Spike Lee Is Mad, And You Should Be Too

Feb 28 at 11am

Spike Lee once again shocked the world when he confirmed that, despite what shows like Girls and The Outs would have you believe, black people still live in Brooklyn. All kidding aside, Lee’s expletive-laden talk has hit quite a few nerves as it touched on issues of income inequality, privilege, and gentrification across the country.

To Lee, the gentrification of Brooklyn is just one more item in a laundry list of movements and spaces created by African Americans and appropriated by wealthy young whites attracted to those cultural and artistic inventions. In that sense, he’s got every right to be angry.

History does shed light on how wealth, power, privilege, skin color, and decisions made years ago still resonate with us today.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ amazing Atlantic article, “The Ghetto is Public Policy,” he details the history of “red-lining” and its role in creating ghettoes out of working-class black neighborhoods. In short, by only offering black homebuyers mortgages in certain red-lined neighborhoods, real estate agents created segregated black communities, preserving white neighborhoods whose homeowners were threatened by the Federal Housing Administration’s refusal to guarantee home loans near blacks.

After World War II, working-class and wealthy whites moved from the cities to the suburbs, and red-lining created neighborhoods out of communities who weren’t wanted near highly-valued properties. Brooklyn became black, and in San Francisco, Latinos took over the Mission, and the LGBT community claimed the Castro. Now, wealthy whites are headed back to the cities, attracted to the art and culture of the communities there.

History lesson aside, what does this have to do with anything? It doesn’t help figure out who to point fingers at now. But history does shed light on how wealth, power, privilege, skin color, and decisions made years ago still resonate with us today.

It’s no secret that the inventions of black culture have a wide appeal, and are often co-opted by those who are better able to sell them.

Spike Lee is mad because he’s watching his community get displaced by people who are less interested in supporting the culture that provides them entertainment. From jazz to blues to rock, from voguing to the harlem shake and even twerking, it’s no secret that the inventions of black culture have a wide appeal, and are often co-opted by those who are better able to sell them.

Even worse, those who co-opt are often credited with its discovery. When Lee said, “You can’t discover this! We been here,” he could have just as easily been talking about the Harlem Shake fad as he was his home streets of Brooklyn. His home was a community of working-class families struggling together – now it’s filled with boutique shops and hipsters with beard transplants.

The Brooklyn he saw growing up, with its cast of brown faces, looks nothing like the Brooklyn portrayed on TV. Even the neighborhoods have different names as real estate agents work to both make use of the borough’s cultural past while trying to sweep away its associations with people of color.

You can preserve environments like the Galapagos by outlawing tourism, but you can’t preserve a community by forbidding people from moving there.

As a teacher for a non-profit media literacy organization in San Francisco, I often work with communities in need. I work with kids who don’t have computers at home and very little access to them in school. If living in San Francisco in 10 years means knowing how to code, these kids have already lost and they never had a chance.

Spike Lee is mad because it often takes white people to make a neighborhood or borough get the services and city attention it needs. Lee asks, “Why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better?” How would it feel to spend years campaigning for services and only get them when certain people move in?

Talking about race relations is incredibly hard. For those who have reaped its rewards, it feels insulting to sit and hear about how they’ve messed everything up just by liking something and wanting to be part of it. You can preserve environments like the Galapagos by outlawing tourism, but you can’t preserve a community by forbidding people from moving there. Reverse-red-lining neighborhoods to keep whites out wouldn’t be any more right than the crimes that created them to begin with.

People aren’t moving out by choice and are often being displaced, and it’s hard to watch the things you’ve cared about get displaced by unfamiliar faces for want of money.

If Spike Lee is anything like me, he’s mad because he’s watching it all again and again. Unlike previous migrations, people aren’t moving out by choice and are often being displaced, and it’s hard to watch the things you’ve cared about get displaced by unfamiliar faces for want of money.

I’m mad because my students are emailing me asking for advice on how to deal with their eviction. I’m mad because my youngest students are going home without computers, that they’re 10 years behind and falling farther behind every day. I’m mad because many of the people moving in are simply making use of advantages given them without their asking, and I’m mad because I can’t be mad at them for doing what anybody else would do.

African Americans have a very complicated history with this country and our families have often been on the underside of the American dream. At one time, Brooklyn was the only place in New York black families could live. Now, Spike Lee is seeing those families get displaced by people eager to be near the culture those families created. At the end of the day, it’s not anybody’s fault, and that’s enough to make anyone mad.

Photo by cisc1970 via Flickr

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