Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ignored Prophets: Why no Black urbanists?

A recent blog post is making the rounds of the twitter-sphere and causing a little bit of a buzz. The post asks the provocative question: where are the Black urbanists?

When I first read this piece I must admit that I nodded right along and found it a bit refreshing. But upon further reflection, and discussion with @rjkoscielniak and @tressiemcphd over email and beers, I became increasingly discontent and have decided that I disagree with the premise of the piece for a few reasons. There are black urbanists. We've simply been ignored or excluded. In other words, it's not community activist recalcitrance, white flight, or even large cultural perceptions of urban=bad/dirty that have limited the voices of Black urbanists, but widespread structural and cultural racism, and an urbanist community that is largely silent on issues that many Black urbanists, activists, and scholars have advocated over the life of this country.

Where art thou, urbanist?

But first let's examine what it is we mean by "urbanist".  Pete Saunders actually gives the reader a couple of definitions that are slightly contradictory. Not in a way that totally invalidates his points, but it goes to the difficulty of trying to define who can be classified as an "urbanist" and the inclusion or exclusion of Black voices. The first distinction is in delineating "traditional" urbanist areas of concentration: academics and intellectuals concerned about urban form characterized by abstraction and design-centered approaches. The second includes issue advocates such as urban agriculture activists, transit proponents, walkability folks etc. These two distinctions are narrow and fairly specific (one could challenge them, but I applaud trying to better bracket what we mean by "urbanist"), but Saunders then shoots himself in the foot by referencing the Planetizen Top 100 Urban Thinkers that includes multiple activists, scholars, politicians that don't fit those two prior areas, unless he wants to expand his notion of activists a lot wider. Jacob Riis, Henry Ford, and Prince Charles are all included on the list and do not fit the narrow definitions first offered. 

To his credit, Saunders fully recognizes that the fields of urban planning, architecture and other design-centered industries have very low minority representation, thus limiting the potential range of prominent black voices from those fields. So, already, we need to recognize past structural barriers to entry to Black voices and contemporary structural issues that potentially limit the ability of Blacks to be heard. But that does not explain the total indifference to prominent Black commentators on urban life and urbanism in other fields, including planning.

Some Black Urbanists

First, let's see if we can find some Black urbanists that would fit Saunders' more traditional definitions and see if we can recognize these people as respected and influential thinkers. The two people that instantly jumped out in conversation with folks were Professors June Manning Thomas and William Julius Wilson.

Professor Thomas has authored or edited multiple books examining issues of social equity, racial justice and urban development. There are few active Black planning scholars today that compare to her notoriety and expertise and there are very few scholars at all in planning that examine issues of race, re-development, decline and urban history like Dr. Thomas.

Professor William Julius Wilson probably needs very little introduction to most of the readers of this blog, but it is not an exaggeration to say that he re-defined our concept of poverty, the ghetto, and work. There are few more eloquent critics of urban development and its role in exacerbating existing social and racial disparity.

We can argue over scoring points in identifying Black urbanists but when you talk about intellectual concepts of space as well as strong advocates, then I would say you would be hard pressed to find two scholars more esteemed than Thomas and Wilson. Yet these two are nowhere to be found in the post or Planetizen's list.

But extending our concept of urbanist to a broader range of individuals, like those found on Planetizen's list yields an even richer amount of Black urban voices. Some of these folks are no longer with us while some are. The point is to show that we have a MULTITUDE of Black urbanist voices that are not commonly accepted or cited (I'll try to give some theories as to why they're so ignored further on).

  • W.E.B. DuBois- other than being one of the most eloquent critics of American racism and a prolific scholar, DuBois' The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Story  is a landmark bit of urban sociology and geography as well as a great exploration of the socio-spatial relations of segregation in a northern city. A true urbanism project.
  • Elijah Anderson- noted sociologist and urban ethnographer that has also helped to redefine our perceptions of the "street" and the people who live there. A strong voice for marginalized and ghettoized populations and a great Black urbanist scholar. 
  • James Baldwin- a great writer and critic of American racism, Baldwin also wrote extensively about growing up in Harlem and the unique rhythms, circumstances, the simultaneous expressions of hope despair, love and hate, suffering and salvation that define the lives of poor Black people
  • Langston Hughes- few people have better illustrated the lives of Black people in verse and his portraits of Black life in the city resonate still
  • Martin Luther King Jr.- seriously, if we include Jacob Riis on the Planetizen list, then you gotta have Dr. King. The civil rights movement in many ways was an urban movement and few people spoke as eloquently on the hope of this country and its cities and their abilities to accept Black people fully than King.
  • Malcolm X- A product of our cities and our prisons. Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam, were urban-based activists and their demands for self-determination, self-defense and community economic development are rich, deep models of alternative urban life.
  • Franz Fanon- while not an American Black person his anti-colonial works were once again based largely in cities and from observation of the city lives of marginalized and colonized peoples.
  • Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and the Black Panther Party- an urban revolutionary organization that demonstrated the power of local political action and the possibilities of different ways of organizing our own lives and society in a way that was more inclusive. The party stands as a great example of a radical urbanism that is often ignored by many urbanist and planning scholars.
  • Majora Carter- while Carter is still relatively new on the scene her advocacy for environmental justice, livability, and equality stands as a strong guide for urbanists that are legitimately interested in sustainability and the city. Not that one should care but she has a national TED talk. I mean, c'mon, do you need a bigger sign in our new world of one's importance?
This list could go on and on. I also recognize that the list is incredibly light on women, queer folk of color and many other groups. While I cannot provide an exhaustive list, I wanted to try and balance names that many people should be familiar with and show that there are a variety of Black urbanist voices but they are not recognized within the urbanism community.

Can we get some love?

Why aren't these folks recognized as visionary urban or urbanist thinkers? I have two ideas why. 

