When I moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a decade ago, it was easy to find affordable housing in safe neighborhoods. Some of the older white people who lived across the river spoke about how the place I lived had been overrun with drugs and prostitution, but by the time I came, the streets were quiet, the homes full of families and young professionals. The population was diverse, the people liberal. As a black woman, I didn’t get the feeling I was surrounded by people who would lynch me, as my grandmother warned. Central Pennsylvania, in the minds of my friends and family back in Philadelphia, was a place where racists live.
Slowly I watched the city change as the prices began to creep up and new development moved in. I liked the coffee shops, vegan grocery stores, and twee bakeries—but there were also the luxury apartments that helped bump up the value of nearby homes. Now I am on the verge of being priced out of my neighborhood, and the next stop is moving out to the suburbs.
This can pose the usual problems, like a lack of public transportation and long work commutes (and the costs associated with both). But there’s another, less tangible problem: These suburbs are squarely in Trumpland.
White people talk about certain neighborhoods they won’t walk through at night, implying that it’s not the darkness of the sky but the darkness of the residents that stops them. For people of color, it’s more complicated. We can’t avoid whiteness and instead must rely on specific cultural signifiers to know which places are safe. Confederate flags, NRA stickers on doors, anti-Islam propaganda on t-shirts and conservative bumper stickers: They’re all hints that a person of color is not welcome in that space.
Although the major metropolitan areas in central Pennsylvania voted Team Blue, the rest of nearly 70 counties in Pennsylvania went Team Red, marking the first Republican presidential victory for the state in two decades. So it is no surprise that the countryside surrounding the city is speckled with Trump campaign signs and MAGA red hats. Every time I drive through Harrisburg’s suburban outskirts, I have felt uncomfortable. There was nothing said or done to me, but those Trump signs in people’s yards have become a a soft alarm to warn me and other people of color that they’re in the wrong place.
Pretty soon, I might find myself stuck between too-high real estate prices and a Trump place—and neither option is very appealing.
Most Trump supporters aren’t racist in the white-hoods-and-rope kind of way. But every one of them jumped right on board an election train that ran on racism and xenophobia. Which makes moving to a community full of people who were OK with that a frightening prospect for people of color.
Low-income communities of color across the country are faced with rising shelter costs and systematically priced out of homes and neighborhoods by developers and landlords who want to cash in on the windfall of increased property value. These forces often cause low-income people of color to move out to the suburbs and surrounding areas, where prices, along with political and racial tolerance, start to fall dramatically. A 2016 report from the NYU Furman Center found that people of color now make up 35 percent of the suburban population in major metropolitan areas, and are responsible for more than 90 percent of the suburbs’ population growth from 2000 to 2010.
The city of Harrisburg itself is a small, predominantly black city going through a deliberate process of gentrification. This coincides with the arrival of technology-focused business in healthcare and education. These aren’t big money companies like Google, but they are enough to increase the value of the homes in the surrounding area, pushing renters into less and less desirable areas.
Unlike, say, New York City, in Harrisburg there is no gentle passage from urban to suburban to rural. Everything is small and once you leave the city, you will quickly find yourself in pocket communities where the love affair with President Trump is openly displayed.
The danger to minorities has not been intangible since Trump was elected. Children from nearby towns and cities faced harassment at school from their peers. Hate speech appeared on shops and walls in Philadelphia. White supremacists rallied in the city of Harrisburg than a mile from my home. Those people who showed up for our local rally didn’t come from across the country; they came from our local communities and neighborhoods. They weren’t the 4Chan-radicalized, tiki torch bearers from Charlottesville; these people were good ol’ boys from the suburbs who have been about that life since forever.
In retrospect, smaller rallies like this across the country felt like testing grounds for Charlottesville: If we can get away with this, how much further can we push? they seemed to say. When will people try to stop us? How big can we go?
Will my new neighbors be secretly scared and ignorant, or will they be full-on skinheads? There’s no way to tell. But you can glean from the Trump poster that still sits in their yard months after the election that there’s a possibility for any of the above.
Although the prices of homes are less expensive, there are hidden social costs for people of color who move out of the city. Newcomers to small towns may be met with distrust, especially if they are people of color in predominately white areas, making finding work closer to their new homes difficult.
There are also issues with accessing healthcare. Fewer doctors and hospitals are available, especially to those who may be on Medicaid (recipients of which are disproportionately non-white). And although in general rural living is less taxing than urban life, living under the constant fear of race-based attacks adds its own stress. One study showed that black people experienced higher rates of physical and mental stress than their white counterparts in similar situations due to racial pressures.
Some studies on gentrification have concluded over the years that the process can actually reduce displacement, but their methods often obscure the bigger picture. Tracking overt kinds of displacement, such as landlord harassment or the razing of buildings to make way for shiny new condos, doesn’t take into account the cultural struggle and erasure of the gentrification process. Nor is does it capture the ways in which the disadvantaged residents are treated by the new transplants, or whether they move voluntarily simply because they are priced out. These groups also tend to be very migratory and move quite often due to poverty, so it is also quite possible that the true amount of displacement they face is not recorded.
There is no quick way to fix this. These dual problems are caused by our country’s rising inequalities and ingrained racist fears. Displacement forces these issues to come into contact with each other and places the victims into harm’s way. Breaking down racism in rural American communities is a Herculean task of undoing centuries of white supremacist behaviors and fears. In the meantime, people of color end up feeling unwelcome wherever they go. And that’s by design.
Donyae is a healing justice and technology writer. You can follow her on Twitter @okokno, Facebook, or her personal blog, www.freenightsandweekends.org.