Racial Tension in the City


Yesterday I had a conversation about race and gentrification in a cab. I ride in a lot of cabs, and this was the third conversation I’ve had on this topic with drivers. But this time was different. Normally, the conversation starts with some version of “there goes the city…” This time, the conversation began with “what’s that?!”

“That” referred to a construction site in downtown Oakland, California, the city across the Bay from San Francisco, the fourth fastest gentrifying city in the country. Oakland is the destination for San Francisco’s rent refugees, myself among them, who’ve escaped to the East Bay in search of affordable rentals. And “that,” might well have been the beginnings of one of a number of high rise residential developments slotted for Oakland’s downtown that are being staked in order to capture high-end migrants from San Francisco and other areas around the country; migrants who are displacing lower-income locals as their arrival causes rents to rise.

I mentioned this to my driver, a twenty-something South Asian man, and he quickly explained that rents were going up in Oakland because of the infusion of tech sector workers, especially employees of Google, in nearby Mountain View. One Google rep explained new employees insistence on commuting to Mountain View from the city by saying that many are “nauseated by the suburbs.”

Nice. So you grow up in the burbs, attend better schools and enjoy other advantages as a result, and then decide that now that you’re a big wage earner, you’d rather live where the poor people are and push them to the places you’re abandoning because those neighborhoods make you “nauseated.”

When I agreed that the arrival of high wage Silicon Valley workers was part of the “problem,” he quickly replied, “but it should be really good for the economy, don’t you think?”

No, I don’t think. Not when so much of the money for development is being paid for by the very people being displaced. They share in the cost at both ends of the development process, either directly via development subsidies paid for by public programs, or indirectly as a result of tax abatement. Long-term, the red side of the ledger is too much the burden of the poorest residents.

Thinking it best to make a personal connection before breaching the thorny subject of gentrification, I asked him where he was from. Turns out, he currently lives in one of the suburban communities to which displaced former inner-city residents are being forced to move, resulting in rapid demographic change and rising tensions. And, he also feels he’s being forced out.

He told me his father owned a small business, but is being forced to sell as what was once “a pretty nice town, actually” has been “invaded” by “gangs” who have harassed both him and his father, prompting Dad to sell. My guess is that the anger in his voice was an indication that driving a cab was the alternative to taking over that business, but it could just have been traffic.

I responded by asking him where he thought those gang members were coming from. “Could they have been forced to move out of Oakland or San Francisco?” I asked. His response: “I guess there’s that…”

Yeah, I guess there’s that, since it was pretty clear to me that the “gang members” he was referring to are Black young men forced out of the gentrifying inner-city and into a once nearly all-white community that is being abandoned by wealthier residents in what folks are calling a “reverse donut” effect. That “that,” summed up by his experience, is the other side of gentrification. Poor people don’t just disappear, they move, and when they move, the adjustment isn’t easy. And some of them, well, some of them might be angry.

Imagine how you might feel if you were subjected to a “racial penalty” when acquiring a mortgage as did many Black residents of Baltimore, a city whose Black residents you would have to have been living under a rock not to have heard comment about one way or another in the last several weeks.

A recent study, reported upon by the New York Times tells the tale:

It found that black borrowers in Baltimore, especially those who lived in black neighborhoods, were charged higher rates and were disadvantaged at every point in the borrowing process compared with similarly situated whites. Had black borrowers been treated the same as white borrowers, the authors say, their loan default rate would have been considerably lower. Instead, discrimination harmed individuals and entire neighborhoods.

Over the life of a 30-year loan, the researchers say, these racial disparities would cost the average black borrower an extra $14,904 — and $15,948 for the average black borrower living in a black neighborhood — as compared with white borrowers. That money might otherwise have been put into savings, invested in children’s education, or used to improve health or living standards.

The racial penalty was highest for black borrowers earning over $50,000. This is consistent with other studies showing that brokers who earned more fees for larger, higher-cost loans deliberately targeted black families of means. As the study notes, these facts show that whiteness still confers ‘concrete advantages in the accumulation of wealth through homeownership’ and that pervasive racial disadvantage continues to ‘undermine black socioeconomic status in the United States today.'”

Now imagine that you lost a home you bought with a bad mortgage in the housing crash and you know damn well that mortgage was sold to you because you’re Black. Imagine being forced to move to a once near all-white suburb, a community that may have been originally founded in order to facilitate voluntary segregation. Now, consider your feelings when you hear of soaring real estate values in your old neighborhood as new residents with deep pockets move in, buying houses for pennies on the dollar because people like you had to abandon them.

Wouldn’t you be angry? Now imagine how you would feel if your anger was used as a justification for labeling you and others like you “hostile” and using your supposed “hostility” as a rationale for sometimes violent and even lethal police repression.

Dr. King once said “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Many of the unheard are talking now on the streets of Ferguson and New York, Baltimore and Oakland. This young man has obviously been hearing them, but is he listening? Are we?

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

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