When "NIMBY" Became the New "N-Word"
It's a devious form of racialized messaging, similar to the "reverse racism" push that effectively destroyed public support for initiatives designed to provide recourse and redress for Black people
Publisher’s Riff | an ecoWURD feature
Don't look now, but, yes they did: the term that we always knew as "NIMBY" has suddenly become the new "N-word."
And, yes, in that way.
We can't point to the exact moment or specific point in time when it all happened. But after more than several decades for the most part of associating "NIMBY," which stands for "Not In My Back Yard," as the animated way to characterize growling and sometimes violent rock-throwing White residents who made it very clear they did not want Black or other non-White people moving in to their neighborhoods, it is now gradually being associated as something actual Black people do when exhausted from the onslaught of gentrification. The entire conversation over who's not welcome in who's space has been flipped, diabolically, on the backs of Black people.
And the public discourse, egged on by many in media, is buying it.
As eagerly gentrifying White residents in cities like Philadelphia hungrily search for cheaper space - since, now, housing prices are even getting too expensive for them to afford - many have resorted to aligning themselves with movements fashionably called "urbanism." They've dressed themselves in progressivism ... yet, wait a second, many are really pushing dark real estate development schemes. Urbanism has really become gentrification by another name. Instead of being obvious about the fact that they're, simply, White middle-to-affluent class residents snapping up and renovating cheaper properties in predominantly Black neighborhoods, mostly Millennial age "urbanists" needed to look the part of well-meaning White progressives who meant no harm. They've also proudly referred to themselves as innocent "YIMBYs" or "Yes! In My Back Yard" - and all they're trying to do is create safe, green, bike-lane and tree-lined safe spaces with all sorts of "cool" features like coffee shops, cafes and dog parks ... and these bad (primarily Black) "NIMBYs" are now getting in the way!
YIMBYs - mostly White and ranging from middle-class to affluent - are merely avid house-flippers or real estate value accrual wannabes who are clawing through the urban landscape for desperate land grabs. As this 2019 Curbed piece admits …
It’s White-flight now stubbornly reversed into White-return to city neighborhoods left desolate by years of disinvestment, government-sanctioned segregation and the destructive gutting of untold thousands of Black homes from the sophisticated racism of interstate highway builds into and around city centers. Today, in the Great Return, YIMBYs and “urbanists” are comfortably allied with real estate developers who’ve engineered a clever strategy of looking “progressive” through political maneuvering that’s, in its true form, more of the gentrification and displacement industry complex. Real estate interest online zine Propmodo gives the plan away, perhaps either not realizing the disclosure or just to brag …
The unlikely alliance between progressive causes and for-profit housing developers is flipping long-held political narratives on their heads. While the culture war has calcified positions at the highest level of politics, on the local level, lines are more blurred. Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) is as common a refrain among the right as it is on the left but for different reasons. The right typically becomes NIMBY to preserve the ‘character’ of an area while the left wields the phrase to fight gentrification and the profits of private developers. Both sides of the same coin limit housing options for all.
Skeptical Black residents, who’ve long been victimized by such schemes, had caught on. Many longtime Black communities, scarred from the excessively unaffordable housing prices and being forced out of neighborhoods against their choice, saw through 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 all the major cities, and are expected to continue rising. As AARP reported …
Being forced to move because of surging rents in the past year has become a common occurrence across America. In 2021, the average rent was 17.6 percent higher than in 2020, according to Apartment List, an online rental listing and data-collection business. And the rates have continued to accelerate this year; in October, the average rent was another 5.9 percent higher than a year earlier. Given that the median rent in the U.S. is over $2,000, according to Redfin, that means many Americans are paying roughly $360 per month, or nearly $4,300 a year, more for their apartments than they were just a few years ago.
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, 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 on the communities that live there. Either you come up with a plan to protect Black residents or you don't build whatever at all. That conversation, naturally, is shaping this year's Mayor race in Philadelphia, for example.
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 … because they’re busy making money. In the push back, 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, somewhat similar to the "reverse racism" accusations that effectively destroyed public support for inadequate, but still useful 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 or block Black people from the spaces that White people live in. Now, the term is being used to describe Black people as, wait for it, unreasonable and racist or segregationist 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 either 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 have simply said “stop displacing us in the process.” All they every wanted were 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 "YIMBY" progress ... or what's really colonization by another name.