False Consciousness

This fellow was a member of the landed gentry
This fellow was a member of the landed gentry

The Bay Area is an incredibly expensive place to live, and one of the main topics of conversation there is rent and where you’re thinking about moving to. One thing that struck me when visiting the Bay Area was how concerned people were about becoming gentrifiers. It was interesting to me, because people would freely talk about how poor people in the Mission District and Oakland are being priced out of their neighborhoods by newcomers, and say things that reeked of guilt, like, “We are the problem.”

And that’s definitely one way of thinking about it. But that is such a foreign notion to me. I don’t live in a world where upper-middle-class people victimize working class people. I live in a world where we are all at the mercy of vast, impersonal economic forces. Like, people don’t move to Oakland because they want to: it’s not that great to live somewhere full of crime, where you’re a minority amongst people you distrust and who distrust you–a place that is not particularly walkable and which everywhere exhibits signs of the grossest urban decay. People don’t move to Oakland because they’ve decided it’s a better environment than San Francisco–they go there because they’ve been priced out of San Francisco. What is true for poor Hispanic people in the Mission District is also true for graduate students or someone who works at a nonprofit or as a salesperson at a tech company. San Francisco is really, really expensive.

And, sure, now Oakland is also becoming fairly expensive, but what’re you going to do? The only places where a person can afford to move in the SF Bay Area are places that’ve historically been awful. And all the places that’ve been historically awful are places that’ve historically been filled with people of color. There’s not some mystical historically-white township full of affordable housing that people are refusing to move to because it’s not hip. Even places that people sneer at (Fremont! Milpitas! [which are both majority-Asian, by the way]) are not inexpensive.

Given that, all this guilt smacks of false consciousness. People have this sense that they are the movers and shakers and they are the decision-makers even though they’re just as much at the mercy of the system as everyone else. The system might have given them a few more privileges than everyone else, but it hasn’t given them any more power.