On Twits and Myopia

This morning, I read the City Paper’s in-depth interview with Courtland Milloy, the Washington Post’s curmudgeon-type columnist who veritably exploded many of the thinly-shellacked issues of generation-gap ressentiment and racial animus in the District of Columbia after its September 2010 mayoral primary. This tendency is something he dances around, albeit inelegantly, in passages like this:

“Well, I don’t know why people think I have a problem with the influx itself,” he says. “Not to be deliberately provocative, but that is the white view, it’s white-centered. ‘Why are you opposed to us moving in?’ But nothing about, ‘Why are you concerned about the way black people are being kicked out?’ People are being displaced, and sometimes run over roughshod. To me, that’s the issue. But depending on who gets to frame the issue—who gets to pose the question, set the framework—it becomes, you know, what’s wrong with white people moving in?”

I know, at least on some rational level, that I should be checking my privilege here, that I’m skirting dangerously close to a number of “post-racial” white privilege tropes like “if you don’t educate me how can I learn” or “talking about race is divisive” or “you’re racist against whites” and tone arguments and what have ye. But I really would like to talk about his use of the word “myopic”.

“Myopic”, I would wager, is the idea that working- and middle-class whites in neighborhoods like Petworth and H Street NE should be the target of contempt, not for being “twits” (though some are indeed that, and some of those are definitely myopic) but for having the temerity to move into, and even attempt to materially improve, the squalid neighborhoods they can afford, if only because African-Americans are somehow inherently more deserving tenants.

“Myopic” would be the belief that the suburbs are necessarily better places for working- and middle-class whites, even though they are not actually good for wide swaths of people, because of social fictions about the nature of people who occupy them. (This is particularly galling coming from a resident of Prince George’s County, which has steadfastly refused to organize land use in a way that would allow its existing transit infrastructure to work in a self-sustaining fashion, in favor of cargo-cultic sprawl and totally atomized new-urbanist theme parks like National Harbor and Konterra.)

“Myopic” is the notion that the white influx is absurd, petty or inexplicable, even in light of the fact that many of those incoming whites, particularly on the lower end of the economic spectrum, are sexual minorities who not only face greater threats of retaliation in the suburbs – particularly Virginia localities we are exhorted to “move back” to even if we have never lived there – but are also increasingly exposed to violent retaliation for having the gall to live in neighborhoods that non-residents still patrol for any kind of unauthorized sexuality or gender expression. (Actually, rather than “myopic”, I would prefer to use either the word heterosexist, in case the possibility hadn’t even occurred to him, or homophobic, if he believes these concerns are not particularly meaningful or relevant.)

Even more “myopic” is the continuing description of the “influx” as monolithically white at all, when the demographic changes affecting neigborhoods like Columbia Heights have made those neighborhoods browner and more Latin@, many of whom are working-class or even destitute by Milloy’s standards. Do they deserve contempt, or is this again not particularly relevant to the critique?

I am trying very hard not to take a racist perspective on this diatribe, and probably failing. But none of this is meant to deny the reality that many African-Americans in greater Washington have been displaced by gentrification in a way that is genuinely oppressive, and resentment is understandable. At the same time, however, many members of the “white influx” – not nearly all of whom are white – have come to escape their own circumstances of oppression, the threat of physical violence, the inability to express their sexual or gender variance, or a lack of economic opportunity in peripheral regions. And this is the heart of what annoys me about Milloy’s rant: he appears to be conflating an aesthetic critique with socioeconomic realities. I hate hipsters as much as anyone, but I don’t resent them in the sense that they have less of a right to live here than any particular subset of “native” Washingtonians.

Being a dickhead might not be as cool as dickheads think, but it’s not what’s oppressing people. Poor and difficult decisions about how to use limited and highly restricted parcels of land (both in the District, with its height limits, and in Prince George’s, with its orthogonal transit non-orientation), combined with the lack of opportunities provided the urban and suburban poor trapped in sprawl, is a big part of the problem. The physical landscapes, language, and unspoken assumptions of an auto-centric society need to be undone as part and parcel with any urban system of social justice that seeks equity and hopes to uplift all oppressed parties.

Anything less than that is, well, myopic.

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~ by J.D. Hammond on December 6, 2010.

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