the danger of exceptional thinking: gentrification

I helped compile a panel of speakers for a discussion on important issues facing the people of Nashville last year.  I was most excited to hear from an African American woman who is the CEO of a transformative non-profit in town.  Her organization helps kids from the inner city understand themselves as the valuable children of God.  They accomplish this by providing consistent interaction with adults who love them, celebrating the wisdom of God through academic tutoring, and the creativity and beauty of God through training them in fine arts.

Because she is an expert in kids who live in the inner city, she has now reluctantly become an expert-of-sorts in the effects of gentrification on such neighborhoods.  She has seen what happens when we decide the profits of one group of investors are exceptional, and more important, than the history, jobs, schools and livability of people who are hanging off the edge of society.  She has seen what happens when we decide the comfort level and entertainment needs of the upper class are held as exceptional in a city’s landscape.  When homes are destroyed so hipsters can take over a neighborhood and walk to dinner.  

As this panel was forming, I asked this speaker to send the title of her talk so slides could be prepared.  The organizer, responding to those of us involved, presented her title, “Gentrification, Does the Rising Tide Lift All Boats?”, and then felt the need to clarify, saying, “What she calls gentrification, most of us know as urban renewal.” His response exposes the lack of understanding about the issues that face our cities, and of the changes damaging those in our urban center.

This is a chronic problem in much of wealthy white America: If I don’t see it or know about it then it must not exist. 

A white, upper class man calls this process “urban renewal” because his notions of “urban” are that those centers were abandoned decades ago, and that only crime, poverty and homelessness stayed behind.  This type of thinking comes from a place that privileges his perspective as authoritative, or exceptional, rather than knowing the limits of his experience.  This is a chronic problem in much of wealthy white America: If I don’t see it or know about it then it must not exist.  A majority culture perspective might sound something like this: Urban centers were dead and dying after we left them behind during the integration movement of the Civil Rights Era.  Now that we want to return to these centers, we are only bringing “good” along with us.  Hence the term, “renewal.” 

From a marginalized perspective, gentrification is the result of investors and city officials who have decided the needs of the few with plenty are exceptionally important, while the needs of the many with nothing are not. 

At its core though, gentrification is about displacement and renaming.  In the same way that the organizer wanted to rename “gentrification” with “renewal,” the magical genteel transformation of a city only happens when “wealth and whiteness” replace “marginalized others.”  Wealth and whiteness, since the founding of our country, have a way of overlooking poverty, people of color, and systemic injustice.  From a marginalized perspective, gentrification is the result of investors and city officials who have decided the needs of the few with plenty are exceptionally important, while the needs of the many with nothing are not.  Gentrification does bring renewal to cities, and an influx of investment and people with money to spend along with it.  However, this practice of prioritizing the needs of a few as “exceptional”, and therefore as vital to the city, has some devastating implications:

First, gentrification necessitates displacement.  Brown moves out so white can move in.  Yes, when homes have been owned by people of color for generations, they are often complicit in selling their own property.  However, lest we get on a “their choice” high horse, remember that the vast majority of such sells are below market value and a small fraction of the expected profits when the property is rebuilt or renovated.  Further, for many families this is their only asset, and many do not possess the networks needed to demand a fair deal and then to use the windfall wisely.  It is also worth noting that many of these folks are relentlessly pestered with multiple calls, letters and visits per week from pressingly eager profiteers.  Finally, families who sell or are displaced when their rental or governmental homes are torn down are most often the very people least able to accommodate the changes such a move necessitates. 

In my urban—formally perceived as ghetto—neighborhood, there were dozens of small rental homes, multiple bus stops, good sidewalks, 5 churches, a park with a community center, 2 grocery stores, and 2 drugstores within a ½ mile radius.  For a family who can only afford low rent or to live in a home paid for long ago, who might not have a car or multiple cars, these assets are not just perks but absolutely vital!  Such urban realities are necessary to function for their kids, to get to work, to get by. 

When these folks are displaced, they cannot simply move to a new place.  When gentrification moves at an accelerated pace due to investors, these families have to move 10-30 miles away to find comparable rent.  In Nashville, the communities absorbing such displaced persons do not offer bus lines, neighborhood centers, and walkable grocery stores.  Why would they?  These communities are far outside the urban center, where such commodities are superfluous.  In short, displacement is not just inconvenient or awkward for the poor who no longer recognize their neighborhoods.  Rather, it usually initiates a cycle of loss, including but not limited to one’s job, method of transportation, dependable groceries, neighborhood school, community center, and church.  It is devastating.

