While South Carolina mayors like Joe Riley and Bob Coble debate the issue of gentrification, I actually live it. I eat in “gentrified” restaurants, I shop in “gentrified” stores. I hang out in “gentrified” bars. And you know what — Joe Riley and Bob Coble do, too.

What does “gentrification” mean except that the demand for something (in this case, housing in a once-forlorn neighborhood) has driven the price up so high that some people who want it, can’t afford it?

Well, for every time I’ve had she-crab soup and a lobster tail at my favorite peninsula restaurant — which is not nearly often enough — there are thousands of other times I’ve been forced by finances into the Taco Bell drive-thru.

Is this right? Is this fair? If you’re whining about “gentrification,” obviously not.

Right now, cities like Charleston, Columbia, and hundreds more across the country, spend your tax dollars on the premise that poor people have the right to live in the neighborhood of their choice, whether they can afford it or not.

OK, fine. My lovely bride, The Warden, has always dreamed of living in a waterfront mansion on Sullivan’s Island. Where’s her check? Better still, why don’t Riley & Co. force Mark Sanford to live in Columbia and give my wife his house?

Hey — doesn’t she have the right to be happy, too?

The idea that “gentrification” is a problem is almost too idiotic to take seriously — which is probably why Charleston City Council has spent so much time discussing it. Why is it a bad thing when a low-income homeowner chooses to sells his home to a willing buyer — one who happens to be rich … or even (horrors!) white?

OK — one bad thing does happen: The new owner is likely to pay local laborers thousands of dollars to increase his property’s value. And if that’s not “bad” enough, the property taxes will increase along with the value of the home, even though the new, wealthier residents are less likely to use city services.

Wealthier families paying more taxes while being less reliant on the government? No wonder liberals hate it!

Instead, politicians like Riley worry that rising values and improving neighborhoods will drive some longtime residents away. This changes the economic balance and — much more important — tends to change the racial make-up as well.

Yes, it is true that people who live in crappy neighborhoods are desperate to leave them. Just ask an illegal alien.

Interestingly, the New York Observer reported on a study showing that low-income families in gentrifying neighborhoods were 20 percent less likely to move than their counterparts in non-gentrifying ratholes of crime and squalor.

In other words, if you want good folks to stop moving away from troubled neighborhoods, start by letting the neighborhoods become less troubled.

Instead, we’ve got limousine liberals spending other people’s tax money to encourage low-income families to stay in lousy neighborhoods these same liberals wouldn’t even drive through without automatic door locks, much less live in.

The fact is, nobody objects to the economics of gentrification. The entire conversation is just another way to talk about race. It’s the issue that inspired Ray Nagin to declare New Orleans a “chocolate city,” and the topic of a column by a black Washington Post writer bragging about how she bought a house in a black neighborhood to “keep it out of the hands” of a white family.

According to the Post and Courier, Charleston’s peninsula is now almost evenly split between white and black residents. Thanks to the bizarre contortions of racial politics, this trend is viewed with alarm. To me, it sounds like Dr. King’s dream, but to Democratic politicians counting votes, it’s a civil rights disaster.

How about this crazy idea: Let people buy what they can afford and live where they want? How about we stop keeping track of the racial make-up of our neighborhoods and view everyone simply as a neighbor? Really, Mayor Riley — would that be such a bad thing?

However, if you really believe there is a race-based right to override the free market, then Mayor, I expect to see you at some swanky downtown restaurant this weekend, counting black customers. I want you at Gucci on Market Street, making sure no low-income shoppers are denied their fair share of $1,000 handbags. I want you buying Jager shots for broke C of C kids waiting for $1 beer night at their favorite bar.

If we can’t let people choose where to live, surely we can’t let them choose where to eat, shop or party. Can we?