How Urban Policy Shapes Systemic Racism

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers set off nationwide protests and conversations about the systemic racism prevalent in the United States. Protesters confront topics like the militarization of police, representation in local and national government, and widespread racist attitudes. However, urban planning and development’s history in these factors has passed rather unnoticed in this national conversation, and forgetting such an impactful aspect of systemic racism could bring unintended consequences from our proposed solutions.

For an example of urban policy gone wrong, we can examine Atlanta, Georgia, the city “Too Busy to Hate” and home to Martin Luther King Jr. Many in Atlanta consider themselves the exception; a city which embraces diversity and left racism in the past. However, the current situation still reflects the racist decisions by lawmakers and city planners in the 20th century. City leaders built highways to act as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities.” The downtown connector, which runs along the spine of Atlanta, runs over the ruins previously black neighborhoods.

I-20, the Downtown Connector, and Turner Field lay on the sites of prosperous black neighborhoods

It was not only highways which sliced, diced, and razed black neighborhoods. Turner Field, the iconic baseball stadium just south of Downtown Atlanta, sits on the ground of 3,000 former (majority black) households and 154 former businesses. This construction, along with the coinciding construction of I-20, I-85, and I-75, blocked off the surrounding neighborhoods from Downtown and sapped them of businesses and families. Today, city leaders still use the excuse of urban renewal to justify investing billions of dollars in stadium projects, billions of dollars which could work towards ending urban poverty in more proven methods.

Atlanta’s public transportation network, MARTA, reflects this racist development as well. Commonly referred to as “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta,” its rejection by white suburbia cemented Atlanta’s racial divisions. Fear of bringing “crime” (a thinly veiled reference to race) led suburban counties to reject MARTA’s expansion outside the core counties. With funding constraints placed by Lester Maddox, the segregationist Lieutenant Governor, artificially inflating fares to some of the highest in the nation, MARTA serves as a brutal reminder for how projects intended to help cities can do just the opposite. These attitudes have not faded over time. Just in 2019, Gwinnett County rejected MARTA expansion for the third time. Popular motifs, such as “bringing crime,” remained center in the anti-MARTA campaign.

John Kendrick and Devonte Shipman, two black men needlessly stopped in Jacksonville for pedestrian violations (Via Streetsblog USA, Florida Times-Union)

Atlanta is not alone in its racist development, though. Lacking infrastructure combined with strict policing causes black people nationwide to be arrested for crimes such as jaywalking. In Jacksonville, Florida, black people are 3 times more likely to receive pedestrian citations. This stems from a lack of pedestrian infrastructure in communities where it is needed the most, a byproduct of the systemic racism plaguing the US. While only 5% of white households live without a car, nearly 20% of black households do, and many times, these households find themselves in communities without proper infrastructure for a car-less life.

When combined with strict pedestrian rules and targeted policing, these factors can lead to a cycle of poverty. Pedestrian laws provide reason for police to use minorities to extract revenue. In Jacksonville, a ProPublica report showed that “there is no strong relationship between where tickets are being issued and where people are being killed.” In the same report, ProPublica found that many times, these pedestrian violations came not when individuals broke the law, but when the infrastructure to follow said laws did not exist. Black people in these neighborhoods face a massive dilema: take out a predatory loan to afford a car, a loan whose interest rate could bankrupt them, or walk around the neighborhood. For the latter, the best case is living in fear of arbitrary police stops. The worst, getting shot by those “serving and protecting.”

Most neighborhoods lacking infrastructure also suffer from a policy of redlining, where banks refuse mortgages to certain neighborhoods largely based off of ethnicity. These neighborhoods did not have to be poor; the neighborhoods LaVilla and Sugar Hill were wealthy black neighborhoods, but they still suffered from redlining and declined from a lack of investment and capital availability. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 supposedly outlawed this practice, but the effects are still here in the 21st century. In Jacksonville, formerly redlined neighborhoods still receive a fraction of the mortgages available to majority white neighborhoods. In St. Louis, mortgages in majority black neighborhoods have a nearly 30% rejection rate, with these rates largely tied to race. With lower capital and property ownership, communities cannot invest in basic infrastructure like schools, parks, and transportation.

Efforts to “improve” these neighborhoods garner mistrust due to historical events. Planners used this rhetoric to justify destroying black neighborhoods for projects like the Georgia World Congress Center and Central Park in New York City. 21st century improvement projects such as the Beltline, which turns unused land in these communities into a bike path, have backfired, leading to rising housing prices and rents and failing to deliver on the affordable housing promised at the start. For home-owners in these communities, rising housing prices could bring many benefits, such as a greater net worth and ability to sell for a profit. However, only 45% of black people own their home, as opposed to 75% of white people, so rising monthly payments does not come with a silver lining for most in gentrifying communities.

When confronting systemic racism, conversations must include urban development’s role in creating and maintaining said system. Urban renewal, redlining, and lacking infrastructure simply serve as a brief example of the toll malicious urban planning has taken on black communities in the last century. In addressing the concerns of black communities, these failed policies must serve as a reminder that any action based on urban policy will have lasting consequences. For example, in the short term, rent control may help stop gentrification, but long term it will speed it up by creating artificial housing shortages, raising rents. However, urban policy has the potential to bring black communities to their former glory. Involving the community in development projects, rather than unilateral state- or nation-wide policies can help identify and remove negative impacts. Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Districts can help keep a cultural connection to a neighborhood while allowing for development. Good urban policy is necessary for overcoming systemic racism; we’ve seen its harms when used poorly.

Interested in US, EU, and Global politics.

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