When White Happens: Gentrification, Drug Dealing, and the American Dream

Was film maker Spike Lee right or wrong when he addressed the issue of gentrification? Below is another insightful article from authors, educators and racial justice activists J-Love Calderon and David Leonard that tackle this question and shows how gentrification manifests itself with those entrusted to protect and serve and their long standing policies… -Davey D-

Spike_Lee_(2012)Intended to be a celebration of Black History Month, Spike Lee reminded an audience at Pratt Institute that February was not simply about speeches and celebration but demanding justice and accountability, spotlighting white privilege and persistent forms of violence.  Asked about the “other side of gentrification,” Lee scoffed at the premise, making clear that racism sits on all sides:

 I grew up here in Fort Greene. I grew up here in New York. It’s changed. And why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every motherfuckin’ day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. P.S. 20 was not good. P.S. 11. Rothschild 294. The police weren’t around. When you see white mothers pushing their babies in strollers, three o’clock in the morning on 125th Street, that must tell you something …. I mean, they just move in the neighborhood. You just can’t come in the neighborhood. I’m for democracy and letting everybody live but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now shit gotta change because you’re here? Get the fuck outta here. Can’t do that!


John Mcwhorter

John Mcwhorter

While many dismissed his “rant” as “self-serving,” “hypocritical, or “Spike being Spike,” John McWhorter took the opportunity to celebrate gentrification (“a once sketchy neighborhood is now quiet and pleasant”) and to castigate Lee as a racist.  To McWhorter, Lee’s analysis and criticism of gentrification has nothing to do with the displacement of Black and Brown families, the eradication of communities of color, or white privilege, but Lee’s own bigotry toward whites.

“What’s really bothering Lee is that he doesn’t like seeing his old neighborhood full of white people,” noted the associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.  “Or whitey, perhaps. Just as ‘thug’ is a new way of saying the N-word in polite society, Lee’s ‘m—–f—– hipster’ epithet for the new whites of Fort Greene is a sneaky way of saying ‘honkey.’

Lee is less a social analyst than a reincarnation of George Jefferson with his open hostility to whites.” So much wrong here; so little time.  But let us say that whereas the commonplace stereotype of Black youth as “thugs,” as “criminals,” as “dangerous,” as “destructive” and “toxic” leads to racial profiling, mass incarceration, and #every28hours, being “m—–f—– hipster” leads to a new brownstone, a new yoga shop, and a triple shot latte.  It leads to more of the same: privilege and opportunity.

El Puente muralBut is the fight against gentrification a lost cause? Some say yes, some say no, and  others are not pausing to engage in that conversation because they are busy being in action.  El Puente is  a 30-year old human rights organization sitting in the heart of Williamsburg Brooklyn, founded by Luis Garden Acosta, with Gino Maldonado and Frances Lucerna.  Their latest initiative is their response. “The Green Light District seeks to flip the disempowerment of gentrification by putting long-time invested residents at the forefront of change in their communities,” explains Anusha Venkataraman, Director of the Green Light District.

“The Southside of Williamsburg has changed radically but is still 46% Latino, but the narrative of ‘gentrification’ leaves out the stories and lived experiences of folks that have been here, invested in this community, and are still here. Through arts and cultural programming in public spaces, such as our annual ¡WEPA! Festival for Performing Arts, our organizing work with artists, and even through community gardening, we collectively amplify the visibility of the Latino community and culture. We also create safe spaces for newer residents to build bridges, relationships, and common ground with those there before them.” This organization with indigenous leadership continues to help sustain and empower the local community residents against the tide threatening to uproot their culture, contribution, and home.

Whiteness not only allows “hipsters” to claim space, transforming communities, but to be immune from the very same forces that have enacting violence for decades: the police.  We need to look no further than a recent piece on The Huffington Post to understand the privileges resulting from gentrification and whiteness.

