Creating a gentrified guilt complex

by J. Pharoah Doss
For New Pittsburgh Courier

In 2006, author Shelby Steele published, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of
the Civil Rights Era. Steele described White guilt as the vacuum of moral authority that comes from simply
knowing that one’s race is associated with racism.

Therefore, Whites (and American institutions) must acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed of
it, but once they acknowledge it, they lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality,
social justice, and poverty. The authority Whites lose transfers to the “victims” of historical racism and
becomes the victim’s source of power in society.

Steele went further: Anger is not inevitable for the oppressed; it is chosen when weakness in the oppressor
means it will be effective in winning some kind of spoils. Anger in the oppressed is a response to perceived
opportunity, not to injustice. Injustices create only the potential for anger, but weakness in the oppressor
calls out anger, even when there is no injustice. In both the best and the worst sense of the word, Black rage
is always a kind of opportunism.

Last month, in Kentucky, Black Lives Matter Louisville created a social justice rating system to grade
establishments in the NuLu Business District. Grade A = Ally, meaning the establishment supported Black
liberation and met the requirements. Grade C = Complicit, meaning the establishment failed to meet 2 or more
of the requirements. Grade F = Failure, meaning the establishment failed to meet minimum requirements
including failure to create a safe space for Black inclusion. The requirements, which were actually social
justice demands, were the following:

1). Establishments must have 23 percent BIPOC on staff
2). Establishments must receive 23 percent of inventory from BIPOC businesses
3). Establishments must make regular donations to BIPOC organizations
4). No dress codes that discriminate against BIPOC patrons or employees.

The activist expected NuLu business owners to sign a contract that stated: I, a business owner in the
gentrified NuLu Business District, understand that gentrification targets poor and disadvantaged communities of
color. I acknowledge that the original residents of Louisville’s Clarksdale community, which was demolished to
make way for NuLu, have been harmed by displacement. I acknowledge that my business has played a part in the
harm done to Clarksdale’s original residents, who have received no economic benefits from our occupation.

The reaction from NuLu’s business owners ranged from weak, to mild, to extreme. Some owners believed they had
a responsibility to admit gentrification occurred and they should play an active part in increasing diversity
in the district. Other owners felt the activists had a legitimate grievance, but disagreed that the NuLu
district was part of the gentrification that took place at Clarksdale. Then there were owners that insisted
that the activists were using mafia shakedown tactics to achieve their goals. In response to the last group of
business owners one activist warned, “How you respond to this is how people will remember you in this moment.
You want to be on the right side of justice at all times.”

Another social justice demand centering around gentrification happened earlier this month in Seattle. The
Seattle Times reported that Seattle was the third most gentrified city in the United States. The city’s
Central District has seen a dramatic drop in Black residents. The paper estimated by the next decade the
Central District will be 10 percent Black, down from 73 percent Black in 1970. A small group of Black Lives
Matter activists went on a march to demand for White people to give up their homes as a form of reparations for
gentrification.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations,” contained a list of historical grievances in the
subtitle: Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal.
Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Then Coates wrote: Until we reckon with our compounding moral
debts, America will never be whole.

These activists just added gentrification to America’s compounding moral debt and will continue to guilt the
present in an effort to gain from the past.

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