I wrote a post about Ferguson earlier in the week that got me thinking of The Hunger Games. Not the movies. I mean the books. You can call them “Young Adult” if you like, but I loved those books. And now, I feel like the author, Suzanne Collins, may be a prophet.
Play along with me for a minute. The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future land called Panem. The center of Panem is a wealthy capitol city surrounded in concentric circles by 12 districts, each poorer and browner than the last. In order to maintain order, leaders pit members of the poor districts against one another in an annual cycle of deadly Hunger Games, invented in order to punish those who once fomented revolution, and to overwhelm any future such ambitions with the massive display of power required to pull the games off. Residents of the wealthy capitol watch on television as the competitors tear each other apart, entertaining them while confirming the need for subjugation and segregation of the districts.
Yes, I am a super-nerd, and believe me, it doesn’t stop there. Next month I may be traveling 700 miles to watch a Marvel movie marathon with the super-nerdiest men of color alive while discussing the political implications of scientifically mutated humans fighting gods, fascism, and weapons of their own making.
But, nerdy or not, if we view the crisis in Ferguson as the flip side of urban gentrification, comparing what we’re seeing to The Hunger Games might not be such a stretch.
Poor people, disproportionate numbers of whom are Black and brown, are being pushed out into the periphery of metropolitan areas while privileged whites leave the periphery (and take their capital with them) to move into redeveloped inner-city playgrounds. And as those playgrounds grow whiter and more economically homogenous, they grow increasingly more expensive, causing successive waves of less privileged groups to be pushed into the first ring of the periphery. Their arrival ends up pushing the first, most easily displaced wave of migrants even further out.
Here’s how it all starts. Al Jazeera reports that whites were almost 74 percent of Ferguson in 1990, while Blacks were 25.1 percent. By 2010, 29.3 percent of Ferguson residents were white, and 67.4 percent were Black. Almost a complete reversal. Meanwhile, eight miles away, in St. Louis, the population went from being 28.1 percent white in 2000, to being 49.2 percent white in 2010. St. Louis is the 16th fastest gentrifying city in the country.
This dynamic is mirrored in every city in which I’ve lived – Portland, Seattle, New York, Washington, D.C., and now the San Francisco Bay Area.
As of August 2014, the average rent for a one-bedroom unit within ten miles of San Francisco was $2,897 per month. According to CNN, the median income for American families in 2013 was just over $51,000. If you subtract taxes from that $51,000, you end up with somewhere between $36-37,000 per year of take home pay. $2,897 times 12 = $34,764. In other words, the median income American family cannot afford the average rent on a one-bedroom home anywhere within ten miles of San Francisco.
The first wave of forced migrants are the most vulnerable, and among them poor people of color, especially African Americans, are over-represented. But governments in the abandoned suburbs to which the Black and brown poor are being forced to migrate aren’t changing as quickly as the demographics around them. That’s why, in essence, what we have in Ferguson is de facto apartheid. A white minority rules over a Black majority, and it relies upon repression to contain the resulting tension.
And according to Matt Apuzzo of the New York Times, the ability of police to contain those tensions is increasingly reliant upon military surplus:
…police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.” The result is that police agencies around the nation possess military-grade equipment, turning officers who are supposed to fight crime and protect communities into what looks like an invading army…
So In Missouri, and elsewhere, you have an increasingly wealthy and racially homogenous urban center ringed with communities like Ferguson where tensions are being held at bay by the machinery of warfare.
And while changing the arrangement of cities so that poor people of color are pushed out matters to those who are poor and of color, we should not ignore the effect of those arrangements on those who gentrification is drawing in. Consider, for a minute, the digital divide. We often talk about how those who are left out are affected. But what about the rest of us? How much has access to the internet changed you, and how different does that make you from those who have been left out?
I suggest that something along these lines occurs as a result of the pattern of gentrification and migration we are witnessing. When we look at what’s happening in Ferguson, we should be asking ourselves, how is shifting demographics affecting the way those on the upside of these dynamics view the world and all that those of us who live in it need? After all, those are the people with the most influence over institutions of power.
Make no mistake. What is happening in your city and mine is happening all around us. Housing is growing more expensive at a rate that far outstrips overall economic growth, not to mention the growth of our paychecks. Successive waves of us are being pushed out of city centers, including not just renters but homeowners who can no longer afford their property taxes. The more privileged we are, the closer to the inner-city we may remain. Those who are the most vulnerable will likely be forced to migrate further and further out, forming rings of descending privilege.
If that happens, what district will you be in?