I spent a day deliverying weedIn “I Spent A Day Delivering Weed In New York City,” Hunter Stuart celebrates the gentrification of Williamsburg and its drug market.  Chronicling the story of “Abe” and “Brian,” Stuart reminds readers over and over again that these are not your “normal” drug dealers: they drink “French-pressed coffee,” they wear suits, deliver drugs on bikes, and are “exceedingly well-mannered.”  Whereas others enter the drug trade because of  – a) single mothers; b) poverty; c) pathological values; d) all of the above – Abe and Brian took up drug dealing (the article actually calls them “couriers”) because they are “risk takers.”

As with their non-drug dealing counterparts that have gentrified neighborhoods throughout New York and communities across the nation, Abe and Brian are imagined as “good” since they are different type of drug dealers.  They are changing the way marijuana is delivered and the stigmas associated drug use/dealing.  According to Abe, they want to show, “That you can be a successful, active, social person, that you can affect people positively and that you can still smoke weed.” They are different.  “Even though what we do is illegal, we’re both morally sound people.  We try to do right by people. That’s what I always tell my mom, anyway.”

Not surprisingly, Abe and Brian (and all their employees) have built up their business without any consequences.  Noting how “things have gone smoothly” and that “no one’s been robbed, and no one’s been arrested,” Stuart makes clear that they can deal drugs without any of the associated the problems that seem to follow others.

“Working for our former boss, I saw around a dozen people get arrested,” Abe says, referring to the three years he and Brian spent as couriers for another New York City cannabis delivery service. “I don’t think we’re going to have that problem. We screen our riders and our clients really well.”

NYPD Weed ArrestsYes, the reason why nobody been arrested or charged with crimes that could lead to up to 15 years is about “screening.”  Not whiteness; not white privilege; not institutional racism, not the ways that racial profiling, and stop and frisk contribute to a racially stratified war on drugs.

As Jessie Daniels notes, New York is the “marijuana arrest capital of the world.” Notwithstanding an almost 40-year old decriminalization law, NY police arrested 50,000 people in 2011 for “possessing or burning marijuana in public view.”  Neither Abe or Brian could be counted amongst those arrested, a fact not unexpected given that 84% of those arrested were people of color.

From 2002-2012, the NYPD arrested about 440,000 people; 85 percent were Black and Latino. Whiteness has its privileges. The Huffington Post profile, not surprisingly, never acknowledges this context or Abe and Brian’s whiteness; the message is that their intelligence and cultural differences rather than racism and white privilege that has made their “business” successful.

Their ability to carry and sell with relative impunity reflects the privileges of whiteness; their ability to be reimagined as “moral” drug dealers, as “righteous” and ultimately beneficial to this gentrified community, tells us all we need to know about whiteness in America.  Their ability to move into neighborhoods like Williamsburg, displacing families and communities of color, generating wealth that they will pass onto the next generation, highlights the value of whiteness; their ability to “get rich with limited possibility of dying” is the personification of whiteness.

Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander

Speaking about the shifting economic landscape of drugs in America, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, notes, “After 40 years of impoverished black men getting prison time for selling weed, white men are planning to get rich doing the same things,” she added. “So that’s why I think we have to start talking about reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused?”

White privilege, gentrification, the media choosing who to admire and who to criminalize are all part of the ways that white supremacy plays out in our day to day.  It’s time to speak up and act, to demand justice and opportunities for all people. We must keep the fight up until Black and Brown life is truly respected and treated as valuable and important as white peoples lives. In the end, this will be the ultimate victory.

Stand up for what’s right

JLove and David

See, Judge, ACT for Racial Justice:

Speak Up

Speak Up to Media: the Huff Post article we referenced is a perfect opportunity for you to point out the obvious mis-step not naming white privilege. Talk about it, blog about it, help people see why white privilege and racism must be named for us to create more justice.

Spike Lee: whether you like him or not, the media circus had a great time calling him out because he spoke the truth about race and gentrification with no sugar coatin’! People of color are often demonized when speaking out about racism. Step up your game and support the truth of the argument! Don’t let Black and Brown people become scapegoats to the larger system of racism.


