(This is a paper i wrote for school last semester when I was living in bed stuy. we have now been displaced to flatbush, and the story is getting even deeper)
Reflections on Race, Gentrification, and Social Work Inspired by Watching Do the Right Thing in 2014
Sascha A. DuBrul
Human Behavior in the Social Environment II
Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work
Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to human difference between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation.
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (1984)
The Film, and the Philosophy
In this paper I will use Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing as a jumping-off point to discuss race relations in the United States, Afrocentrism as a philosophy as related to social work practice, and gentrification in New York City, specifically in the neighborhood where I currently live: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Like the film, I do not attempt to draw any definitive conclusions; instead I chart some complex territory, as both an insider and an outsider. I conclude with my thoughts about the potential of further exploration into this philosophical approach.
When Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing premiered in 1989, it was criticized by many mainstream media critics as “racist” and attempting to incite violence in the Black community (Bailey, 2012). Many reviewers protested at the time, stating openly that the film could “incite black audiences to riot” (Klein, 1989). Even today, Lee is described as a “notorious racial grievancemonger” and a “Hollywood hatemonger” in the blogosphere (Sheffield, 2012). Through a mainstream American lens, these accusations might make sense, but, as I will attempt to show, that is because we live in an actively racist culture with a white supremacist history. Given this context, it is useful to have other frames of reference when making sense of popular media.
Do the Right Thing takes place in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly Black neighborhood, and focuses on the lives of a handful of characters centered around an Italian pizza shop. There is an argument between Sal, the owner of the shop, and one of his patrons (named “Buggin Out”) , because all the photographs on the wall are of Italian-Americans, and Buggin Out thinks there should be photos of Black people on the walls because most of the folks who buy Sal’s pizza are Black. Meanwhile, another character, Radio Raheem, walks through the neighborhood blasting “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, over and over again. One of the lyrics to the classic 80s rap anthem is:
“Elvis was a hero to most
but he never meant shit to me you see
straight up racist that sucker was
simple and plain
mother fuck him and John Wayne”
(Public Enemy, Fight the Power, 1989)
It’s a hot day, and tensions run high. By the time we get to the end of the movie, everyone has reached a boiling point and from the insignificant argument over Sal’s wall of heroes, accumulated differences escalate to a riot in which Radio Raheem is murdered by the police, and Sal’s pizzeria is trashed and burned. The film ends with seemingly contradictory quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, one advocating pacifism to achieve racial justice and the other advocating the strategic use of violence.
I remember seeing Do the Right Thing with my mother the day it came out in 1989. I was 14 years old, a white teenager living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and going to Bronx High School of Science. I had never stepped foot in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I remember being confused by the film, not knowing how to make sense of the racially inspired violence. I felt like an outsider looking in, even though the film took place in the city where I lived.
I was raised in a middle-class environment with the language of “color-blindness” in my community and didn’t have ways of talking about race or racism. At 14 I already had a serious distrust of authority and police, but I didn’t have any close Black friends or much of an understanding of an analysis of oppression and privilege. I thought rioting and fighting the system were cool, but most of my cultural references were from punk rock rather than hip-hop. Black culture was everywhere when I was a teenager; hip-hop music was playing on MTV, and my attraction to punk culture had to do with a desire to have a rebel culture of my own (Duncombe, 2011).
In many ways, as a teenager I felt like a rebel because I wasn’t a white person appropriating Black culture. Accord to the philosopher and social critic Cornel West (1999), in the essay On Afro-American Music: From Be-bop to Rap, “the salient feature of popular music in the First World capitalist and Third world neocolonialist societies is the appropriation and imitation of Afro-American musical forms and styles.” West (1999) continues, “Afro-American music is first and foremost, though not exclusively or universally, a countercultural practice with deep roots in modes of religious transcendence and political opposition. Thus it is seductive to rootless and alienated young people disenchanted with existential meaningless, disgusted with flaccid bodies and dissatisfied with the status quo.”
All these years later I find it useful to read Molefi Kete Asante’s writings on Afrocentrism to help me make sense of the Black experience in North America. While I don’t necessarily take everything he says as gospel, because it’s not really my gospel to take, his ideas feel like a useful corrective to my Eurocentric cultural upbringing. Asante states: “An Afrocentric method is concerned with establishing a world view about the writing and speaking of oppressed people” (Asante, 1987, p.173). He elaborates: “Afrocentricity is not merely cultural sensitivity. To be culturally sensitive one may remain grounded in one’s own particular plot of history and mythology. The Eurocentrist may be culturally sensitive…without ever modifying the central ground” (Asante, 1987, p.175).
