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The Relationship Between Gentrification and Incarceration

The Relationship Between Gentrification and Incarceration

Gentrification, also known as Urban displacement, is the process by which historically disinvested neighborhoods are economically and demographically changed by means of real estate investments and higher income individuals moving in. Consequently, the displacement of black and brown people out of their homes and respective communities is never at the forefront of the conversation regarding gentrification. Where they go and what happens to them is a question not often asked.

Though the two subjects- incarceration and gentrification- may at first seem unrelated, the leveling of crime rates in general suggests that the reason for an increase in incarceration lies outside of the obvious answer of increased crime rates. A broader look at the issues within our society, namely the housing market and dispersion of particular demographics should be considered when analyzing the U.S. incarceration system. The history of migration patterns, economic disparities, and the optics of politics shrouding housing policies are all contributing factors that further link gentrification and incarceration to one another.

It can be argued that incarceration and gentrification are two different facets of society and though they may overlap, the two subjects still operate as separate entities. Both disproportionately affect a particular demographic, but the process by which gentrification occurs is different from that of mass incarceration. Gentrification deals with a specific neighborhood wherein investors and realtors don’t allocate resources towards the neighborhood until the location and attributes of said neighborhood slowly begins to fit the schema of a different demographic’s ideal (namely a white ideal).

Attributes may include its proximity to white collar jobs, a particular aesthetic, access to unique entertainment sources, or simply a lower rent price when compared to where they move from. Incarceration, in oversimplified terms, is a facet of the penal system. Punishment and housing patterns are two completely different things according to this perspective. However, the two can be said to be closely related in many ways in more nuanced perspectives.  

The history of migration patterns in the U.S. must be considered wholly when thinking about the phenomenon of gentrification as we know it now. America is a racist country that operates under a racist system, and that system influences nearly every facet of our everyday lives. “White flight has contributed to the concentration of poverty in specific areas because low-income residents are limited in mobility.”(Morenoff & Sampson, 1997)

In recent years, the desire of the middle-class to live in the suburbs has shifted to wanting to live in the downtown zones where minorities are concentrated. Historically, the poorer bracket would live in the center of the city, whereas the wealthy would live on the outer edges. (Freeman, 2006) But as this higher income demographic moves in, the increasing home and rental prices disproportionately and inevitably displace former residents. 

Due to the economic disparities between the demographics, the way in which black and brown people gather and live are completely different. Due to the institution of chattel slavery and the residual effects, African Americans have less economic mobility than their higher income counterparts. This is again because America was built upon a racist system, but this lack of mobility means that African Americans tend to live in concentrated urban areas where crime is consequently higher. This phenomenon can largely be blamed on housing policies and gentrification.

The disinvestment- a key characteristic of gentrification- of these densely populated neighborhoods relates to other contributing factors of incarceration as well. This “market withdrawal” (Wacquant 2001) from these neighborhoods leads to a more militarized conduction of education (which relates to the school to prison pipeline), the deindustrialization, and over-policing of these neighborhoods. These effects further contribute to the lack of economic mobility of minorities.

Even with the overwhelming evidence of at least some correlation between incarceration and gentrification and the deliberate ways in which this system is imposed on minority communities, the political contribution to gentrification is alarming. Under the guise of bettering a community, local (and federal) governments and developmental professionals continue to push residential segregation despite understanding the effects it has on the imposed communities. One big example of this is redlining. Again, the optics may suggest that the tactic is being used to make the community a better place, but in practice it is just another form of systematic oppression.

Redlining, the process of drawing discriminatory boundaries in which people are allowed to receive (home owner) loans, is done entirely for the sake of financial gain (Terry, 2017). Another path that minorities could take to increase their chances of economic mobility is taken away, thus yet again creating a cycle of crime and incarceration. Other politically driven practices such as gerrymandering, stop and frisk mandates, and the ‘War on Drugs’ contribute to this relationship between gentrification and incarceration as well. 

Though the refutation of the relationship between the two phenomena would reflect an idealized world, its denial also erases the existence of a deliberate disenfranchisement of minorities. Gentrification and incarceration are related in many ways. Taking into account the history of  migration patterns, the economic disparities between particular demographics, and the politics of housing policies, it is reasonable to say that gentrification and incarceration are closely related. Not only are they related, but both actively put minorities into an undesirable position, and this disparity must be eradicated completely.


Freeman, L. (2006). There goes the hood: Views of gentrification from the ground
up. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
“Gentrification Explained.” Gentrification Explained | Urban Displacement
Project, www.urbandisplacement.org/gentrification-explained.
Gross, Terry. “A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated
America.” NPR, NPR, 3 May 2017,
www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-seg
regated-america.
Kellogg, Casey. “There Goes the Neighborhood: Exposing the Relationship
Between Gentrification and Incarceration .” Https://Scholarworks.sjsu.edu/, vol. 3, 2015,
scholarworks.sjsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=themis.
Morenoff, J. D. & Sampson, R. J. (1997). Violent crime and the special dynamics
of neighborhood transition: Chicago, 1970-1990. Social Forces 76(1), 31-64.

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