Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Author Jeff Chang talks about why gentrification isn’t the perfect lens for looking at the geography of race in the U.S., but Beyoncé is.
Hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang released his third book, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, on September 13, a time in America when one could invest a good measure of faith in that title’s promise. The book rekindled the flame of optimism felt in Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song of the same name—one of the premier anthems of the Black Lives Matter soundtrack. But ever since Donald Trump stepped in on November 9 and showed America who’s boss, that assurance has been cast in doubt.
And yet the second part of Chang’s book title—on race and resegregation— holds constant. The U.S. is, in many parts of the country, resegregating to levels not seen since before the Civil Rights Movement. As noted in a pivotal chapter of the book called “Vanilla Cities and Their Chocolate Suburbs,” the average white student attends a public school that is at least 75 percent white, and lives in a neighborhood that is at least 77 percent white. Meanwhile, people of color are moving (or being pushed out to) the suburbs, and more white people are moving into the city. This reverse migration is often accompanied by the class and racial displacement of gentrification.
As unsettling as gentrification can be for many poor, black and brown families today, it’s not the total picture of oppression, Chang argues in his book. He writes:
[G]entrification offers a peculiarly small frame for trying to understand these paradigmatic shifts. When rents reach the tipping point, when old industrial buildings flip or are razed for flimsy new ones made of glass and chipboard, when poor residents have to leave, the gentrification narrative hits its limit. It has the odd, counterintuitive effect of privileging the narratives of those able to hang on in the changing city. But what of those who are displaced? Gentrification has no room for the question, “Where did the displaced go?” Instead, the displaced join the disappeared....
Gentrification is key to understanding what happened to our cities at the turn of the millennium. But it is only half of the story. It is only the visible side of the larger problem: resegregation.
Trump ran on a campaign of racial exclusion that woke a sleeping giant of voters who, in many cases, see nothing wrong with returning to segregated polities—who, in fact, invite it. Now many Latino and Muslim immigrants, African Americans, queer and trans folks, and women are worried about whether they actually will be alright. Will they be OK in their cities of sanctuary, or will they find themselves trapped in them while a political party that objects to their existence rules the rest of the states and federal government?
Chang was prescient in exploring these questions before Trump’s ascendance, traveling to cities like Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of their uprising to talk to activists and residents about their living conditions, both within and outside of city centers. In We Gon’ Be Alright, Chang connects these grassroots movements to the wider conversation about race in America held within pop culture, as heard in albums like Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
CityLab spoke with Chang both before and after the presidential election, about his book and how its lessons might be applied.
So, it must be asked: Are we really gonna be alright, living under this new president?
I don’t know, man, but I still trust and have faith that folks are gonna get it together. One thing we have now that we didn’t have in 2009, or even 2000, is an infrastructure of justice movements that are linked in so many different kinds of ways that weren’t before. If you remember, it took a little while for the antiwar movement to start moving. But now, after Occupy and the Movement for Black Lives, the Dreamers movement, Standing Rock, reproductive justice—people are really mobilized and communicating and making plans. That’s the thing that makes me think we have a shot at this.
When Obama was elected, we were dancing in the streets, and as soon as Trump was elected, people started marching in the streets, and it continues. I don’t hold any kind of Pollyannaish dream that one day it’s just going to stop and we’ll be able to go back to our fairy-tale world. But I do take heart in the fact that folks are already getting prepped.
You write in your book, “By itself, gentrification can’t explain the new geography of race that has emerged since the turn of the millennium.” Can you unpack that a bit more?
It’s inadequate because gentrification, just even as a word, is about the gentry, the movement of wealth into cities. It doesn’t account for people who are displaced and forced to leave the city. The anti-gentrification movement doesn’t account for where people are forced to move, and there is less of an infrastructure built up in the movement to account for what’s been happening in the suburbs. I think that’s why we saw Ferguson happen. Even before that, that was why Sanford, Florida, was the flashpoint for Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. These are things happening outside of the frame of gentrification.
But the reality is that people are forced to move and the management of the suburbs is looking increasingly like the management of the inner-city during the 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s, with the politics of containment happening and the rise of states funded upon incarceration and intense policing. If we look at it in a larger sense, at the impact of resegregation that’s actually happening, gentrification is just a part of resegregation, which is the larger frame needed to understand what’s going on. And then we can understand the shifting geography of race a bit better because we can put displaced people back into the picture.
So what’s the solution? Do people of color need to flood the suburbs to integrate them, to overcome the tyranny of racial gerrymandering, or can they accumulate and sustain political power from within the urban centers?