Check out El Puente’s groundbreaking Green Light District initiative in response to rampant gentrification in Brooklyn.  Donate to them! Spread the word of how this powerful community is proactively working toward sustainability of the residents of color in Williamsburg. http://elpuente.us/content/green-light-district-overview

Action Ideas from El Puente’s GLD Team

  • Get involved in community institutions, and recognize and get to know the culture and community that was there before you arrived
  • Get comfortable with discomfort! Building community with those from different backgrounds and life experiences isn’t easy, but it is important. Tasks the risk of stepping outside your comfort zone, talk to your neighbors, and LISTEN!
  • Invest in public spaces, like community gardens, where community building can happen
  • Invest time and energy in your neighborhood! It builds collective ownership

Join—Calling white folks who want to stand up for racial justice!

Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. Become a member and get involved directly: http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/

About the Authors

David Leonard is a professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race at Washington State University. http://drdavidjleonard.com/

JLove Calderon is a conscious media maker, social entrepreneur, and author of five books, including her latest: Occupying Privilege; Conversations on Love, Race, and Liberation. www.jlovecalderon.com



  1. Before harlem was all black it was all white.
    Bedstuy at one time was all jewish and italian ; then black ; now everything.
    So food for thought for the foolish people who claim neighborhood . They evolve.
    The only constant is change.

    • “Change” is not a neutral, equitable force, like say, *gravity.* the Change of gentrification exerts itself according to profit. The capitalist system that depended upon slavery to be what it is today still depends upon the misery of poor people and people of color to keep grinding out its spoils for those at the top. White developers have a way of shaping the policies of locales. I don’t know the long history of BedStuy, but I do know the history in my own community. Systematically, African American neighborhoods were bull dozed for “highest and best use,” and a white clientele was deliberately attracted via ads for “young artisans.” There are many remedies to fight this, but instead, policy makers flee to saying it was some “unseen hand” of the economy, i.e., a moral neutrality. Meanwhile, large corporations that supported the elections of city commissioners made massive profits as they rented and sold apartments and condos to well funded white folks, As rents and property taxes soared, the black owned businesses folded, businesses that had served generations of the black community there along the two main business avenues that were at the center of these neighborhoods. .

      I feel angry when I hear politicians who look back on their big pushes for development claim that they just didn’t realize what the impacts would be. Oh, really? Because in fact, it’s a pretty simple formula–when a neighborhood develops to attract a more affluent clientele, commercial rents go up, property taxes increase, established residents are “economically evicted,” and the more affluent customers move into the vacant homes, upgrade them, etc.

      To prevent this economic eviction, some locales use strategies like community economic development corporations, effective (as opposed to window dressing) inclusionary zoning, community land trusts, effective (as opposed to underminable) rent control, etc.

      Like homelessness, politicians often pretend that there ARE no options. ‘Don’t blame us! It’s just Adam Smith’s invisible, ruthless, capitalist hand.’ Yet, in social democracies in Scandanavia (for example), decades of economic policies ensured (until recently) a stable middle class, buying power, and hence, a stable society that minimizes victimization based on race and class. . If we’re going to keep capitalism (and, thanks to the propagandists who successfully demonize “socialism” as if were cannibalism, such that the average uninformed person cringes and recoils the moment the word is spoken), then it’s disastrous side effects need to be mitigated–i.e. Keynsianism.

      Instead, austerity thinking and policies have further victimized middle and low income thinking, and once again, if you’re poor, it’s thought to be your fault. No amount of “restorative listening” between the gentry and the displaced will put an end to this. The gentry didn’t cause it; they merely took advantage of it, based on their own self interest. And what value is above self interest? We never even ask. Which is why we never truly challenge the politicians when they say, “what else could we have done? It was just the economic forces…”

      • This is an excellent response. I have lived in two neighborhoods that underwent gentrification (in San Francisco and Los Angeles), and now live in a big expat town/retirement community in Mexico (San Miguel de Allende).

        I haven’t yet followed the links for El Puente, but I will.

        I don’t know if Gentrification (or Capitalism) can be harnesses as a tool for Social Justice, but I hope it can be. I see gentrification as a tool that is exploited by the privileged classes, but it is a tool that can be used by a community’s original population as well. Like many tools it can be used for destruction as well as creation. Destruction is not always bad, either, as it clears the ground for new creations!