These experiences can undermine the deadly grip that stereotyping has on our society, replacing assumptions based on ignorance with nuanced understandings based on real relationships. 

Second, even though this trend might be inevitable, the way in which we experience and even trumpet gentrification has devastating implications because of the speed with which it moves.  When one or two white or wealthy families decide to move into an urban neighborhood, they are typically motivated by a few common passions.  They often have rejected a life oriented around fear and protection.  They often are passionate about pursuing perspectives different from their own.  They usually have a love for restoring broken or old things.  This process, even if it initiates the eventual displacement of the majority of the original residents, can take decades.  And these decades see beautiful, awkward, hard, enlightening integration.  Slow, honest relationships with people not like each other.  New-found understandings of what neighborliness is.  These experiences can undermine the deadly grip that stereotyping has on our society, replacing assumptions based on ignorance with nuanced understandings based on real relationships.  Gentrification might indeed still dominate an area, but it takes time, and that time can foster a new foundation to society that will radically change the way we relate to one another. 

All too often, our versions of “urban renewal” in no way resemble the painstaking description above.  Instead, a handful of investors, armed with profiteering builders and real estate agents, move into a neighborhood like a swarm of locusts.  This does not produce slow change infused with knowing relationships; it is rather characterized by entire blocks being knocked down, while fast, tightly-packed houses replace them.  And then, as a reward, families with no passion for or appreciation of the urban center and its place as a refuge for marginalized people pay over-asking prices to move into this manufactured version of the American dream.  This is not slow gentrification.  This is displacing the poor to make room for the rich on steroids.  People, their livelihoods, their culture and the one place they call their own in American society is lost in the process. 

As a people who say we are committed to the common good, who believe in the power of community, we must examine how our addiction to our exceptionality results in making decisions with no awareness of our impact on others.  If we believe all people are created in God’s image, then we must consider those people when we think about where we live, how we make a living, and how we contribute to displacing others.

the danger of exceptional thinking: parenting

Recently, on NPR, a commercial aired for a private, Christian school in Nashville whose primary pledge is to help discover and celebrate what makes each of its students unique.  On the face of it, this is a fabulous thing.  We all want to be special.  If you scratch a bit below the surface though, this message becomes absurd.  This school is promising to identify, distinguish, evoke and celebrate the absolute uniqueness of all 600 of its students.  How is this even possible, I ask?!

Nevertheless, this ridiculous message resonates deeply with parents all over Nashville.  Not only do most of us want to be special, we also insist our kids are special.  We cater to them in sports, music, school choice, bedroom color, learning style and life trajectory in the hunt for, and then announcement of, their discovered uniqueness.  Parents move heaven and earth to get each child into the perfect school.  Not college; elementary school.  Moreover, we often treat participation in sports as all-important, as if each child’s primary identity will be shaped by the narrative of this miniature athletic “career.”  Perspective is lost, even though most of these “careers” phase out not after 5 seasons in the pros, but before 8th grade.  The obsessions with sports—the pressure, time and money—are easy to mock, but they are merely a symptom.  The problem I want to elucidate and explore runs much deeper, and dictates many of the expectations we place upon our children.

One of the central problems of the exceptional paradigm is that it destroys community.  One’s value is only found in the context of being other than, or more accurately, better than.

The import of this kind of thinking and parenting is that every child is exceptional, and their worth is only found in regularly manifesting their exceptionality.  This is dangerous for several reasons, a few of which I will address here.  First, this assertion of exceptionality implicitly and explicitly applies overwhelming pressure on many kids.  There is a frantic look in their eyes, for they know they wear the mantle of “Exceptional.”  If a child is as exceptional as they’ve been told they are, it only follows that they MUST make the honor roll, or start on the soccer team, or be an outstanding leader, or be an artistic savant, or get into the school that is designed to perfectly draw out their unique awesomeness.  Are we kidding?  We have all seen the numbers of rising anxiety in elementary school aged children, not to mention the angst and increasing trends of self-harm in high school students.  Instead of reminding them that their exceptionality must be demonstrated with concrete evidence for which they are responsible and by which they will be measured, what if we instead used every opportunity to show them the nature of our love for them? What if, instead of demanding a demonstration (for this is what we communicate when we involve them in so many activities), we demonstrated to them that our love and support of them exists outside of their effort or ability to prove themselves worthy? What if our love for them reflected God’s first—unearned—love for them?

