Women+ in Design PGH
The Color of Law | Part 2
Updated: Aug 23, 2020
On Friday, August 14th we hosted the the second session in the three-part series on the book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Those of us who had participated in Part 1 returned to the same small groups. New folks just joining were randomly assigned to a group. Whether a new voice or a returning reader, the small group format helped all to feel like they could connect and converse deeply with this material. Recap of our conversations below. Have further thoughts on the book or your experience in these conversations, let us know! And be sure to join us Friday, September 18th for the conclusion of this series.
RSVP here for Part 3: Next Steps to discuss redlining in Pittsburgh and where we go from here Friday, September 18th at 8am.
Regardless of how much of the book each of us had read, the overarching subject matter -- intentional racial segregation through plans, policies, and politics -- resonated with each of us. In each group, we discussed the current context of racial segregation and how relevant this book still is in too many ways.
Just days before this second discussion of The Color of Law began, The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rescinded the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulation that the Obama Administration had attached to the Fair Housing Act. According to the National Housing Law Project, the AFFH was intended to require the federal government to "take proactive steps to address longstanding patterns of segregation, discrimination, and disinvestment." In response to his administration dismantling this regulation, President Trump tweeted:
The message in his tweet was unmistakable, and a hallmark of a presidency built on racism and divisive language. "The people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream" are white people; low income housing means black people moving in to your "safe" neighborhood. Trump played on the exact same language and tactics predatory real estate agents and developers used in the mid-20th century to scare white people in to entrenching segregation in their communities. There was no evidence then, and there is no evidence now, that Black residents cause housing prices to drop.
We expressed our alarm at these dog-whistle politics, and further responded to this news in our conversation groups:
Housing is and continues to be a political battleground. Where we live, who is "allowed" to live in a particular neighborhood, what we think of when we hear the words "safety," "crime," and "public housing" all have implications that encourage us to vote in one way or another.
Though we might know these policies are wrong now, we had empathy and understanding for people who lived in earlier times who didn't know how to overcome them. We live in very different times now than in the 1950's; Trump's tweet is implicitly racist in a way that is clear to his base without being explicit in its racial language. We need to be more active in our support of policies that directly undermine segregation than our forebears.
Earlier policies may have had more explicit language that created racial barriers to housing. These days the tactics may be more subtle or without an obvious racial component, but with the same detrimental effects on our neighborhoods.
There are again parallels with sexism and the language that is used to demean women. We discussed Alexandria Ocasio Cortez's empowered response to Ted Yoho's sexist slur and how often hurtful and discriminatory comments take place today, often with no reparations or apologies.
Our discussions focused locally as well, turning to Pittsburgh and some of the local tactics we have observed that have created the racially segregated landscape of the city:
We discussed The Hill District, The Point, and The North Shore, all places that once had thriving Black neighborhoods that were systematically destroyed to make way for other development. On the North Shore, the stadiums and parking lots that replaced these neighborhoods are empty how much of the time? The conclusion we drew was that even our "public" spaces prioritize certain people over others. [An interesting perspective is provided in the article, "I've Seen the End of Cars and It's Amazing," wherein the author illustrates that in NYC there is more road for cars than there is sidewalk for pedestrians, and yet only 20% of New Yorkers own a car.]
This track led us to ask many questions about the public spaces that surround us: Who gets to decide the best use of public space? Who is a part of these decisions? Who is at the table? As we saw repeatedly in The Color of Law, the people who are at the table are the ones whose needs and desires are prioritized.
We also discussed the redistricting of schools in Pittsburgh that was clearly racially motivated. Some of us attempted to advocate for more diverse districts, recognizing that this would benefit our kids as well. But again, those who are at the table make the decisions. The school board had more power than the activists and redrew the lines.
As designers, we have a complicated relationship with the gentrification happening in Pittsburgh, such as in East Liberty. Revitalization of a neighborhood can be good; economic prosperity is generally better than disinvestment. However, when the residents of a place are not always uplifted when gentrification occurs. As an architect, we might be employed to carry out the very mission we philosophically oppose. What role do we play in gentrification? What if we are not the decision makers in our firm and cannot control the projects we work on?
Another example of the segregation overlay in Pittsburgh is the university bubble that has encircled Oakland for many years. When downtown was seen as an "undesirable" (i.e. Black) place, the universities had no interest in being connected. Now that tech companies and other successful business ventures have attracted more "upscale" (i.e. white) residents and tenants, the universities are clamoring for better transportation and communication between the two neighborhoods.
A similar example can be found near Syracuse University. The entrance to Route 81 divided the university from section 8 housing and downtown. In the last 15 years, the university has been trying to break the boundaries through re-planning and design.
Another example of discriminatory planning can be found in Albany Empire State Plaza. The imposing scale of the development compounded with the eviction of low-income families for its construction has echoes of Pittsburgh's Civic Arena in the Lower Hill.
Since the beginning of this particular leg of the "dismantling racism" journey, we have already started to work towards change in our communities. No matter how small they may seem, these actions can eventually have a big impact.
We are recognizing when we can potentially educate others. A few of us have already had conversations with our parents and grandparents to help them "unlearn" certain ideas around racism and the history of housing policies in this country.
A few of us have started Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion task forces in our companies, or are getting involved in nascent efforts others have started. There has been a good response so far as to interest and attendance. Though we may struggle with determining the best way to move forward, at least we are moving.
We are identifying measurable, actionable steps our firms can take, such as:
Assembling diverse project teams
Taking on different project types
Scrutinizing our hiring practices to ensure they are equitable
Instituting employee diversity training
In reflecting on our reading of The Color of Law, many of us agreed that education is vital to being able to make better choices in the future. We discussed how we can take that education and turn it in to actions, recognizing that "Knowledge is Power."
We need to have conversations about race with the children in our lives earlier.
We can advocate for our changing our education systems so that all history is being told.
We can be good neighbors! One person discussed witnessing her neighbors recently inserting themselves very directly in harm's way in a recent incident involving the police near her home, recognizing the power they had as white people.
We can be intentional in all we do as we increase our awareness. We cannot just hope that things will get better.
We can advocate for inclusionary zoning regulations that require a certain number of affordable housing units be included in all new developments.
We can advocate for solutions that bridge the educational gap such as student loan assistance and forgiveness, recognizing that the housing wealth gap is a major factor in racial economic disparity, but inequalities in educational attainment must also be addressed.
Recognizing the connections between redlined neighborhoods and high COVID-19 infection rates
What were your thoughts on the book? Have you witnessed the impact of racial segregation in your own life or practice? Let us know in the comments and join us September 18th for the conclusion of this series!