What is this “central ground” to which he is referring? It is the history of white supremacy in the United States. It is a history of race relations that developed out of the slave trade, the genocide of native peoples, and the exploitation of immigrant groups. While not a proponent of Afrocentrcism (West, 2001), Cornel West states the history of race relations in the US starkly and plainly:
“Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be “white”–they would be only Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and others engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity. What made America distinctly American for them was not simply the presence of unprecedented opportunities in a new land, but the struggle for seizing these opportunities in a new land in which black slavery and racial caste served as the floor upon which white class, ethnic, gender struggles could be diffused and diverted. In other words, white poverty could be ignored and whites’ paranoia of each other could be overlooked primarily owing to the distinctive American feature: the basic racial divide of black and white peoples” (West, 2001, p.156-7).
We define ourselves by “the other,” by the categories we’re given to define one another. American racial history is one of “divide and conquer,” pitting groups against each other for the benefit of those who are in power. The Black American experience is informed by being in the bottom social, political, and economic castes. It is with this backdrop that Asante’s philosophy becomes useful in understanding this complex situation.
The struggle for photographs on the wall of the pizzeria in Do the Right Thing represents a larger struggle for representation in the dominant white culture. Both Radio Raaheem and Buggin Out are disaffected and angry; the Italian-Americans represent the power structure. It is an Afrocentric critique of Eurocentric culture. But, of course, the Italian-Americans aren’t the enemy. Spike Lee is painting a powerful portrait of the tragic race relations in urban America.
What else is covered in Asante’s “central ground?” A key component of it is the western idea of objectivity: “As one of Western culture’s chief ideals, objectivity has often protected social and literary theory from the scrutiny that would reveal how theory has often served the interests of the ruling classes. In this respect it is like other disciplines that have been hewn out of the arts and sciences” (Asante, 1987, p.179).
The same critique of objectivity could be applied to Hollywood films. Hollywood aesthetic techniques evolved as methods of assimilating a diverse population. The truly American style of film that emerged, through seemingly heterogeneous in content, is very “white” – not English, or European, or Euro-American, but white. That whiteness is like bleach that erases cultures and communities. Hollywood culture is a monoculture that oppresses by its very banality. (DuBrul, 2006, pp. 1-4)
Hollywood techniques work to gloss particularities into universalisms and distort the most vexing of contradictions into simple dynamics that move inevitably towards a happy ending. Do the Right Thing leaves us with many questions about race and oppression, and in doing so, subverts the traditional Hollywood movie. It is not a traditional white movie in form or content. It is an Afrocentric film which captures multiple ethnic and racial perspectives but ultimately paints a picture of a white supremacist world.
“Universality can only be dreamed about when we have slept on truth based on specific cultural experiences” (Asante, 1987, p.183). This is the wisdom in the philosophy of Afrocentricism: the ability to recenter the ground of the story, and see it from the perspective of the underdogs in history.
“Motherfuckin Christopher Columbus Syndrome”
Flash forward twenty-five years and I’m a white person living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, four blocks away from where Do the Right Thing was filmed in the 80s. Not only this neighborhood, nor the borough of Brooklyn, but the entire city has changed so much since I grew up here. Many places from my childhood are unrecognizable. The Giuliani administration’s harsh social policies paved the way for Mayor Bloomberg to rezone at least 104 neighborhoods. What will this mean for the poor and working class residents of the city?
Bed-Stuy is still a predominantly Black neighborhood, but every day there are more and more people who look like me moving here, and most of them have a lot more money than I do. I am part of a demographic shift happening across Brooklyn. But there is so much more than a demographic shift that’s happening in New York City right now. New York is in a process of what some people are calling “hyper-gentrification.” According to CUNY professor Neil Smith (2012), gentrification has a deep political and economic agenda.
“[In] the 1980s…[g]entrification became a systematic attempt to remake the central city, to take it back from the working class, from minorities, from homeless people, from immigrants who, in the minds of those who decamped to the suburbs, had stolen the city from its rightful white middle-class owners. What began as a seemingly quaint rediscovery of the drama and edginess of the new urban “frontier” became in the 1990s broad-based market driven policy.”
If the rehabilitation of a brownstone in the West Village or Park Slope typified gentrification in the 1970s, by the 1990s and 2000s it was the Disneyfication of Times Square, the condominium frenzy on the Bowery, and a corporate fill-in of the previously low-rent spaces feeding out from Manhattan–Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens. Today we are seeing a total class retake of the central city.
According to Jeremiah Moss from the blog Vanishing New York, hyper-gentrification has five components that are different from earlier eras of gentrification:
Intensified partnerships between the city government and private capital, “resulting in larger, more expensive, and more symbolic” real-estate developments.
A “new influx of global capital into large megadevelopments,” as well as smaller neighborhood developments like luxury condos on the Lower East Side, in which, for example, Israeli developers are sponsored by European banks.
Authoritarian city politicians and police working to crush anti-gentrification opposition.
Outward diffusion–as prices rise at the city’s center, generalized gentrification spreads out to more distant neighborhoods.