The first, as Saunders accurately pointed out, is that Black folks are not heavily represented in the "traditional" urbanism fields. Architecture, as a profession, has a long history of trying to improve its diversity. We find similar disparity in many design-oriented fields when we examine minority and woman representation. Until we can better prepare Black students to enter these fields as well as reform these fields to better value racial and gender diversity, then this disparity will persist. 

The second reason is a bit more subtle, but it has to do with the politics of these commentators. If you examine some of the celebrated urbanists that Saunders cites by name and the Planetizen list, then it becomes evident after a while that the politics of many contemporary urban thinkers rests squarely within the status quo or actually veers a bit to the right. Thinkers like Flordia, Duany, or a Kunstler have not been strong advocates of racial or social justice. While their work may seem radical in that it questions some closely-held cultural beliefs over car ownership, sprawl etc their views that do not really actively trouble existing social, political, or economic relations. In fact, it is quite telling that when you examine the Planetizen list that the openly radical, American thinkers all were practicing or directly influential more than 30 years ago. The closest we get is Norm Krumholz and equity planning, but we can't pretend that this is a dominant urban development paradigm. In fact, when we look at contemporary big-time thinkers, we often find that they say very little on issues of racial equity, social justice, environmental justice, poverty alleviation etc...areas of concern that traditionally have been areas where Black academics have focused.

It is this cordoning off of acceptable areas of urban inquiry that is a major blow to the notoriety of Black urbanists. It is telling that Saunders, when listing urban "advocates" as part of his urbanist dualism, does not mention housing affordability advocates, transit justice advocates, or environmental justice groups as urbanist interest groups. Organizations like PolicyLink, headed by Angela Glover Blackwell, is a national thought leader and strong advocate for urbanism based on equity and access for people of color and the poor, yet organizations like PolicyLink and thinkers like Blackwell are not included as urbanism advocates? Why? Because their concepts of urbanism and the city explicitly challenge the awful social relations, based in racism, segregation, and neoliberal development, that dictate much of urban life for marginalized folks of all races and creeds. Asking for more bike lanes and transit oriented development, while different and "progressive", aren't necessarily attacking fundamental relations between the state and capital or the people and the state. 

This is why communities of color and poorer communities scoff at the advancement of bike lanes and certain kinds of redevelopment. It is not a knee-jerk response to have neighborhoods "by blacks, for blacks" but it is often a response to being ignored for years, living in areas that are already transitioning (primarily through displacement), and being disgusted that the concerns of a privileged few are given credence over decades of requests for assistance from city governments. Black urbanists and activists have often acted as advocates for this ignored populations.

It is this often radical turn of Black urbanist commentary and thought that has been left outside of the consideration of most mainstream urban commentators precisely because they trouble and problematize existing social relations. In this sense, I celebrate the lack of a black Richard Florida or Jane Jacobs because as popular as these scholars are, the politics they embody have been implicated in increased gentrification, labor market bifurcation, and continued indifference to the plight of communities of color and other marginalized populations.

Do not despair, urbanists of color. We're out there. Our voices are loud and radical and we have a tradition that stretches back over a century. If we are not recognized, it is because we still often insist on holding America and its cities to account and to imagine a country and a city that is defined not by inequality, gentrification, and social exclusion but opportunity, equality, and inclusion.


R Koscielniak said...

nailed this.

цarьchitect said...

Nice. Dead on with my experience in trying to figure out why there are so few black architect, and how social issues are elided from history and handled with theory rather than practice.

I want to reblog this, but I think it's worth it now to point out that Kunstler is not just ambivalent on race, he's a straight up racist and sexist. I noticed this in The Long Emergency , so I'm going into some of his other books. He's into the conspiracy theory about Latinos forming Aztlan, thinks privilege doesn't exist, and thinks that after peak oil, women shouldn't work, and nobody will have a right to "special grievances."

Joseph Readdy said...

Thanks for the well-considered and well-written polemic. I'm not a fan of top 10 or top 100 lists; they often say much more about the author than about the subject. When the subject is "trivial" –the ten best muscle cars of the 1960s– it does no harm and may spark some interesting discussion.
I appreciate what you've accomplished in this post because you've taken something "trivial" and turned it into an opportunity to examine the bias of the professions of urban design and urban planning derived from the academy. I believe that there is value in that.
Have you read The Aesthetics of Equity: notes on race, space, architecture, and music by Craig L. Wilkins (University of Minnesota Press, 2007)? Maybe another name to add to your list…
I also appreciate that you are making Portland your home.

Steven said...

Just as you criticize the Planetizen list and others for their lack of alive and producing scholars, your list of black scholars suffers the same problem. Most are dead, and Thomas, Wilson, and Anderson are all approaching the tail end of their careers. Their days of really changing the discussion have, to a large degree, come and gone. Majora Carter and Angela Glover Blackwell definitely have many years ahead of them to make their mark. It is absolutely shameful that Angela and PolicyLink are not getting more recognition. Someone else to add to the list, although he is rather boisterous and at times full of hot air, Van Jones is one of the more vocal black activists of the day. You can't deny his influence.

Overall, the lack of black urban scholars is a reflection of a greater failure in American society that the slowdown in the national investment in education starting in the late 70's mostly affected the college attainment of blacks. It's not just a matter of their underrepresentation in urban-related fields in college. If they are not able to graduate high school let alone even make it into college, then their ability to really make a mark as an urban scholar/activist is highly limited.

eringoodling said...

Thank god Majora Carter is on that list. How 'bout J. Agyeman? A. Roy? L. Pulido? Just a few shout-outs.

eringoodling said...

Thank god Majora Carter is on that list. How 'bout J. Agyeman? A. Roy? L. Pulido? Just a few shout-outs.