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How Much Racial Displacement Really Happens?

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"How Much Racial Displacement Really Happens?"

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I used to live in DC’s U Street neighborhood and was fascinated by the local history. Essentially it was a key commercial main street for the city’s black community during the Jim Crow era, then fell apart under the triple pressures of riots, desegregation, and urban disinvestment and then has been reinvented since the opening of the U Street Metro station as a substantially whiter neighborhood. Lydia DePillis’ profile of Sandra Butler-Truesdale ads a lot to my understanding and also prompted some further research with this remark:

Butler-Truesdale has a multifaceted take on gentrification. On the one hand, she mourns the loss of African American cultural dominance on U Street. When developer Chris Donatelli—whom she calls “my good friend”—built the Ellington apartments, she asked him whether anybody who looked like the building’s namesake would be able to live there. At the same time, however, she doesn’t blame white people for black displacement.

“People say a lot of stuff, and half the time they don’t really know what’s happening,” she says. “You have to look at the fact that most of this is about the economy. It’s about the fact that we live in these neighborhoods and did not actually buy property…When you do that, you have no real anchor, and people can do what they want to do to you.”

You certainly do see a lot of displacement on a micro level. But I wonder on a bigger scale how much racial displacement really happens. Here’s some DC demographic trends:

It seems to me that by far the largest degree of black population decline happened during the 1970-2000 era when the white population was slowly falling from an already low level. It’s true that the 2000-2007 period saw a small increase in the white population and a small further decline in the black population, but this “displacement” phase looks like a tiny blip in the scheme of things. The 2007 white population is about even with the 1970 white population, but the city contains about 100,000 fewer African-Americans than it did then. Those people aren’t gone because anyone displaced them. I assume they’re gone largely because declining housing discrimination made it much more possible for black people to move to the suburbs.

At any rate, the striking fact about DC is that, like many older American cities, it has many fewer residents in 2010 than it had 50 or 60 years ago even though the overall population of the country has increased dramatically. Given appropriate policies, there should be plenty of room for large net increases in population and not just displacement. But that requires continued investments in transit infrastructure and updated zoning codes that allow developers to build high density structures and no more parking than the market demands.

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