Erin Aubry Kaplan is a black woman who lives in Inglewood, a black neighborhood in Los Angeles that is gentrifying. You might say “diversifying,” but it’s not “diversity” when white people relocate into black neighborhoods, apparently. She is not happy with the white folks moving in. Kaplan writes in the LA Times about how a new white neighbor remarking that she “likes it here” ticked her off. Yes, a compliment about the neighborhood, and how the newcomer felt at home there, made Kaplan mad. Excerpt:
“Space” and “place” encompass something complex — community, which is our capital and always has been. In lieu of economic wealth, we lay down roots, we build social cohesion out of the vacuum created by white flight, avoidance and indifference. Our neighborhoods are our strength, our visibility. Leimert Park — a flashpoint of gentrification now — put Afrocentric culture on the map, literally, and has long been a hub of black civic and political organization. Inglewood isn’t Leimert Park, but it’s a significantly black city and distinct simply for that reason. Such a base is the source of our forward motion, especially in L.A., where black enclaves were never very numerous. At most, blacks have made up only 20% of the population.
The pattern of shrinking black space is hardly new, by the way: Over the years, immigration and Latino growth remade traditionally black areas like South Central and Compton and Inglewood too. But today’s white influx feels particularly ominous, like the worst of our bad history looping back on itself. Once again our places are tethered to what white people want, what they decide is acceptable, valuable.
A confession: My late husband moved with me to Inglewood in 2004. He was white, Jewish to be exact. But he was an outlier, a guy who grew up in the working-class Valley whose racial politics were radical enough to make moving into a black, thoroughly ungentrified neighborhood not a big deal. It wasn’t an act of rebellion or an attempt to improve or upgrade things with his presence. He made himself part of a black space, serving on Inglewood’s police oversight commission, befriending youngsters (he was a teacher), pitching in to decorate trees on our block at Christmas. For lack of a better term, he integrated.
Fifty years ago, Inglewood’s white residents saw black newcomers not as neighbors but invaders, existential threats to their property values and to an ironclad social order. They could not, would not, live where we lived. The fact that whites are coming back to this once very contested space is not, I fear, evidence of the meaningful integration that has long eluded us. It’s a warning that my black community is, once again, irretrievably at risk.
Read the whole thing. It is a terrific example of the seemingly irresolvable problems we face as a pluralistic society.
Let me say clearly that I sympathize to some extent with Kaplan. There’s nothing wrong with wanting neighborhood stability, and with wanting to live among people like yourself. As Harvard political scientist Bob Putnam found a decade ago — much to his own discomfort, as a liberal — the more ethnically diverse a neighborhood is, the less social trust there is among neighbors. This is simply a fact of human nature. Besides, people understandably find a sense of refuge and social solidarity living among those like themselves. I also sympathize to some degree with gay folks who don’t like their own neighborhoods being gentrified by straights. There are positive goods to living in enclaves where you don’t feel that you have to be on edge all the time, and where your distinct culture can be nurtured.
The problem is that you can’t say it’s okay for you, as a black person (or a gay person, Hispanic person, Asian person, etc) to champion these enclaves, but deny whites the same privilege. Well, you can say that, and people do all the time, but that’s because there is a massive liberal double standard at work here. For example, you would never see in the Los Angeles Times an op-ed from an Anglo person lamenting the loss of neighborhood identity because people of other races are moving in. A black writer is permitted to express views that would be considered flat-out racist if a white writer expressed them.
The thing is, I don’t think this column is solid evidence that Erin Aubry Kaplan is a racist. I think it’s solid evidence that she’s a hypocrite, but not racist. What’s the difference? I don’t buy that loving one’s own people, and wanting to live together in community, is always and everywhere racist. In his megaselling book Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about Howard University:
My only Mecca was, is, and shall always be Howard University. This Mecca, My Mecca—The Mecca—is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body. The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University, which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent. And whereas most other historically black schools were scattered like forts in the great wilderness of the old Confederacy, Howard was in Washington, D.C.—Chocolate City—and thus in proximity to both federal power and black power. I first witnessed this power out on the Yard, that communal green space in the center of the campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were the high-yellow progeny of A.M.E. preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses. It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of “Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key. And overlaying all of this was the history of Howard itself. I knew that I was literally walking in the footsteps of all the Toni Morrisons and Zora Neale Hurstons, of all the Sterling Browns and Kenneth Clarks, who’d come before.
The Mecca—the vastness of black people across space-time—could be experienced in a 20-minute walk across campus. I saw this vastness in the students chopping it up in front of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall, where Muhammad Ali had addressed their fathers and mothers in defiance of the Vietnam War. I saw its epic sweep in the students next to Ira Aldridge Theater, where Donny Hathaway had once sung, where Donald Byrd had once assembled his flock. The students came out with their saxophones, trumpets, and drums, played “My Favorite Things” or “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Some of the other students were out on the grass in front of Alain Locke Hall, in pink and green, chanting, singing, stomping, clapping, stepping. Some of them came up from Tubman Quadrangle with their roommates and rope for double Dutch. Some of them came down from Drew Hall, with their caps cocked and their backpacks slung through one arm, then fell into gorgeous ciphers of beatbox and rhyme. Some of the girls sat by the flagpole with bell hooks and Sonia Sanchez in their straw totes. Some of the boys, with their new Yoruba names, beseeched these girls by citing Frantz Fanon. Some of them studied Russian. Some of them worked in bone labs. They were Panamanian. They were Bajan. And some of them were from places I had never heard of. But all of them were hot and incredible, exotic even, though we hailed from the same tribe.