    • Southsida says:

      Thanks John. You are making Spike’s point for him. The fact is that Jewish and Italian people left Harlem and other NYC neighborhoods like Williamsburg because they CHOSE to do so. White flight! The City didn’t invest in services in the years when it was Black and Latino families and they continued to make those neighborhoods great places to live. Spike asked it straight up: Why did there have to be an influx of new, mostly white, residents to make the City improve vital services? Knowing your history and asking for new community residents to get involved to strengthen everyone is the opposite of being foolish.

    • mrDaveyd says:

      Those aformentioned neighborhoods were white primarily because of discrimination and when Black folks were finally allowed to move in whites moved out not wanting to be around Black folks.. It was called white flight.. The landowners in many of those places gutted the neighborhoods either by burning down the buildings for insurance money or not up keeping them up which led to them becoming slums.. Hence the name slumlords..

      The only evolution here is that those who ran away grew tired of commuting and wanna come back to the cities they once abandoned..which is not a problem on to itself.. What is a problem is the total lack of respect for folks already there and a on going sense of entitlement which Spike eloquently laid out..Thats compounded by the steep rise in prices forcing many long term residents to leave..The culprit here are corporate landlords as laid out in the recent investigative reports by the Eastbay guardian..

  2. Jeremiah Ross says:

    Well, When I was living in West Oakland (as a white-boy who was a teenager in the Fruitvale district), I was pushing my neighbors to act like foreigners and save up between cousins to own their home. Instead, I was told that I was not welcome. I left for Dallas TX, as I was tired of home invasions and street violence claiming around 8 of my neighbors in 3 months. Most of my black friends left Oakland for Antioch, Fremont, etc. I left Oakland only to have a Whole Foods show up near my 29th st and MLK home shortly thereafter and increased prices. Considering that it is a valuable strip of land in an area between bay and mountains; I consider it my failure to not hold on to property there; but I wanted to raise kids without murder being an everyday thing; and having daddy’s work tools stole in the middle of the night – hence destroying my paycheck the next day. I actually applauded the militants who set liquor stores on fire; thinking that they didn’t go far enough to remove the pimps… that is how distorted my view got. So I have to ask… is a deformative and degenerate culture who first, pushes out the average hard working minority families and then gets pushed out by the free market worth my time? When I moved to Dallas, I lost neighbors to better neighborhoods as well; but for a moment thought I found that “upwardly mobile” haven. I can’t afford to live near the coast and mountains either so…. cry me a river? I wan’t to live near my old friends.. not the people who were left due to their dependency on the government.

  3. Hammtime says:

    John, I think you missed the point of the article. It’s not that neighborhoods change. It’s how privileged people feel they can go anywhere they want, when they want, how they want and yet these same privileged people don’t allow the same behavior/privilege to minorities. As a black neighborhood, police are scarce, blacks are automatically criminalized (85% of marijuana arrests are blacks?) Yet, when whites move in, all the sudden the police come back, garbage is collected. Whites can openly deal drugs but are setup to be the “proper” drug dealers. Even the media is in on supporting it. This isn’t about the normal shifts in neighborhoods, this is about displacing and occupying.

  4. and the problem is, when it transformed into a black neighborhood, government infrastructure crumbled. no garbage pickup, rotting public schools etc. and now that it’s turning white again all that infrastructure’s back. it’s got nothing to do with not wanting to see a mix of people — dude’s asking, why is it that only after these people show up do government services resume and improve?

  5. Until white people can grow up enough to be able to actually acknowledge the reality of white privilege we are going to continue to freak out anytime any person of color points out what’s really going on as Mr. Lee and Ms. Alexander are doing. It’s so embarrassing. And what makes it worse is that while we (especially working class white punk/ queer/ artsy etc) are busy getting all defensive because we are rightly called out as vanguards of gentrification, we are missing- in fact, refusing- crucial opportunities to build solidarity with communities of color and come up with creative, horizontally empowering solutions to the gentrification that will eventually gives us the boot, too.

