By Sarah Sieloff, Exective Director | Center for Creative Land Recycling
Posted March 28, 2019
Many thanks to Don Edwards, CEO and Principal at Justice and Sustainability Associates, for his help and feedback with this piece.
Racial segregation in housing…was a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century, designed and implemented by its most liberal leaders. Our system of official segregation was not the result of a single law that consigned African Americans to designated neighborhoods. Rather, scores of racially explicit laws, regulations, and government practices combined to create a nationwide system of urban ghettos, surrounded by white suburbs.
Norman Rockwell (American, 1894-1978). The Problem We All Live With, 1964. Story illustration for Look, January 14, 1964. Oil on canvas. 36 x 58 in. (91.4 x 147.3 cm). From the permanent collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum. © The Norman Rockwell Estate / Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing Company, Niles, Illinois
For environmental remediation and land reuse to truly support community-driven to transformation, we must understand and acknowledge our history, and recognize how the history presented in The Color of Law impacts our work today, here, now. Racial segregation has shaped our cities and towns, directed contamination at some but not others, and ruptured our social and urban fabric. Until we incorporate a view of history into our land reuse work, and acknowledge the impact that segregationist housing and land use policies have had on our communities, our impact will be limited. Consider this passage from The Color of Law about the construction of low-income housing in the mid-20th century:
In about a dozen states (among them California, Iowa, Minnesota, Virginia and Wisconsin), the few suburban officials who may have wanted integrated developments were prevented by state constitutional amendments, adopted in the 1950s, that required a local referendum before building a low-income family public housing project. Middle-class white communities then systematically vetoed public housing proposals.
The constitutionality of such referenda was challenged in the courts, as the racial motivation was obvious (senior housing required no referendum). In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that such referenda were constitutional. In California, recent reporting spotlighted these same local referenda as a major obstacle to the construction of low-income housing. Once again, history is not far away. In fact, it’s hot on our heels.
It is important to note that while The Color of Law unveils difficult history, it is not a book that will leave you feeling discouraged. Rothstein’s final chapter includes a specific and powerful call to action, in the form of tangible things that all of us can do to create change in our communities today.
The Color of Law is necessary and thoughtful reading for everyone involved in the business of making cities. Be sure to tune in to our webcast on April 9th at 11:00am Pacific, 2:00pm Eastern to hear Richard Rothstein speak about the intersection of displacement and land reuse. You can register at this link.
1. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward Baptist, 2016.