Racism and Planning, Still Around

by Marie Kennedy

Racism continues to present the thorniest of challenges to progressive community development planners. The problems that were on the front burner for decades – residential and school segregation, housing and job discrimination – remain unsolved, and what limited progress has been made promises to be rolled back in the face of the dismantling of affirmative action, the privatization of housing and services, growing restrictions on immigrants, and the end of welfare. At the same time, new challenges are raised by globalization. In the U.S. and world-wide, income and wealth inequality is increasing at an alarming rate; given racism and educational disadvantage, people of color are hit hardest. Workers, particularly workers of color, from other countries are forced to leave their communities in search of economic survival in the United States. Increasingly mobile capital seeks the most exploitable work force and in order to keep jobs in our communities, many of us are forced to endure working conditions similar to our brothers and sisters in the third world. Meanwhile, a whole segment of the U.S. working class has been written off and relegated to the criminal justice system: one-third of young black males between 20-29 are either on parole, on probation, or incarcerated.

Workers in low-wage service sector jobs around the world are increasingly pushed to become interchangeable. On the bottom of the scale employers care less if you are black, Latino, Asian or white. They care more that you dress, speak and smile right while delivering hamburgers. The cultures that make up this multiracial, multiethnic workforce are stripped from people when they’re on the job, and they are increasingly commodified. The well-to-do can buy cultural artifacts, attend cultural events and wear “ethnic” clothing unaffordable to the people from which these cultural commodities were appropriated.

Beyond the Black-White Divide

While continuing to grapple with “traditional” race-related problems such as segregation, progressive planners need to develop a more complex analysis of race relations in order to effectively support movements for racial and economic justice in today’s changing world. Historically, discussion of race relations has been framed as a black-white question in the U.S. Aside from the fact that race is a social, not a biological construct, this characterization was never strictly correct even as shorthand: Native Americans, conquered Latinos, and Chinese “coolies,” while less numerous than blacks in the U.S., were, along with blacks, dispossessed and exploited to build the country’s wealth. Blacks once accounted for the vast majority of people of color in the U.S., but this is no longer true. While blacks are still the largest group, they are not the majority and by 2010 it is predicted there will be an equal number of Latinos. Because the impression persists that Latinos are primarily immigrants (and immigrants will “melt” into the “pot”), they are often ignored or excluded in conversations about race. While increased immigration of people of color in recent decades accounts for some of the diversification in the population of color in the U.S., two-thirds of the current Latino population is native born and millions trace their ancestry back to various conquered populations.

The wide-ranging set of articles in this issue of Planners Network, which I guest-edited with Luis Aponte-ParÞs and Mel King, highlight some pieces of the changing puzzle of race and ethnicity. The excerpt from the introduction to the book by June Manning Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf, Urban Planning and the African American Community, cautions us that we cannot formulate a new anti-racist practice of urban planning without a careful study of the intertwined history of urban planning and African- Americans. Ellen Pader questions the motives behind government-imposed housing standards, arguing that thinly disguised racism and cultural and class oppression, rather than concern for social and physical health, more often underlie the setting of standards. Drawing from the history of the Third World Jobs Clearing House, Mel King suggests some lessons for building an effective multiethnic coalition. Luis Aponte-ParÞs looks back at the experience of the New Great Society to illuminate a question that we still haven’t resolved: how can planners who don’t share the life circumstances or culture of the group they are working with be effective in supporting not only short-term planning goals, but social movements attempting to force substantial changes? Teresa CÜrdova shows how the land grab from indigenous people in the Southwest nurtured racist notions that continue to justify displacement and racial exclusion. Karen Umemoto tackles the problem of working across cultural differences by briefly discussing a case study where attempts at participatory planning unwittingly challenged deeply held meaning in a traditional Hawaiian community.
-Marie Kennedy

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