I can’t begrudge him this at all. Mind you, I didn’t like his book, and considered some of it an argument for black racism, but reading his passages about Howard reminded me of how great it felt to go to my own Mecca: the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. I spent my last two years of high school (1983-85) at that school, a state-supported boarding school for gifted and talented high school juniors and seniors. The academics were great, as you would expect, but the very best thing about it — nothing was even close — was the sense of community at the school. I had found my tribe. We were white, black, Asian, Latino, straight, gay, rural, urban — but what we had in common was that we were gifties, and that usually meant nerds. Many of us had come from schools where we were marginalized socially. Some of us had been bullied. But at LSMSA, all that was over. We were among our own. The sense of safety was like balm in Gilead — safety not in the sense that we would never have our ideas and beliefs challenged, but safety in the sense that you could let your guard down and be at ease with yourself, because you were among your own kind, and would never, ever have to apologize to anyone for being smart, or get shoved in the hallway by a jock because you were a nerd.
Learning to love our school community did not require us to hate the world outside, to be sure, but most of us never forgot what we had escaped from. Looking back on my time in LSMSA, by far its greatest legacy in my life is the confidence it gave me in myself. I learned that it was okay to be different from others, to march out of step with the crowd. I learned that there wasn’t anything wrong with me for being that way. I can see now how much I grew within the protective confines of the school. I needed the protection that the school’s community gave me during those difficult years, in the same way young plants need special protection when they are seedlings, if they are going to grow and flourish later. My two short years at LSMSA impressed powerfully upon me the value of community.
Later, when I was at LSU, I got into an argument with a guy about the value of that school. He said it was an elitist institution (true), and that segregating gifted kids from others was morally wrong. I was surprised by how angry his argument made me, even though I could see that he had credible points. What I struggled to convey to him was the cost of his egalitarian views on a minority that, in many public schools, was vulnerable to prejudice and bullying. I can’t remember precisely what I argued back then, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t say what was in my heart: We need places like LSMSA to give people like me a place to go get an education free from the taunts and bullying of people like you.
To be fair, I don’t think my interlocutor was a bully. He was an ideologue, though, one whose egalitarianism required that he deny the reality that lots of us (but not all!) who went to LSMSA lived with before we entered the school. If kids like us got pushed around, ostracized, and so forth, well, that’s just the price one has to pay. My own father once blamed me for provoking the bullies who made my life hell in school, blaming me for drawing their spite because I was so “weird.” Coming from a background like that, LSMSA was my Mecca, as it was Mecca to so many of us back then.
I say all that to demonstrate that I understand deeply why someone like TNC would find a historically black college like Howard to be a community whose blackness is a place where he could thrive in a special way. I understand why Erin Aubry Kaplan would feel defensive about the black character of Inglewood, and regard the whites moving in as interlopers who were going to take away something important from her.
What I don’t understand is how Kaplan can make those arguments without being aware that she wants special privileges for herself that she’s denying to white people who want the same for their neighborhoods. Even the part about her late white husband integrating into black Inglewood would be intolerable if a white person said it about people of other races. Imagine how it would read if a white author talked about the “good” blacks who moved into the neighborhood and committed themselves to acting white. That’s what she’s writing about here.
And yet, when I lived in Dallas, I wrote about the anger and frustration of Anglos (and even non-immigrant Latinos) who lived in communities where Mexican immigrants were moving in, and destroying the character of the neighborhood with their Third World habits. This was not a story white liberals wanted to hear, but it was happening. I’m thinking this morning about the older Mexican-American man in Irving, an inner-ring suburb of Dallas, who was preparing to sell his house because he couldn’t stand the noise and the mess coming in with new, mostly Mexican immigrants. That man was not supposed to exist in the liberal narrative — but there he was, and he was pissed off, because the newcomers had no respect for the customs of the people who were there before they were.
So, look, I understand why Kaplan is anxious and angry. But she cannot have it both ways. When are people in a neighborhood unhappy about newcomers of another race moving in because they love being around their own kind, and resent losing that good thing, and when are they unhappy about it because they are racist? How can you tell the difference?
Once again our places are tethered to what white people want, what they decide is acceptable, valuable.
Here’s news: predominantly white neighborhoods that are in transition to something other than white are “tethered to what non-white people want, what they decide is acceptable, valuable.” This is what it means to live in a free and pluralistic society. The alternative is to allow people to discriminate against others in housing. Surely Kaplan does not want that. Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that for black people who live in Inglewood, something valuable is being lost by the transition of their neighborhood from predominantly black to multiethnic. It’s unfair to expect them all to be happy about that.