    As a white working class queer who has finally been gentrified out of the San Francisco neighborhood I (inadvertantly yet undeniably) myself helped gentrify, I only wish we had all been organizing toward sustainable and just solutions ten years ago, as opposed to simply pointing fingers and refusing to acknowledge the depth of our own complicity in the problem. I don’t know what a good solution looks like, but I’m beyond ready to work toward it cause lord knows I’m not trying to live in the suburbs… soon to be the only place left we can afford. How ironic.

  6. This is a complicated issue that has no easy solution. More police can be good, but can be a problem. Community’s with history should be respected, but what about community’s that have devolved to practically 3rd world status? Grocery stores and safety are welcome and needed, and how we get them is more important than having white neighbors with tight jeans living next to me. And with the increasing divisions between rich and poor our neighborhoods will only become more diverse. Lower middle class and poor will live side by side. It seems the problems are complicated and run much deeper than who is moving where.

  7. The main problem with the notion of “white flight,” is that those who promote the idea fall short of addressing the realities involved with WHY this could be the case. As to this idea that “services stopped,” trash etc., I would say that – being an individual who walked these streets on my way to class on a regular basis, it’s simply not true. What is true, is the fact that – more often that not in these areas – trash bins and locations where trash should have been placed for pickup, there was not an ounce of trash, rather, trash was spewed all throughout the streets, was built up in the corners of ally’s and on the sides of the housing units (where young black children spent large majorities of their time). What black’s are truly dealing with, are the repercussions of the messages that resonate through their communities that glorify drug sales, beating and pimping women, and gang violence. It doesn’t take a social scientist to understand how these things negatively effect the overall opinion of a nation (because despite what is thought, the Hispanic community feels the same about blacks as whites do – I’m half Cuban, raised in south Miami, and did my Undergrad in Manhattan) I could have been what most assume hispanics are supposed to be, but I wanted to live a long, successful and enjoyable life, so I did the thing I needed to to get me there, and I am not treated any differently than the white folks that live in my building. The doorman still calls me “Sir,” tells me to have a nice day, my trash is collected, etc. Blacks are seen as unaccountable to anyone, remorseless, carefree and antagonistic – a walk through the upper West Side and Harlem will prove this reality to any skeptic. I am sorry black folks, but listening to fools like Spike Lee – who built an empire by selling you a dream – is only going to set you further apart from society. There will never be an all encompassing solution to all of your “problems,” as you want there to be. You are going to have to change from within, and only then will you be welcomed into the community structure that the rest of society lives in. People like Spike Lee and everyone else who preaches this garbage, is only using the capitalist system that is in place, to make a buck off of you. I’ve read, “The New Jim Crow,” it’s well written, but simply not reality. You want to succeed? Go to school, get an education and present yourselves as normal, competent citizens, as I have.

    • mrDaveyd says:

      This response is not only inaccurate on too many accounts to list.. It is also ignorant..Be man enough to own up to your biases and disdain for folks who you either envy, fear or resentful of.. Don’t insult the intelligent of others with weak justification.. lastly try traveling the country a bit and afterwards the world, that might inform you little bit better if you actually believe what you just wrote..SMDH

