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

From Miley to Macklemore: The Privilege Spectrum

miley-cyrus-2014Miley fatigue is in full effect, but we feel it is important that we as white people speak up, and hold our folks accountable to their racist behavior. The burden far too often falls on people of color to respond, to explain, to teach, to protest.

This year’s Video Music Awards were yet another historical moment where whiteness reigned supreme.  Black and Brown cultural creators and innovators were for the most part invisible, or worse, used as evidence of acceptance or racial progress. Jon Caramanica highlights how the VMAs were a window into a larger history within American popular culture:  “Mr. Timberlake was on trend in way, though: this was a banner year for clumsy white appropriation of black culture who were recipients of three awards, including best hip-hop video.”

In this context, the question of appropriation matters – power, privilege, stereotypes, and centuries of racism play through both the appropriation and the resulting responses.   To be clear, we are not against white folks embracing the art and culture that speaks truth to their hearts and souls, as hip-hop culture is still our first love, rather we are advocating for acknowledgement, accountability, and action. We are calling for examination of how stereotypes and blackness within the white imagination are often present within these moments of appropriation.

MacklemoreOn the privilege spectrum, we find ourselves appreciating Macklemore at a certain level, who is beginning, by at least acknowledging, in his lyrics, that white privilege is one of the reasons he is successful. Honest and courageous.  In a recent interview, he noted,  “I do think we have benefited from being white and the media grabbing on to something. A song like ‘Thrift Shop‘ was safe enough for the kids….  the fact that I’m a white guy, parents feel safe.’”

His rhetorical and lyrical stance doesn’t mean he isn’t cashing in on his privileges.  The awards, the celebration of him as “exceptional” and different, the erasure of artists like 9th Wonder, Azealia Banks, Murs, Angel Haze, dead prez or Jasiri X from discussions of independent and conscious artists, and his popularity among white youth all speak to the centrality of whiteness.  For him, and for us, the next step is to take that and be accountable by being in action for racial justice. Using his platform to impact the movement toward racial justice.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Thicke and Cyrus, along with their media collaborators, which not surprisingly have left Thicke (just as it left JT out of the post Super Bowl panics) out harm’s way.  They are the embodiment of a history of not just appropriation and theft, but the ease to which artists are allowed and rewarded for pushing the boundaries.  “White artists have the privilege to be ‘ratchet’ but still be accepted by mainstream media and seen as safe and marketable,” states Jasiri X.  “It’s been going on as long as we’ve invented different genres of music, but I’m glad at least now we’re having a discussion about it. Let’s not forget that this current cultural appropriation began with the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of the Native Americans.”

Gender Privilege Takes A Bow

Robin Thicke-Miley CyrusIt’s telling that Robin Thicke seems to be getting a pass amid all the media discussions of Miley. We have seen this before in so many contexts but yet again the sexual performances of men are judged by different standards as those of women.  Despite the sight of a 36 year old married white men grinding up against a 20-year old white women, the outrage and dismay has been directed at her.  In the American landscape White + male means go directly to the bank and don’t pass go.  Miley on the other hand is forced to stop for a media tongue lashing before heading to the bank.

None of this is to say that Miley Cyrus deserves a pass, especially in light of her co-staring role in Appropriation-polooza the VMAs.  There is much to be said about how she, Macklemore, Robin Thicke, and Justin Timberlake all seem to be celebrated for their connection to and performance of cultural productions tied to blackness.  Yet, unlike their black counterparts inside and outside the music industry, they are not castigated for dysfunctional culture, or scapegoated for white social ills.   There is much to be critical of regarding Miley’s performance and the role of MTV here (putting her face in the booty of the African American female dancer; her history with twerking; and her recent interviews saying she loves “hood” music). This isn’t just about appropriation or even the performance of black culture that is rooted in the white imagination.  Rather it is about double standards.  It is the celebration of white artists amid a culture that denigrates African Americans who partake in these cultural productions.  It is about a culture that profits and privileges Miley and Thicke, but cites sagging pants or sexual dancing as evident of dysfunction and pathology.  To talk about “appropriation” and the centrality of privilege and anti-black racism requires also talking about whiteness

The panic, from Fox to MSNBC, is wrapped up in American history – it is where race and gender, where misogyny and white supremacy, intersect.  It reflects the fear resulting from contact or connection with what is seen as blackness.  Whereas Robin Thicke doesn’t need protection from blackness, from black male sexuality, and from the cultural pollutants found in hip-hop, Miley needs saving.  Taking their cues from history, the patriarchal media is thus intervening to save Miley from blackness.  “Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. Cyrus is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention,” writes Jody Rosen.  “Her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of ‘the hood.’”

The calls for intervention, and the fears about messages to “the kids” (whose kids, anyway?) are connected to her imagined proximity to an imagined blackness.  Once good little Hannah Montana has been corrupted by the influence of hip-hop and blackness.  From girl-next-door to girl-grinding- a-poll.  The idea that blackness is pollutant reveals the level of stereotypes and why Miley needs help.  Her fall from role model is seen as a consequence of cultural integration.  The fears are thus about protecting her assigned white feminine purity and those who want to be like Miley.


Not surprising we didn’t see a movement toward justice on the VMAs.  But we can hope, we can speak out, we can be accountable and hold others accountable, and we can act. What we would love to see with white performers, whether it be Macklemore or JT, who are benefiting directly and indirectly from white privilege and racism, is action: Use your platform and your voice to honor and pay respect to the people and cultures who originated the art form. Let’s not allow what happened to jazz and rock n roll happen to hip-hop and R n’ B.  Let’s not turn artistry rooted in the black community into spaces of stereotypes, appropriated by white artists who reap the benefits while African Americans suffer the consequences.

We are working toward a tipping point where the majority of white people can recognize we all still benefit unfairly from our skin color, and that we all have a stake in ending this injustice.  We can only hope that the outrageous acts we witnessed at the VMA’s push more of us to demand change, to stand up for justice—from cultural appropriation to dehumanizing stereotypes, from mistreatment of immigrants to stop and frisk, from the criminalization of black and brown youth to the prison industrial complex. It is all connected. It is all on the spectrum of injustice.

Stand up for what’s right.

Thanks to Rosa Clemente, Jonathan Fields, and Kwame Holmes all of who inspired this piece in important ways.

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

Copyright August 2013