Finally, this third wave is unregulated, free-market gentrification, independent of public financing and therefore unaccountable to larger social needs. It is the first brand of gentrification to enjoy “the full weight of private-market finance.” (Moss, 2014)
Spike Lee himself recently gave a talk to a group of students at Pratt University which was widely covered in the media because of his scathing remarks about gentrification. He was repeatedly accused in the mainstream press of being racist (Murphy, 2014) He spoke about white people coming to Brooklyn and acting as if they had discovered it (“Motherfucking Christopher Columbus Syndrome”). It brought to mind the definition of ethnocentrism: to impose a value judgement from one’s own community on the cultural practices of another without understanding how those practices make sense in that community. (Rogoff, 2003)
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an outsider coming in to a community. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what it means for me, a middle-class white man, coming into poor and working class communities of color, specifically Black communities, to be in the role of a “social worker.” Especially in the context of 21st century gentrification, it feels very problematic. I haven’t lost hope, however. Sometimes in the most problematic and complicated of situations there are glimmers of the transcendent. In The Cultural Nature of Human Development, Barbara Rogoff (2003) addresses the potential importance of outsiders:
The argument that only members of a community have access to the real meaning of events in that community, so outsiders’ opinions should be discarded, runs into difficulty when one notes great variation in opinions among members of a community and the difficulties in determining who is qualified to represent the group. In addition, members of a community often have difficulty noticing their own practices because they take their own ways for granted, like fish not being aware of the water.
Both people with intense identification within a community (insiders) and those with little contact in a community (outsiders) run into difficulties in making and interpreting observations. However, working together, insiders and outsiders can contribute to a more edifying account than either perspective would allow by itself (Rogoff, 2003).
When I think about this dynamic it calls to mind the works of social worker Jerome Schiele (1996), in Afrocentricity: An Emerging Paradigm in Social Work Practice:
Social workers…are urged to adopt a “victim-in-hostile-situation” perspective: at-risk youths in the United States facing hostile practices of exploitation and hypocrisy. From this viewpoint, interventions should encourage and bring into existence socially caring policies and patterns of behavior that economically and politically advance all people and enhance their positive potential. Instead of focusing intervention strategies more on individual adaptation or ego deficits, the Afrocentric paradigm advocates that more attention be placed on systems-accommodation and systems replacement models of intervention. To this extent the worker should take on the roles of policy practitioner and community organizer.
Recently I met two old timers in the sauna at the Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA. We started talking about how they were childhood friends who had both been part of an apprenticeship program at the Y to learn building trades in the 1960s. Pretty quickly they were sharing war stories with me about the neighborhood from the 1960s through the 80s. Wild stories about mysterious white people showing up and selling cheap guns to anyone who wanted them out of the back of a truck. Were they cops? How did they not get busted? No one ever knew. Stories about free and really cheap crack flooding into the neighborhood in the 80s and all their dead friends, all the people they know in prison. “It’s so sad, we lost so many of our loved ones. We’re survivors” they said.
I was sitting there, sweat pouring out of me, wide-eyed, asking them how it feels to have so many white people in the neighborhood after everything they’ve lived through, after all the changes they’ve seen. “It’s not that their white that’s the problem” said Carl, running his hands through his grey beard, “it’s that they don’t even look at me when they walk down the street. They come back from work and go into their houses and don’t even try to interact with the rest of the community. Meanwhile, there’s the same old problems here that have been here. There’s no jobs for the young people. There’s lots of money around here, but it’s not actually helping the people that have been living here all this time.”
I’m not sure where I fit in this story. A white man living in Black neighborhood with a shifting demographic, studying Afrocentric philosophy in social work school. My sense is that the way to make change in a place is to put down roots, but this place is changing so quickly that I’m not even sure what that means. The rising tide of gentrification is going to wash many people out of this city, and I may be one of them. In the meantime, I will continue to explore what it means to be outside, inside, or simply neighbors.
Asante, M.K. (1987). The Afrocentric idea. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
Bailey, J. (2012). When Spike Lee became scary.”
Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/08/when-spike-lee-became-scary/261434/
Duncombe, S. and Tremblay, M. (2011). White riot: Punk rock and the politics of race. Verso Press, New York.
Jmattera. “SPIKE LEE: HOLLYWOOD HATEMONGER”
Klein, J. (1989) “Spiked?” New York Magazine.
Lorde, A. (2007). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press, Berkeley.
Moss, Jeremiah. “On Spike Lee and Hyper-Gentrification, the Monster That Ate New York
Murphy, Doyle. “Brooklyn residents don’t appreciate Spike Lee’s rants on gentrification”
(Public Enemy, Fight the Power, 1989)
Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Schiele, J. (1996). Afrocentricity: An emerging paradigm in social work practice. Social Work May 96 Vol. 41 Issue 3 p.284-294
Smith, N. (2012). Smith on gentrification. Retrieved from:
West, C. (2001). Race matters. New York: Vintage Books.
West, C. (1999). “On Afro-American music: From be-bop to rap.” The Cornel West Reader. New York: Basic Civitas. p.474-484