by Charles Ellison, Managing Editor at ecoWURD
Don’t look now, but yes, they did: the term that we always knew as “NIMBY” has suddenly become the new n-word.
We can’t point to the exact moment it happened. But after several decades of “NIMBY” – which stands for “Not In My Back Yard” – serving as the animated way to characterize growling white residents who make it clear they don’t want Black or other non-white people moving into their neighborhoods, it is now being associated with Black people exhausted from the onslaught of gentrification. The entire conversation over who’s not welcome in whose space has been flipped, and diabolically so, on the backs of Black people.
And the public discourse, egged on by many in the media, is buying it.
As eagerly gentrifying White residents in cities like Philadelphia hungrily search for cheaper space – since housing prices are getting too expensive for even them to afford – many have resorted to aligning themselves with movements fashionably called “urbanism.” They’ve dressed themselves in progressivism…yet many are really pushing dark real estate development schemes. Urbanism has become gentrification by another name. Instead of being obvious about the fact that White middle-to-affluent class residents are snapping up and renovating cheaper properties in predominantly Black neighborhoods, mostly Millennial-age “urbanists” need to look the part of well-meaning white progressives who mean no harm.
Skeptical Black residents caught on. Many longtime Black communities, scarred from astronomically unaffordable housing prices and being forced out of neighborhoods against their choice, caught on to the game. Gentrification trends still continue, along with the increasing displacement and dislocation of Black residents from their spaces. Rents and housing prices are more and more out of reach in every major city. Incoming white neighbors with friendly faces are still bringing in economic hardship headaches. The situation has become unsustainable for many Black residents who are now automatically pushing back against zoning proposals designed to create new building projects or plans to transform their neighborhoods into idyllic “middle-income” palaces. Demands are rising and Black community activists are becoming much more vocal and uncompromising: If there is development in their neighborhoods, there can be no more displacement and harm visited on the communities that live there. Either you come up with a plan to protect Black residents or you don’t build. That conversation, naturally, is shaping this year’s mayoral race in Philadelphia.
The resistance has caught white urbanists off-guard – many of them working quietly in tandem with profit-motivated commercial and residential real estate developers who don’t care how out-of-reach rents or housing prices are. In the pushback, gentrifying white urbanists are now calling those resisting Black community activists “NIMBYs.”
It’s wild and it’s offensive. It is also snake-oil racism. We’re catching it as one of the more devious forms of racialized messaging in recent years, similar to “reverse racism” accusations that effectively destroyed public support for affirmative action policies designed as racial redress for Black people. NIMBY is now what urbanists are calling Black people who fight gentrification: The same Black people who are the original and permanent targets of the actual “Not In My Back Yard” strategy which was always designed to remove Black people from the spaces where white people live. Now, the term is being used to describe Black people as – wait for it – unreasonable and racist against white people for not wanting them to force themselves at will into Black spaces. The argument is deliberately dismissive of the centuries of systemic racism, redlining, segregation and whole-space displacement that has been an ongoing perpetuation of economic violence against Black people in the United States for a long time.
Not at any time, ever, have Black community activists battling gentrification said they wanted to or been able to deny White residents housing. Black residents never told white residents “we don’t want you to have housing” or “we don’t want you in our neighborhoods.” Black residents opposing gentrification simply want decent, safe and quality places to live in that they could afford and that weren’t designed for them to move out. But in making those simple demands for equity and residential justice, they are now being slandered as just another “n-word” that’s getting in the way of progress…or what’s really colonization by another name.
We’ll continue to talk about this issue and others in ongoing coverage here at ecoWURD.