      • Haha, you’ve proven my point in it’s entirety. I lay out realities, and all you can do is tell me to recognize my inferiority, compared to a people I either hate, am jealous of or don’t like for some reason – your messages and responses are always a revolving door. The reality is, though, that all the statistics, comparisons, numbers and opinions, negate all of the conspiracy theories you try to push. I’ve been to war, my friend, spent time in Europe, West Africa and China, and have lived all over the continental United States. I am engaged to a Puerto Rican woman, born and raised in Puerto Rico, educated at George Washington University, and now Yale, and am an older brother to two half black siblings; don’t assume I am not well versed in certain areas, when all you know of me are my words. Take a walk through Harlem, or Yonkers, and tell me what you see.. don’t worry, I’ll wait. What I saw, was a culture that glorified violence against women, drug dealing, crime and much more. As a man, can you say that you would risk raising your family in that kind of a situation? Do you sincerely believe that I am going to risk the lives of my wife and children in an effort to satisfy your little social experiment that would see you force good, descent families, who adhere to the law and abide by acceptable social norms, into the same neighborhoods with likes of those wandering the streets of Yonkers or Harlem? Those gambling over dice, killing eachother for $20 and knocking random people out for fun? Or I suppose your message would have us believe that it’s the racist government that makes these kids sucker punch people from behind, or ride around shooting people for fun, right? Pathetic. You’ve gone from descent people, hard working, respectable people, to a lazy, whiny culture that does nothing but glorify violence, sexism and illiteracy. So please don’t fool yourselves into thinking that it’s because of your skin color that no one wants to live in the same neighborhood as you, it’s what your skin color represents on a larger scale. I have nothing against you at all, the world is just tired of hearing you complain without actually making an effort to change your downward spiral – and it’s only getting worse for you, not better. Everyone else in this world is capable, and for some reason it’s the black community, and people like this looser, Spike Lee, that want to blame everyone else because the majority of the black community is a pr nightmare, and are to consumed with their own self pitty to do anything positive. Look at you, you spend your life trying to tell people that white people are racist because they don’t want to risk being around your people. Is that racist? Or would they rather just deal with your b*tching, and not risk their families? Have you walked around outside of Yale lately? Care to take a guess what color the 40 teenagers that hang out at the bus stop, selling drugs, throwing rocks at people and tagging private property all day are? I’ll give you 10 guesses. Would you care to take a guess as to the overwhelming color of teenagers and young adults who were participating in a party of over 200 people, that spilled into the streets a few weeks ago, during which over a dozen cars and local shops were vandalized, and a young teen was shot in an argument over a parking spot? I suppose you’d prefer those white folks (or me and my fiance for that matter) give up their good jobs and descent communities to come be a part of that garbage? It’s an epidemic in your communities, my friend, and the continued denial of the black community is only going to further separate you from everyone else. Reality. Take a look around. We could care less, but when we see you trying to infect young blacks like my brother and sister, with your Spike Lee garbage, people get upset.

        • mrDaveyd says:

          Yep, what you just penned is classic diatribe.. No you have not been all over the world. That’s a lie and you being engaged to a Puerto Rican woman means nothing if indeed you are.. I doubt that’s true… But you keep trying.. Here’s a hint try reading another set of talking points.. change things around a bit, this will make what you write sound a bit more authentic… Just so you know, ‘having half black siblings is a common ‘talking point’. In fact its actually a running joke. If I had time I’d link to a few of the ‘concerned folks’ who have used that in their rants.. Again my friend, work on your confidence, your over compensating… It’ll be ok. SMDH..

        • Jimmy you are giving way too much attribution to DaveyD and spike lee or any other supposed leader. they have influence on a small slice of progressive black Media and in davey d’s case a progressive politically active mostly people of color in Bay Area. They are the underdog. Is there a radicalism in his message? yes. But get real dude you cant put it on individual its too easy a formula. The worse the environment the greater effect it has on someone. the economic and cultural legacy conditions have the greatest effect on individuals. This Box checking idealism like saying your Cuban so you had same experience of other Latinos, or married to Puerto Rican doesn’t validate your opinions. You get to be a crossover shit, I love Lucy had a cuban. Cuban Americans are like the richest Latino sub group with legacy of upward mobility. Middle class industriousness is a beautiful thing and part of being middle class is hating on upper and lower classes for their decadence. but the challenge of providing true transformative opportunity to the lesser fortunate and to eliminate basic structural barriers like access to services is the true challenge instead of scapegoating. I learned a lot by reading! Since your so observant read Julius Wilson and sudhir venkatesh and you can see how conditions create values.

  8. Rudy Eugene says:

    Only Tumblr’s invention of white guilt could make people dumb enough to actually complain about crime rates dropping.

  9. It’s because they don’t deal in the street or smoke walking in the street. If you think you’re being targeted then don’t do sh*t in the view of people. Plain and simple.


  1. […] Piece originally appeared at Davey D’s Hip Hop and Politics […]