But it is also unfair to expect people from any ethnic group to be happy about seeing their neighborhoods transition from something familiar and comfortable into something … not. The double standard is what angers a lot of white people. As America becomes more multiracial in the years and decades ahead (by midcentury, there will be no majority ethnic group here), the liberal paradigm — racial and ethnic exclusivity by non-whites is good, but the same thing is bad when whites practice it — is going to be destroyed. What many on the left refuse to see today is that abandoning true liberalism, and embracing a two-faced and hypocritical way of construing “diversity” — heads nonwhites win, tails whites lose — is feeding the nascent fire of white nationalism.
Finally, let me commend to your attention this New Yorker piece by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a black American scholar living in Paris with his (white) French wife and their child. Williams explores the complicated politics of ethnicity in contemporary France, and the blurry line between racism and simply wishing to defend one’s communal way of life. Excerpt:
Whether or not history really is dialectical, it can be tempting to think that decades of liberal supremacy in Europe have helped give rise to the antithesis of liberalism. In Paris, left-wing intellectuals often seem reluctant to acknowledge that the recent arrival of millions of refugees in Europe, many of them impoverished, poses any complications at all. Such blithe cosmopolitanism, especially when it is expressed by people who can easily shelter themselves from the disruptions caused by globalization, can fuel resentment toward both intellectuals and immigrants.
The philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who has long embodied élite opinion on the French left, sometimes falls prey to such rhetoric. A 2015 essay, which attempted to allay fears of a refugee crisis in Europe, portrayed Syrian refugees as uniformly virtuous and adaptable: “They are applicants for freedom, lovers of our promised land, our social model, and our values. They are people who cry out ‘Europe! Europe!’ the way millions of Europeans, arriving a century ago on Ellis Island, learned to sing ‘America the Beautiful.’ ” Instead of making the reasonable argument that relatively few Muslim refugees harbor extremist beliefs, Lévy took an absolutist stance, writing that it was pure “nonsense” to be concerned about an increased risk of terrorism. Too often, Lévy fights racism with sentimentalism.
Williams’s piece, though mostly about France, centers on the question raised (unintentionally) by Erin Aubry Kaplan: Is there is a middle ground between a liberalism whose universalism demonizes and devours all particularity, and a cultural conservatism that uses bigotry to defend particularity? How can Howard and Inglewood stay distinctly black without ultimately being racist? Or is our definition of “racism” too narrow?
We want strong communities, but without having to make unpleasant choices. If we make those choices, we have to cloak from ourselves the moral character of what we’re doing. Erin Aubry Kaplan doesn’t want whitey in her neighborhood, but she can’t say that outright, so she frames her racism by making her new white neighbors into victimizers. However, given that the thing she cherishes most about her neighborhood is its black character, I don’t see how she could defend it in any other way. But if you find her argument acceptable, who are you to tell Richard Spencer that he has no right to defend his white neighborhood?
Contemporary Western liberalism has too often become a sentimentalist con game in which favored minorities and their allies selectively apply liberal principles to advance their own interests. The racist hypocrisy is gallingly clear when whites try to play by the same rules. Is the answer to be found in reform liberalism, i.e., a liberalism that applies the same rules to everyone — even if that means the loss of cultural traditions, associations, and values that people of all races and distinct groups cherish?
This may actually be the biggest political challenge of the decades to come.
UPDATE: James C., who lives in rural Italy (and is an Italian citizen, though American by birth) writes:
It’s certainly something we’re facing all over the West. It’s a huge issue here in Italy, as hundreds of thousands of mostly young male Africans are brought in every year by NGOs patrolling the Libyan coastline. The national government, currently controlled by the center-left, is feverishly distributing these men all over the country, sometimes overwhelming towns that have been monocultural for century upon century. It’s a strange sight to go to a small and ancient country village, full of elderly people many of whose children have had to abandon the area to find work in our ‘modern economy’, and encounter a large group of young African men just hanging around with nothing to do (at best—delinquency/criminality is another problem), living off state funds that could have been used to keep the village’s children from going away.
In Rome, the situation is so unmanageable that the city government is planning to offer €1,000 a month per migrant to anyone willing to take them in their house. Millions of Italians are trying to survive on less than that amount…
I see a lot of fear around me, fear of losing precious social and cultural cohesion as well as safety and security.
And I also see a lot of fury. Not merely because of the policy of flooding the country (whose economy still hasn’t recovered from 2008) with mostly unassimilable economic migrants. But also because the attitude of the globalist political class: Accept and celebrate ‘diversity’ or else you’re a racist who needs your bigotry to be ‘educated’ out of you.
Noah172 points to this Steve Sailer blogpost on the column, especially this:
Inglewood in the 2010 Census was 51% Hispanic, 44% black, and 3% white. The mayor is still black though, but half the City Council is Latino.
In other words, it’s okay to hate on whites in the L.A. Times, but not on Mexicans.
Un-freaking-believable. Erin Aubry Kaplan doesn’t have the nerve to trash Latinos, who are actually displacing blacks there, so she turns her anger onto whitey, who is always and forever the enemy.