Entitlement is the natural side effect of raising a child to think she is exceptional.  We cannot reasonably expect our kids not to be self-absorbed when our every move is geared toward proving how exceptional they are to the world.

Second, telling kids they are exceptional encourages self-absorbed living.  If kids are exceptional, then they must reach their full potential at all costs!  Of course the whole family should suffer to make sure each child is driven to and from the school designed perfectly for them, the year round sport at which only they can excel, or the choir in which only they best sing.  They are exceptional!  Entitlement is the natural side effect of raising a child to think she is exceptional.  We cannot reasonably expect our kids not to be self-absorbed when our every move is geared toward proving how exceptional they are to the world.  If, however, we instead help them understand how their gifts, talent, genius and interests are part of a communal whole, they might catch a vision for collaborating with others to ensure the flourishing of the community, instead of only accomplishing their own goals.

Compassion and empathy are skills needed in order to engage those with different perspectives; indeed, these are the seeds of leadership, not evidence of weakness.

Third, this emphasis on being exceptional reduces their ability to be compassionate and empathetic.  They are not like other kids; they are exceptional.  One of the central problems of the exceptional paradigm is that it destroys community.  One’s value is only found in the context of being other than, or more accurately, better than.  When this is the framework, empathy and compassion cannot exist.  At worst, we are raising our kids to fight for their primacy at all costs; at best we are teaching our kids to offer condescending pity to their non-exceptional peers.  Imagine how the fabric of our society could be strengthened if we actively parented in a way that celebrated points of connection in the midst of diversity, rather than diminishing any contribution that comes from another.  Compassion and empathy are skills needed in order to engage those with different perspectives; indeed, these are the seeds of leadership, not evidence of weakness.

My wonderful parents were masters of raising exceptional children.  They just couldn't help themselves; they thought the four of us hung the moon!  We were told, with no hesitation, that we were simply more gifted than others, and our childhoods were magical.  Our assumed exceptionality was hidden under the guise of humility and “to whom much is given much is expected;” nevertheless, the message stuck.  Indeed, the motto of our elite school was Principes non homine: Leaders, not men.  This community was so committed to the exceptionality of each child that these messages were thought necessary to help a child reach her potential, not ideas that might create little arrogant, self absorbed monsters.  My parents mitigated all the praising of us by leading remarkably service- and other-oriented lives.  They raised us to know we were God’s greatest gift to earth AND to be adults who consistently notice and advocate for others.  Importantly, they continue to model deep humility in the way they encourage us to raise their grandkids with a different emphasis.  I am grateful for my remarkable childhood even as I also see the danger in raising my kids to think they’re exceptional.  Do we really lose anything if our starting point becomes, “You are delightful, and I can’t wait to see where you decide to put your energy to make life better and more meaningful for yourself and others”?  If we want to expand our us, we must interrogate the impact of the messages we send our kids...on themselves and their communities.  Consider the disservice we offer our kids when we tell them, in words or with our actions, that they are exceptional.

the danger of exceptional thinking: american arrogance

Exceptionality is central to the American identity, both past and present.  It is foundational to the concept of the American Dream, and it fits nicely, although not without cramming and shoving, alongside the Protestant work ethic (boot straps and all that) we like to prize.  It is, and always has been, important to our domestic and foreign policies, and it is crucial to our idea that we are the most powerful nation on earth.  However, left unchecked, our commitment to our exceptionality not only allows us to succeed where all others surely fail, it demands that we boldly defend our actions and absolve our motives as separate from and better than the rest of the world’s intentions.  In my view, the ideas behind American Exceptionalism are the ideas that prevent us from participating in our global and local societies in constructive ways.  From raising our children to condescend to others, to a stubborn unilateral approach to global conflict, the notion of our exceptionality is ruining America.

Exceptionalism allows us to whitewash our history. 

We come by our commitment to exceptionality honestly.  Christopher Columbus’ journey was meant to expand not only the Empire he represented, but also Christendom.  The church endorsed the colonial endeavor with a blasphemous mix of greed and zeal for evangelism.  The church codified the ideas that the spread of Empire honored God, that the rape, pillaging and killing of native lands and people was perhaps deserved, and that the abused savages were rehabilitated, gratefully, into Christ through the process.  In other words, the myth of the discovery of America was achieved through exceptional (and, importantly, Christian) motives.

