A Racist Screed in the New York Times

Peter Dorman, Econospeak, A Racist Screed in the New York Times

Really bad, misguided, even malicious writing serves a purpose, showing in extreme form the faults that, more subtly expressed, can pass under the radar.  That’s my reaction to this execrable column from today’s New York Times on the violation the author felt when her front lawn mini-library was perused by a white couple.

In a nutshell: Erin Aubry Kaplan lives in a historic black neighborhood, Inglewood just outside LA, and wants to sustain it against the forces of gentrification.  She also loves books.  Uniting these passions, she places a small library-on-a-post in front of her house, the sort that passers-by can scan, add titles to or take titles from as they wish.  She hopes it would provide a sense of community among her black neighbors.  But then she sees two young whites stopping to check it out.  She wrote this article to express her horror that her offering, which she placed on her own property, was being “taken” by the forces of gentrification and whiteness, threatening the future of a neighborhood she values, but also her realization that the defense of black spaces requires much more than individual action.

The first problem with the piece, probably obvious to everyone except the woman who wrote it, is that, on the basis of the information she gives, there is no reason to assume that the white couple is any wealthier than she is.  Hell, she doesn’t even know their credit rating.  If the problem with gentrification is that working class people are pushed out of their homes and communities, it’s about money, not race.  Upper-income perusers of books who happen to be black could be vectors of the process just as readily as upper-income whites.

Deeper, however, is the problem of assuming a zero-sum relationship between the well-being of different groups, racial or otherwise.  (This is something I’ve written about earlier.)  If white people have the opportunity to live in a desirable neighborhood, like the Inglewood Kaplan is striving to build, ipso facto black people have less.  Those book-sniffing whites, by their very presence, will make the area inhospitable to black homeowners or at the least deplete their social capital.

Now of course, it is entirely possible that a particular white couple with plans for redeveloping Inglewood and the resources to carry them out, could be a mortal threat.  Or that whites hostile to the customs that have evolved over generations of black settlement could, if numerous and disrespectful enough, destroy the neighborliness Kaplan values.  But neither can be inferred from the sketchy story she tells, and the underlying assumption that more opportunity for some always has to signify less for others is pernicious.

Finally, there is an unspoken assumption that neighborhood improvements like mini-libraries cumulatively add up to gentrification, replacing long-time residents with better-heeled newcomers.  If that were true, then it becomes an argument for resisting any such enhancement, whether it be more attractive landscaping around someone’s house, curbside swales, local bakeries with fresh bread, mini-parks and the like.  Is that the implication?

The problem with gentrification is not that neighborhoods get too many amenities; it’s that they are amenities that cater to the rich and drive up housing values beyond the reach of those who aren’t—in an economy bifurcated between those with too much money and those with too little.  (See this earlier discussion.)  Instead of even a smidgeon of clarity about these issues, what we get instead is a screed that truly justifies the label of reverse racism, a term usually invoked by those defending the existing racial order.  This, like the antisemitism of old, is the socialism of fools.

It is also revealing that such a dreadful essay would be published by the Times, which apparently considers it within the realm of reasonable debate.  That too is a statement.