White Progressives are Hypocrites on Gentrification | Opinion

I once heard someone, who happens to be quite progressive and white, say the following, nearly verbatim: "I live in Harlem. I feel awful about living in Harlem because I do not want to contribute to gentrification. In light of this, I am going to move to Bushwick."

My response to this—mainly out of politeness—was a silent nod. Deep down, I was furrowing my brow. I found their proposition to be peculiar and paradoxical.

I find the general progressive agenda concerning gentrification to be equally peculiar and paradoxical in a similar vein. Progressives are known to be against gentrification. They're very vocal about their opposition to it. And to their credit, gentrification is worthy of being criticized. It drives out residents from their hometowns. Very often, this displacement is permanent and disproportionally affects minority groups. Yet, progressives are one of gentrification's primary drivers.

Bushwick is one of the most gentrified neighborhoods in New York City. The process of Bushwick's gentrification has been in the public eye for decades. What has been driving this gentrification? Mainly, under-employed liberal millennials. It is perfectly understandable why so many young individuals have flocked to places like Bushwick: rent is cheap and popular culture has been tied to neighborhoods like it, which draws in younger residents.

There is something morbid about the moralizing we hear from progressives about gentrification. It isn't the criticism itself that is morbid. Rather, it is the context from which this criticism is arising. Specifically, when this criticism is coming from white progressives living in gentrified neighborhoods like Bushwick, the messenger, rather than the message, should be called into great question. How much should I trust a person's "virtuous" opposition to something they are causing?

On the one hand, gentrification has been shown to benefit candidates that are most aligned with progressive agendas, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Keep in mind that the specific gentrification in question—gentrification in NYC—has disproportionately benefited white residents, including white residents who were already living in these neighborhoods before they were gentrified.

Bushwick, Brooklyn gentrification
In the last few years, New York City has lost over 40,000 affordable housing units. No where has this been more evident than in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where extreme gentrification has followed the L train eastwards, stretching out from Williamsburg. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

There's something profoundly pompous about a self-proclaimed progressive lamenting about gentrification, all while reaping the benefits of it and directly causing it. Is it not especially morbid to see these same white residents sporting Black Lives Matter T-shirts, all while pushing Black residents out of their neighborhoods so they can sit and moralize at their nice new coffee shop?

To paraphrase Princeton University doctoral student Katie Donnelly, progressives are either silent or in stark denial regarding their contribution to gentrification. The moralizing we see from progressives on this matter is a veil for their complacency. When confronted on their contribution to what they say they hate, white gentrifying progressives have minimized their involvement, often rationalizing it and even deflecting any responsibility for their role in the matter. They say they want to contribute to their neighborhood's community—specifically, neighborhood activities centered around its non-white residents—but they seldom, if ever, do.

According to Donnelly's study, white progressives living in gentrified neighborhoods even question whether or not the harmful effects of gentrification were occurring where they lived. Some deny the lack of affordability in their neighborhood as correlated with gentrifiers moving in, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. When confronted with their involvement in promoting gentrification, progressives either justify it, deny it, or deflect the problem altogether. From a moral perspective, when these same individuals seek social clout for their progressive opinions, one can only call this out as hypocritical and to the moral detriment of many.

Given the tendencies of progressives to proliferate cancel or call-out culture, it is time that such progressives point the finger at themselves. Morally and politically speaking, you cannot have it both ways. It is not right to get moral brownie points for criticizing the very process you refuse to admit your complacency toward. Doing so is merely a display of "passive-progressivism." In other words, it is to hold the "right opinions," but to act in a manner that advances your own self-interest, as opposed to the interests which are in line with these "right opinions." There's nothing practical or noble about self-praise regarding one's own progressivism.

Moral posturing, riddled with disingenuousness, is what allows white progressives to continue gentrifying. And it is what will enable them to continue gentrifying without ridicule. They ought to be ridiculed. Not only are they increasing the very sociological process they say they hate, but they are dishonest about their involvement in it, purely for the sake of saving face. They do not want to believe that they are racist or participate in systems that negatively impact communities of color. But they do, and they need to be called out for their attempts to deflect responsibility.

If you are a white progressive living in a gentrified neighborhood, don't lie to yourself or anyone else. You're part of the problem.

Should you have to move because of this? Or is there a way to reconcile your distaste for gentrification, even when you are increasing it? Donnelly's study on the matter—she spoke directly to the hypocritical individuals in question—hopes for the latter. I share her hope that more white progressives attempt to own up to this hypocrisy. Yet, the data is unpromising. There is a tendency to dig our heels into the ground, especially in these politically polarized times. And given the sheer power of toxic identity politics in our current culture, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Daniel Lehewych is a graduate student of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, specializing in moral psychology, ethics and the philosophy of mind. He is a freelance writer, powerlifter and health science enthusiast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.