The DC Gentrification Scam: The Setup

There’s an opinion among some residents of Washington, DC that the city is a colony of the United States. It has no voting representation in Congress, the nation’s national legislature, and its funding is almost completely dependent legislators who usually do not live in the city and certainly do not represent the interests of those who do live in DC. Indeed, most of them represent constituents hundreds and thousands of miles away; constituents whose concerns do not include life in Washington, DC.

A recurring theory on the Left considers African-American residents of the United States to be colonial subjects. This theory, arguably first presented by Black members of the US Communist Party in the late 1920s, considered Black residents of the US to be a nation within a nation, had economic relationships with the US economy like those of colonial subjects around the world and had little to no political power. Therefore, they had a right to self-determination like any other colony. The original location of such a colony would be six US southern states—a so-called Black Belt. In the 1960s, the Black Panther Party refined this concept, acknowledging that the Black population in the United States was no longer mostly in those states. This change was due in large part to the northern and western migration of millions of US residents looking for work in the previous decades; work which was to be found in the cities of the industrial north and the west coast. Nonetheless, African-Americans remained an internal colony. Currently, the Republic of New Afrika continues to promote the idea of a separate Black nation in the southeastern United States.

Currently, Washington, DC’s population is almost fifty percent Black, with almost forty percent of the population identifying as non-Hispanic white. In the 1960s and 1970s, the city was predominantly African-American. The shift in the demographics represents the gentrification of the city over the past three or four decades. As Tanya Maria Golash-Boza describes in her 2023 book Before Gentrification: The Creation of DC’s Racial Wealth Gap, the reasons for this shift involve politics, racism, intentional displacement, and the policy of mass incarceration. The unique nature of the DC economy—its dependence on federal monies, its lack of much industry, and the role affirmative action played at one time—means that DC’s gentrification is not necessarily as obvious by observing the skin tones of the gentrifiers. However, it is quite apparent in terms of the shops and restaurants that rise up like mushrooms after a rain in gentrifying districts.

Frantz Fanon noted in his book The Wretched of the Earth that in the colonies, the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. In other words, the way the economy is set up determines in many ways what jobs people will get, where they will live and how their neighborhoods will be administered by the power structure. In colonies, it is common that the colonizers will live in the nicest regions of the colony, the native administrators will live in not-quite-as-nice places, etc. and the colonized working people and peasants will live in poverty. This superstructure is determined by wealth and power, much as it is in most US cities.

This is the essence of gentrification. Regions of a city become impoverished when decent paying jobs are moved elsewhere. These blocks then become havens for criminal activity. Many families that had mortgages on their residences can no longer afford the mortgage. Consequently, the banks foreclose on the buildings. Quite often, the units are taken off the market and allowed to sink into disrepair, becoming squats, drug dens or just empty shells where only rodents feel at home. Eventually, some combination of banks, developers and government decide to renovate the buildings (or raze them and build new ones), which they then sell to higher-income buyers. In response, politicians began to focus on these neighborhoods again, building libraries, enhancing police presence, fixing streets, and so on.

Of course, this continuum does not operate in a vacuum. As Golash-Boza emphasizes in her discussion, what happened in Washington, DC had a lot to do with who runs the Federal government. When Ronald Reagan and his neoliberal crew of austerity champions took power in 1981, the number of community centers, after-school programs, basketball courts and other public services and facilities diminished. So did good-paying jobs. Into this vacuum came the highly addictive substance known as crack. Without going into the complicity of various Reagan administration officials and police of all ranks in the spread of the crack trade, let it be said that the drug’s entry into DC was alarming and quite ubiquitous. Combining personal tales and statistics, the author of Before Gentrification reveals a city where profits, violence, drug abuse, corruption and despair blended together and created desolation and fear. Instead of addressing the reasons for this catastrophe and reopening the community centers, restarting the after school programs and so on, the authorities decided to invest in expanding the system of incarceration and parole. This expansion made a lot of money for certain investors and builders, some who most certainly also made money from gentrifying the neighborhoods destroyed by the one-two punch of Reaganomic neoliberalism and the crack epidemic.

Underlying the discussion in the text is the fact of what is known as racial capitalism, a term first coined by Cedric Robinson that describes a system which places race at the center of how capitalism structures society. Let me provide a quick description of how that works. Capitalism destroys neighborhoods and the relationships neighborhoods create by displacing lower income homeowners with upscale ones. Racial capitalism in the US destroys Black neighborhoods by displacing Black homeowners with upscale mostly white homeowners. The path taken to get to this point of gentrification is usually both intentional and the natural path of capitalism, which is certainly not natural in the essential meaning of the word.

Golash-Boza grew up in the Petworth district of Washington, DC. She went to DC public schools and hung with her friends at clubs and on the corner in the 1980s. Her childhood informs her narrative and helps focus her interpretation of the data she provides. Her anger at the displacement going on in Washington, DC is directed at those in power who decided to invest in incarceration instead of working to prevent young people turning to illegal activities by re-opening community centers and programs designed to do exactly that. Her book makes a forceful argument that this was somewhat intentional and certainly preventable.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: