THE BLOG

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

03/19/2014 05:45 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2014

Co-authored with JLove Calderon

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!

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.

But 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 percent 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.

In "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."

Yes, 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 percent 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.

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

Piece originally appeared at Davey D's Hip Hop and Politics

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See, Judge, ACT for Racial Justice:

Speak Up

Speak Up to Media: The HuffPost article we referenced is a perfect opportunity for you to point out the obvious misstep 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.

Knowledge: 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.

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/

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