It’s about trying to think about the both/and. It’s about forcing the hand of these largely liberal cities to enforce fair housing laws and establish new policies that help to preserve longtime residents in their homes, to strengthen renters laws, to continue to push questions around redlining—because that has never gone away, and under a Trump presidency we can probably assume they’re going to intensify.
But to talk about what people used to call “metropolitics,” or a regional kind of politics, to be able to build up power in the colorized suburbs in the way that folks have been doing in Ferguson and the northern county of St. Louis, to push back against these types of insane debtors’ prison types of laws that are literally about containing the bodies of people of color, it’s really about trying to think about all of those things at the same time and building movements in those kinds of ways.
Explain how you were able to incorporate Beyoncé’s Lemonade into your book
So I look at the arc of Lemonade as a metaphor for a work that’s in dialogue with the Movement for Black Lives. [The album] starts as this sort of lovers quarrel and ends with this transformation in which not only is Beyoncé transformed but she’s also allowed space for her lover to transform as well. So for me, Lemonade came out right when I was finishing up the book and I realized it summed up the entire direction of what the Black Lives Matter movement has been about for the past few years. They found concrete language for this through the Movement for Black Lives platform, which is literally like a glossary of big ideas around transformational justice. So the chapter is called “Making Lemonade” and it concludes with a combination of ideas from people like Grace Lee Boggs’ vision around revolution and Carrie Mae Weems’ ideas around grace, and Robin D. G. Kelley’s reading of James Baldwin’s thoughts on revolutionary love. It’s not just about healing those who’ve been harmed, but also about how those who’ve done harm can be healed themselves.
How has that played out, particularly in places where there have been uprisings like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte?
For me, talking about the question of anger and protest, it’s not about saying that anger is unjustified or irrational. It’s really more about: How do you build a vision for a sustainable movements with all of the emotions at play, from anger to redemption, and in ways where [those emotions] are not in opposition to one another? What’s interesting about how people perceived Lemonade is that it’s reflective of what we’ve been conditioned to think about in terms of what the proper response is to being wronged. A lot of folks will have a great time with all of the bomb throwing in the early part of the record—the “Hot Sauce,” the images of fire, the “Sorry, I ain’t sorry”—and that’s all super powerful and legit. But at same time we haven’t all maybe considered what the end of that album means in terms of reconciliation and grace.
There was that moment after Dylann Storm Roof’s massacre at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina, when some of the victim’s family members forgave him. This triggered a lot of angry op-eds from people who disagreed with that, but is this what you’re referring to?
I think that’s exactly what’s happening there. I don’t know what the answer is. What I’m trying to do is point to the questions that are raised by these movements. I think Black Lives Matter has always been about not just calling into question these foundational gaps between the races and how they’ve gotten wider over the years, in terms of life expectancy, premature deaths, incarceration, wealth, health, and what some scholars call social death—all of these disparities. It’s been about raising the question of not just how to stop the killings, but challenging folks to think about what it means to live together. Those are super difficult questions. What I’ve seen is artists and folks working in the realm of that spirit strongly, to bring these kinds of questions out and forward and to enact them in spaces that are really fraught—meaning where there’s been a lot of harm done, or where there’s a lot of trauma that’s unresolved. Charleston is a great moment for this. How is forgiveness even imaginable there?
That’s what’s important to grapple with: the imagination of what a transformed society looks like, where it’s not just about bloodshed and retribution, but is also about life.
How did you personally feel about the expressions of forgiveness?
I was stunned. It was nearly unfathomable for me. I can see how it made some folks even angrier, but it’s something that I’ve been continuing to grapple with, and I’m still grappling with it. I ended my book with a series of these kinds of questions, and I frame the questions from the position of someone who has been complicit in harming others, and as someone who’s been harmed. For me trying to understand or imagine what that harm feels like is part of my job and all of our jobs. Some have to come a lot farther than others on this, but we have to get to the next phase together.
So, take Rahm Emanuel, the embattled mayor of Chicago. So many people want him to step down over everything that’s happened, from peaking violence to corrupt police, and the legacy of segregation underlying all of that. How should Emanuel approach his job considering all the harm in his city?
I don’t know. That’s way above my level. It’s partly about us trying to figure it out together. But Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis—these are all places that are calling our attention to all of this stuff and I think at the very least, [Emanuel] and a lot of us have to do a lot of listening to those who are there on the front lines, who say they need things like jobs, better schools, or mixed-income housing.
In order for someone to act at that level, there has to be political will. And there hasn’t been political will around this stuff for at least half a century. There hasn’t been a national consensus for racial justice. So resegregation is not just our physical reality—it’s also a metaphor for how we’ve been retreating, or our unwillingness to engage each other in talking about racism, or thinking that it’s OK for us to be racially divided. But the largest thing is political will. How do we get to the point where there’s enough political will to address this?