In 1972, my mother purchased the Baltimore City rowhome where I spent most of my childhood. The reaction from her family was concern. The neighborhood had a bad reputation as being a place with lots of criminal activity and drug use. But it was affordable and convenient for a Baltimore City Public School teacher, so she moved in. By the 1980s, the neighborhood had changed dramatically. Other young professionals had bought homes in the neighborhood. On our block, they were mostly college-educated couples who were beginning to expand their families. With their in-movement came higher rents and property taxes. Long-time residents moved out as they could no longer afford to stay. And by the 2000s, there were few signs of anyone who had lived there before the 1970s.
This story is a classic example of gentrification, the process of a neighborhood’s residents changing from predominately low-income to predominately middle-income. Gentrification is a process of class change. One that captures the “return to the city” of middle-class residents. But what is often missing from definitions and explanations of gentrification is an acknowledgement of how race affects the process.
The U.S. housing market is driven not just by capitalism, but also by racism. To understand the dynamics of any market process, we need to look at the racial dimensions of who is involved and who is affected. I do this in my recently published article “Theorizing Gentrification as a Product of Racial Capitalism.” Using the prior literature, I demonstrate how we can better understand gentrification by theorizing it as a racialized process of class change happening in a system of racial capitalism. I build on the prior literature about how value is informed by race to explain when, where, and how gentrification unfolds.
Under racial capitalism, value and profit accumulation are defined by race. These racial differences emerge because people, products, and places are associated with racial categories. Those racial categories are associated with a position on the racial hierarchy. And that position defines whether a person, product, or place is valued as a worthwhile investment or devalued as not worth investing in. Thus, homes in White neighborhoods are valued higher than comparable housing in Black neighborhoods. While people, places, and products are sometimes revalued at a lower or higher value than their racialized group, most often they are valued or devalued based on their position in the racial hierarchy. Below, I provide a brief summary of how value, devalue, and revalue explain three findings from the prior gentrification studies.
Gentrification is less likely in Black neighborhoods
Early theories of gentrification posited that gentrification was most likely to occur in the most disinvested neighborhoods. The logic was purely based on economics: neighborhoods with the lowest land values would be the most likely to produce the greatest return to investment, so we should expect investment in those areas. By this logic, we should see high rates of gentrification in Black city neighborhoods across the U.S. as those areas experienced the most extreme patterns of disinvestment through redlining and urban renewal, and suffered the most from White and middle-class flight from city living.
But this logic assumes that race does not influence investment patterns. What studies have actually found is that gentrification is less likely to occur in Black neighborhoods compared with White neighborhoods. In a system of racial capitalism, Black neighborhoods are generally devalued in comparison to other neighborhoods due to the low status of blackness in the racial hierarchy. Black neighborhoods are negatively stereotyped as high in crime and poverty, and low in resources, so developers, realtors, and homebuyers tend to avoid Black neighborhoods despite the low costs and potential for large returns. In contrast, White neighborhoods are valued. So gentrification occurs at higher rates in working-class White neighborhoods on average.
Gentrification is increasingly occurring in non-White neighborhoods over time
While Black neighborhoods are the least likely to experience gentrification, studies find consistent increases in the proportion of non-White neighborhoods experiencing gentrification over time. For example, my analysis of the racial demographics of gentrifying neighborhoods published in Urban Studies shows that 90 percent of gentrifying tracts were majority White in 1980. But by 2010, that number had declined to 64 percent.
This increase in non-White neighborhoods experiencing gentrification is explained by revaluation. Studies show that Black and Brown neighborhoods are increasingly commodified for their “diversity,” such as naming new condominiums after Black artists like Langston Hughes. Aspects of the long-term residents’ culture are used to revalue the neighborhood as a worthwhile investment. This is more likely to occur in neighborhoods that are in high demand due to location and in neighborhoods with high demand housing markets.
Gentrification’s pace and scale vary by race due to differences in which stakeholders value a neighborhood
Finally, the concepts of value, devalue, and revalue help explain racial differences in the pace and scale at which gentrification unfolds. In this case, who values, devalues, and revalues a neighborhood matters. For example, Black neighborhoods that are valued by the Black middle-class experience small-scale, slow gentrification as individual renters and home buyers move into the neighborhood. Slower scale and pace means fewer implications for displacement. But when a Black neighborhood is valued by a city government, the neighborhood may experience large-scale change in a relatively short period of time, causing higher rates of displacement.
We see these racial patterns in the implementation of the HOPE VI program, which scholars often refer to as state-led gentrification. HOPE VI has predominately affected Black communities. Nationally, 82 percent of the 90,000 households physically displaced by HOPE VI were Black residents.
Homebuyers and realtors are more likely to value Latinx and White neighborhoods. Because these stakeholders invest in individual homes, gentrification in Latinx and White neighborhoods is more likely to unfold at a smaller scale and slower pace compared with gentrification driven by developers and city governments.
Explaining gentrification in an economy driven by racial capitalism requires integrating race. As I demonstrate, race defines where gentrification happens and how it unfolds. To capture these dynamics moving forward, we need to first address how we define gentrification. While it is important to continue to identify patterns of socioeconomic status in how neighborhoods are organized and change, it must always be contextualized with racial demographics. As I argue, gentrification is a racialized process of class change because it always occurs in a space defined by the racial demographics of its residents.
Studying gentrification as a racialized process means centering analyses of racial demographics. It means naming race in describing the stakeholders involved in the process, including whiteness. And it means studying gentrification in a range of settings with varied racial demographics to understand how the racial context informs how gentrification unfolds.
Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University at Albany.
To read more, see: Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana. “Theorizing Gentrification as a Process of Racial Capitalism” in City & Community 2021.
Image: Carlos Martinez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)