This time will we finally see real change? Since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police in late May, tens of thousands of people, in cities and towns in all 50 states (and around the world), have marched in support of Black Lives Matter. According to the Washington Post in early June, 74 percent of Americans in one poll “generally backed the protestors.” The Los Angeles Times wrote, “The most key shift is a new cultural consensus: It is no longer enough to be nonracist. People should strive to be antiracist.”
In America’s long history of inequality and injustice, the built environment is the most enduring symbol of racism. Not just the Confederate monuments that are being toppled in parks and on college campuses. Not just the quarters for enslaved people that tourists poke their heads into while strolling the leafy grounds of Southern plantations. Racism is embedded everywhere, from the quiet suburban streets of Satilla Shores, Georgia, where Ahmaud Arbery was killed while he jogged in late February, to the gated community in Sanford, Florida, where high schooler Trayvon Martin was shot dead in 2012. Racism marks the crumbling school buildings, the food deserts, and the patches of asphalt that pass for public space in predominantly Black neighborhoods. The recent golden age of American cities, which the COVID-19 pandemic may have brought to an abrupt close, bypassed many, if not most, urban African Americans (except those areas affected by gentrification, which often led to the displacement of longtime residents).
Housing policy and real-estate practices remain among the most insidious forms of racism. Home ownership is the primary means for most families to accumulate wealth, but, while nearly 72 percent of whites owned their houses in 2017, only 42 percent of African Americans did—the largest gap since 1968. That year, the Fair Housing Act abolished the government-backed practice of redlining that had denied home financing to generations of Black households. But a study just two years ago found banks still discriminate, with African Americans and Latinos far more likely than whites to be turned down for mortgages, even accounting for income and other factors. And last fall, an undercover investigation by the Long Island newspaper Newsday found that real-estate agents in that region’s suburbs discriminated against potential Black homebuyers 49 percent of the time.
The discrimination extends further, as the government pays homeowners in the form of tax deductions for mortgage interest and property tax—but not renters. A highly unequal and antiquated policy in this country finances public schools in part through a district’s property taxes, an idea that dates back to the Puritans (when the only property owners, of course, were white males).
It is far past time for a reckoning with these inequities, among many others, that are an outcome of planning and design as well as policy, as a growing body of scholarship documents white supremacy in architecture. The Eurocentric roots of design are under fire in both practice and architecture schools, where the academy lags decades behind such fields as literature and history in acknowledging and elevating the value of nonwhite cultures.
That the profession does not reflect the diversity of the communities it serves is overwhelmingly obvious. While African Americans make up about 14 percent of the U.S. population, about 5 percent of architecture students and only 2 percent of licensed architects identify as Black. That structural racism continues to be expressed in a wide range of building types—from prisons and police stations to exclusionary housing complexes—is an urgent issue for all architects.
Many of us who are white join our Black colleagues in seeking to end racial injustice. At record, we are reporting on African American perspectives and experiences in architecture, continuing to add voices and ideas across our platforms.
Yet we who are white also cannot pretend to understand Black experience—and when we ask for guidance, we are often, and rightly, told that we have to do the work of listening and learning.
And while we keep learning, one lesson is clear: the ranks of architects must open up to many more African Americans in education, practice, and leadership—and must collaborate with Black communities to push for real change in the built environment.
Because finally, enough is enough.