Gentrification and Resistance: Racial Projects in the Neoliberal Order.

AuthorAlvare, Melissa Archer

THE CARCERAL SPIRIT OF THIS NEOLIBERAL ERA EXTENDS FAR BEYOND the physical walls of correctional facilities; indeed, both governmental and private actors play essential roles in criminalizing, confining, and amplifying the social suffering of marginalized communities. Profit-centered objectives, racism, and the penalization of poverty overlap and yield projects that benefit privileged actors while intensifying the struggles of those already in precarious positions. One such project is gentrification--redevelopment in pursuit of capital--which, I argue, epitomizes how neoliberal forces yield social suffering.

Driven by privatization and profit-centered objectives, neoliberalism is premised on the social subordination of particular groups and increasingly facilitated by punitive practices and policies. Although the neoliberal order maintains forms of social and racial containment (Eick 2006), a set of hegemonic discourses and ideologies privatize social problems such as poverty and mass incarceration, masking them as accumulations of individual actions rather than products of a confining social structure. Racially coded narratives produce fear, suspicion, and antipathy toward poor people of color and blame them (i.e., the "Black culture") for their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system or the blighted state of the neighborhoods they inhabit. Accordingly, such ideologies normalize the racially disparate outcomes of state-supported contemporary projects that generate profit for private actors.

The present case study focuses on a gentrification conflict in Edgewood Park (1)--a predominately Black, working-class neighborhood in a prominent mid-Atlantic city--and explores how racially coded narratives about gentrification's potential for neighborhood improvement serve to rationalize and normalize the resultant subordination of long-time residents. At the same time, this case study highlights how local activists problematize the social suffering of marginalized residents in their neighborhood and challenge the racist, exclusionary nature of the redevelopment they experience. Omi and Winant's (2014) racial formation theory provides important analytic tools for understanding the dialectical relationship between racial oppression and anti-racist resistance in this era of neoliberal confinements. Specifically, this theory explains how the convergence of racial meanings and concrete structural impacts (e.g., racially disparate resource allocation) occur through various racial projects--"attempts to both shape the ways in which social structures are racially signified and the ways that racial meanings are embedded in social structures" (Omi & Winant 2014, 125). Racial projects vie for hegemonic status; some projects produce or maintain racial oppression, whereas others resist racist practices and structures of domination (Omi & Winant 2014). In other words, although racist structures and significations are deeply entrenched in US society, racial formation theory posits that ordinary people hold the power to challenge and potentially destabilize them, allowing for the simultaneous exploration of the racism implicated in gentrification--among other neoliberal projects--and the agency of those afflicted as they cultivate strategies of resistance. The present analysis reveals parallels between combating racial inequality in the present moment and in the epochs preceding neoliberalism--noting challenges that have long impeded collective action by marginalized actors--at the same time as it accentuates how the color-blind neoliberal ideologies of our time present new barriers to resistance.

In the first section I describe the history of localized racial projects to contextualize my case study; I then conceptualize gentrification as a racial project and scrutinize the strategies that enable exclusionary development. Moreover, I explore how gentrification is made hegemonic in a fashion quite similar to neoliberal carceral projects--namely, by way of color-blind rhetoric and historical narratives that stigmatize and criminalize poor people of color. In the following sections I explore how a grassroots advocacy group, the Community Organizers of Edgewood Park (COEP), cultivates a distinct racial project to resist the confining and disruptive impacts of exclusionary redevelopment in its neighborhood. COEP is a small multiracial organization (2) of longtime and newer residents of Edgewood Park that came together in 2012 to mobilize their neighbors to challenge "exclusionary development." (3) In response to its activities, COEP has encountered significant backlash. Proponents of profitable redevelopment have attempted to impede the efforts of COEP by denouncing their racist, classist, and sexist foundations. As Mayer (2007, 91) notes, "neoliberalism has in many ways created a more hostile environment for progressive urban movements." Yet instead of experiencing defeat, COEP activists are emboldened by such hostility and cite examples of how these attacks mobilized further activism.