Our love affair with exceptionality continued as America survived the Revolutionary War, quickly rising to become a stable economic powerhouse.  We were exceptional as the only formerly colonized space that moved from protest, to military revolt, to stable world power.  These claims of exceptionality of course downplay the help of the French, and completely ignore the fact that our new country would have been crushed by its revolutionary war debt if it weren’t for the money-producing institution of slavery. 

In the last 170 years, evolving notions of American identity are best understood through our exceptionality.  In the mid-19th century, patriots were consumed with ideas of Manifest Destiny; indeed our nation soon spread from coast to coast.  Americans were specifically destined to steal land from Native people, Mexicans and even Cubans in order to fulfill God’s plan for His New Israel.  Add to that growing wealth, brilliant production innovations, and interventions in both World Wars, and you begin to see that America’s identity was founded on the idea that we are exceptional. 

There are many problems with this self-conception, and for the next few weeks I will explore how the notion of exceptionalism dominates habits and policies in parenting, gentrification and the way we think about immigration.  For now, I will close with a few of the dangers in grounding American identity in our exceptionality.

One, it reflects bad historiography.  One can only claim we are exceptional, with all the righteous moral goodness assumed therein, if we ignore historical accounts of our many failures.  Exceptionalism allows us to whitewash our history. 

  •  We endorse a narrative of the genocide and violent displacement of native peoples by saying native leaders and pioneering pilgrims worked together (“While we did steal everything from them, they taught us to plant corn because we were friends.  While Andrew Jackson did force the Trail of Tears, he was fun and spunky and exceptionally nice—he even adopted a little savage into his own home!”).  
  • We endorse a paternalistic view of slavery (“While we did have slaves, we were the good kind of owners and our slaves loved and appreciated us”).
  • We endorse a narrative of wise and heroic military intervention (“We always stepped in to save the world and make it a better place; no need to really explore the fallout of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan”).  

Two, this bad historiography means we struggle to talk about our mistakes, and instead paint everything in a positive light.  This leads to us celebrate Columbus Day and Thanksgiving but bestow no national honor on the millions of Native Americans whose lives and legacies were destroyed by our arrogance.  This leads us to honor Confederate leaders in town squares.  This leads us to attribute the racialized wealth gap to work ethic or laziness instead of to Jim Crow laws, and racist systems, like redlining and the GI Bill.  This leads us both to think we are beacons of freedom and hope in the world while we drastically reduce our number of refugees and build walls.  Our commitment to being exceptional keeps us from learning from our mistakes.

Third, our primary understanding of ourselves as exceptional leads to a weak knowledge of self, and can make us selfish bullies.  If our only understanding of how we function in the world is based on our living out the righteous choices destined for us as exceptionally good Americans, we are beholden only to our own opinions.  We are exceptional, and therefore correct, so we do not need teammates, advisors or multilateral cooperation.  We should look out not for the interests of others, but only of ourselves, because we are exceptional. 

I’m afraid we traded our kindness and nuanced bravery for the stubborn claim that we are exceptional and therefore beyond reproach. 

America loves our origin story.  We love knowing that we succeeded where so many others failed.  That said, America still signifies hope and compassion in some parts of the world (and in our own country).  We are remarkably kind, and brave and willing to work on the idea that a government can exist by and for and of the people.  Even Bono, a great critic of ours, believes that the “idea” of America has the power to lift and unite others for a common good.  However, I’m afraid we have traded our kindness and nuanced bravery for the stubborn claim that we are exceptional and therefore beyond reproach.  This kind of thinking can lead us to think patriotism means never acknowledging our mistakes, and this will destroy our ability to become the country of people we hope we have been and still are. 

Would we lose our essence as Americans if we humbly believed we were a diverse group of people committed to the idea that our wealth and standing in the world have given us a profound opportunity to lead with smart, diplomatic compassion?

The idea of America was born out of two conflicting myths, and understanding them provides context for the fraught times in which we live.  Are we God’s chosen nation, the exceptional country on a hill, shining the light of democracy for all to follow as we lead with compassion, or are we God’s chosen nation, the exceptional country on a hill, better than everyone else and committed to hoarding our wealth and excluding others?  Would we lose our essence as Americans if we instead believed we were a diverse group of people committed to the idea that our wealth and standing in the world have given us a profound opportunity to lead with smart, diplomatic compassion? That each of us is worthy of a vote, and each of us can learn from each other as we correct our missteps in an effort to form a more perfect union?  I invite you to observe the evidence of our idolatrous arrogance, of our obsession with being exceptional.  Think with me about the place exceptionality plays in our collective thinking and acting, and next week I will tackle social concerns from this perspective.