When we think of a single political force—such as racism, capitalism, or sexism—we tend to think of it as an isolated machine that pumps out discrimination. But while each of these forces can work alone, most often they do not.
In my view, one of the most insidious of these oppressive mechanisms is gentrification: the synergistic, destructive social process of kicking poor people of color out of their homes and into the streets.
Some politicians, developers, and others advocating for gentrification defend it as expanding (or even improving) the community. While it’s true that these projects add “value” to a neighborhood, they do so at the cost of the people who live there, sometimes in the most literal sense. The result can be foreclosure, reconstruction, or someone deciding that they want to build condos on what happens to be your apartment.
To me, gentrification is the force that allows all other oppression to prosper. It’s the oxygen to the fire of bigotry. Gentrification allows the powerful and privileged to repossess land based on socioeconomic factors—a dream of the crony capitalist. And it makes it much easier to speed up the cycles of acquisition and consumption on the backs of poor people who are getting their homes repossessed, torn down, rebuilt, and sold. The land they live on is literally consumed.
Consumption plays a major role in the gentrification process. Why would society deem it acceptable to tear down the homes of one group to build homes for another? I’d say it’s because of our desire for wealth. We are bought, sold, and consumed.
In our consumerist society, your value as a person is inherently tied to what you can buy, what you can spend, and what you have. People who do not consume or people who don’t have enough money to over-consume are deemed expendable. You’re much less likely to feel and show empathy for someone if you view them as a manifestation of wealth, and, as a result, you’re more inclined to discriminate against them.
"In our consumerist society, your value as a person is inherently tied to what you can buy, what you can spend, and what you have. People who do not consume . . . are deemed expendable."
What many people don’t understand about oppression is the intersectionality. The mechanisms of oppression kick into overdrive when you’re being held back by multiple factors (poor, disabled, person of color, queer). Because, isn’t it “easier” to discriminate against a poor person if they’re also a person of color or if they’re homeless?
The United States is a nation of haves and have nots. When there are still half a million homeless people in the country, and when some of those people make national headlines for having to defecate in public, it would be reasonable to suggest that America could do more about homelessness. A nation that is so obsessed with real estate and high-quality living can’t even do the minimum to support people who just want a shack with a roof and running water.
Today we find ourselves, as a nation, dragging the ball and chain of wealth inequality. But why? And what is the role of the individual—you and me—in preventing gentrification and other manifestations and propellers of wealth inequality? Do we have a say in our communities as to who gets forced to live somewhere else? Or do we stand in front of the bulldozer and try to save our neighborhoods?
I say that, in a predatory socioeconomic system, we are schooling fish. We must join together and form a larger fish to survive: meet with developers, take direct action, and announce our right to exist outside of commodity. If those in power aren't picking up what we put down, we come back twice as hard. We have a right to live in our own homes and communities—but if developers have their way, they’ll most likely choose the product over the people.
Your right to exist is not guaranteed if you live on land that can be bought and sold against your will. So remember to defend what you have, before it's consumed.
Josmar Torres has lived within one square mile for nearly his whole life, in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. He is a passionate advocate for issues facing his community and believes in the power—and necessity—of each person choosing to do one thing, every day: whether that’s voting, handing out flyers, or using your voice in some other way. Josmar has helped organize others in his community around housing insecurity and other challenges in his neighborhood, and he was included in a 2015 Huffington Post article, "Do Feel-Good Slogans like ‘Resilient New Orleans’ and ‘Boston Strong’ Mask Income Inequality"?