I draw from interviews conducted with COEP activists (4) and social media content (produced by COEP, other Edgewood Park residents, and local developers) to demonstrate how local activism against gentrification is a taxing struggle, but one that holds the promise of empowering individuals to resist even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. In conclusion, I argue that gentrification and resistance against it must be situated within the broader struggle against the racialized social suffering caused by neoliberalism.

Racial Projects in Edgewood Park: A Brief History

Historical accounts of Edgewood Park reveal that the neighborhood has been characterized by racial conflict since the Great Migration. As Pattillo (2013) notes, the increased population of African Americans in northern cities solidified the color line in the early 1900s. Indeed, African Americans migrating from the South in the 1930s were met with great hostility by whites (Herbert & Brown 2006, Massey & Denton 1993). Just as Black migrants were seeking to escape Jim Crow segregation in the South, white people in Edgewood Park and neighboring communities violently guarded racial boundaries in public spaces such as theaters and parks.

However, Edgewood Park was prospering and relatively integrated until the race riots of the 1960s, which led to a substantial flight of whites and local businesses, and thus to the devaluation of the neighborhood. Mainstream descriptions of white flight often neglect to contextualize the racial tensions and oppressive conditions that spurred the riots of the late 1960s, or to note the calculated efforts (by politicians, public officials, and real estate agents, among others) to cultivate fear and antipathy toward African Americans in that epoch (Alexander 2010). As is common in portrayals of inner-city locales, Edgewood Park's "decline" is framed as a product of the drugs, crime, and violence prevalent between the late 1960s and the 1990s. Although there is no denying that drug epidemics and violent crime have impaired cities, more should be said about the devastation generated by white flight and community divestment. Indeed, as institutions and people with resources flee a neighborhood, this often becomes a site of concentrated poverty, which impels infrastructure deterioration and an increase in crime, among other social issues (Wilson 1987). Moreover, it is crucial to acknowledge how a network of discriminatory housing-related practices (e.g. explicitly racial zoning policies, restrictive covenants, real estate agent discrimination, etc.) functioned to contain and subordinate Black Americans in inner-city neighborhoods without the resources enjoyed by white suburbia.

Indeed, it is useful to consider how this narrow version of history is used to craft a racialized narrative about how blight came to be--one that silences the challenges Black Americans endured in urban neighborhoods for generations. A critical reading of history has demonstrated how deliberate policies and practices have created economic havoc in Black neighborhoods (e.g., Alexander 2010, Steiner 2001); however, the dominant discourse ignores the roots of structural deprivation and places culpability on Black individuals' assumed cultural deficiencies for the state of dilapidated inner-city neighborhoods. In so doing, these portrayals bolster beliefs that through their renewal projects, real estate developers are rescuing neighborhoods from disorderly, careless, and criminal residents, when in fact they are only intensifying struggles for long-time residents who must cope with rising rents, taxes, ramped up surveillance, and the threat of displacement. Those coping with the hardships brought on by gentrification often internalize the blame casted by the myths developers espouse, as will be discussed below.

Gentrification as a Neoliberal Racial Project

Neoliberalism emerged in opposition to redistributive, anti-poverty struggles and was "premised on racial resentment" (Omi & Winant 2014, 214) following the civil rights gains of the 1960s. If President Johnson's war on poverty had emphasized the structural roots of poverty and the government's aptitude to address them (Brauer 1982), the contemporary ideological foundations for neoliberalism dismiss notions of structural inequality (e.g., systemic racism) and in turn individualize social disparities, denying any need for government intervention (Giroux 2008). As Prince (2014, 33) writes, "blaming the vulnerable or turning a blind eye toward their predicaments is part and parcel to neoliberal ideology." Indeed, under the neoliberal mantra of personal responsibility, virtue and worth are measured in terms of a capitalist logic: Poverty is equated with laziness and criminality, and marginalized populations are painted as undeserving, precluded from empathy or protection, and penalized (Cacho 2012, Cahill 2006...

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