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  • Writer's pictureWomen+ in Design PGH

The Color of Law | Part 1

On Friday, July 15th we hosted our first discussion in the three-part series on the book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Our hosts -- Monica, Katie, and Jo -- split us in to three groups to facilitate more small group-style conversation. Find some key takeaways below, and please RSVP to join us for the next two parts. Even if you haven't read the book, the discussions are valuable and give us a chance to maintain this community. Please join us!


RSVP here for Part 2 of The Color of Law discussion (chapter 7 through the epilogue) on Friday, August 14th at 8am.

RSVP here for Part 3: Next Steps to discuss redlining in Pittsburgh and where we go from here Friday, September 18th at 8am.


Many of us agreed that the book is eye-opening, and no matter how familiar we might have been personally or professionally with the subject matter, there was plenty that surprised us:

  • How deep the roles of public housing and zoning have played in the creation of the world we have today -- and how the origins of public housing in particular were originally to help the white middle- and lower-classes and veterans. It was only after municipalities stopped maintaining and funding those buildings and they were strictly for Black residents did the concept of "public housing" become unpopular

  • How insurance companies, banks, real estate market, government, real estate agents all contributed to taking advantage of inequality, and promoted it for their own gains -- it was truly systematic and those systems persist today. "This is not just a bad apple baked into society. This is not an accident."

  • How often a decision was made that was clearly detrimental to everyone involved (i.e. pushing the Black factory workers in California further and further away from their jobs), but that was clearly made along racist policy lines

  • How much of the decision-making happens at a governmental policy level without the input of architects, planners, and designers. As designers, our roles and abilities are dictated by policies that we didn't have a hand in creating (or, in many of the historically detrimental cases, didn't have a hand in preventing).

  • How those who hate certain racial, ethnic, or demographic groups have power over them in some ways.

Of course the role of the designer came up in our discussions. There are few mentions of architects or planners in the book, and those that do appear are not on the side of progress. Some of our thoughts about our own introduction to these issues as designers:

  • Several of us attended design schools in cities mentioned in the book (St. Louis) or with a history of segregation and racial issues. And yet we never were presented with the topic of race or the legacy of these policies or given the opportunity to study them.

  • Education on these subjects could have influenced our career paths earlier -- would we have pursued public policy, law, community design, design advocacy?

  • Several of us were overwhelmed by the book and reflected on our privilege to have the "head space" to read this book (instead of living it daily).

We are at a moment in our country's history where we are starting to dispel myths that have persisted for decades, if not centuries. This book helped us to understand where many of these myths originated:

  • The "American Dream" is a false narrative. It is not achievable for so many people that were not given the choice to decide where to live, work, or have the ability to buy a home. It is the "American Nightmare" for many, and "pulling oneself up by their bootstraps" is both unfair and false.

  • Public housing has a long-standing unfair reputation which was clearly intentionally created by racist policies. (For a compelling look at this subject, check out The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a documentary featuring some of the residents who once lived in the infamous, now-demolished public housing project in St. Louis.)

  • The major gaps -- whether it be the education gap, economic gap or environmental safety gap -- all occur due to the racist motives/decisions of policy makers long ago, and NOT because of individual choices or failures.

It is impossible to read this book and not make connections to what is going on in our cities today: the discriminatory practices of police departments leading to countless Black deaths, the protests led by Black Lives Matter and the ensuing federal response, the calls to defund the police. Our takeaways on making those connections:

  • If neighborhoods had been integrated from the start, there would probably be fewer police issues today.

  • “In the suburbs the police essentially are defunded-- and all of the other social services ARE funded to a greater extent.”

  • The current media still pushes a narrative of black crime that is untrue and skewed. There is fear-mongering on either side and pandering in the media.

  • Police are given too many disparate jobs (like social work) but are only given the tools of violence to do them.

What we are trying to achieve with this discussion and others we've hosted, is to widen our perspectives, become better allies, and gain a deeper understanding of what is wrong with this country so we can try to set it right. A few things we're considering now:

  • Asheville, NC, is one of the first cities to offer reparations to Black families in the form of home ownership. We discussed the potential for reparations on a larger scale and our increased understanding of how they could benefit society.

  • Everyone is responsible for developing a remedy -- government, leaders, individuals. No one is outside of this problem.

  • The issue of segregation persists today, developers and legislators are just adept at using different names and tactics. We discussed the "poor door" example in NYC and how segregation by socioeconomic class now maps closely with race (largely because of the legacy of the policies laid out in Rothstein's book).

Many of us had a personal connection to the book in one way or another:

  • One member of color remembers her family needing to weigh the consequences of home ownership in a white neighborhood: Is the social and emotional threat worth the wealth?

  • One designer relayed how the book influenced the way she approached a recent Planning Commission hearing.

  • Some of us discussed the book That's What She Said which outlines sexism in the professional world. Being a woman poses many challenges and struggles, but so many MORE barriers were and are put on women of color in this country.

What were your thoughts on the book? Let us know in the comments and join us August 14th!

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