor.

* From his subsequent explanatory post on Facebook

UPDATE: September 18. The right-wing media were all over this, hollering about racism. The Rutgers administration swiftly caved. It issued a report finding that Livingston’s post on his personal Facebook page violated the university’s anti-discrimination policy and had brought “damage” and “disruption” to the school. That finding would allow Rutgers to fire him.        

Livingston appealed the decision. Rutgers denied the appeal. Ten days later the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) spoke out and threatened a lawsuit. Ten days after that, late in August, Rutgers president Robert Barchi discovered that academic freedom and the First Amendment might also be at issue, and he “remanded” the report. “I...have asked the Office to more rigorously analyze the facts and assumptions underlying its conclusions.”

UPDATE: April 3, 2019.  In November of last year, five months after Rutgers tried to get rid of Livingston, it reversed its decision that he had violated the school’s discrimination and harassment policy. Without the threatened lawsuit, the school probably would have gone ahead and fired him.

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