Mabel Wilson, a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, is senior fellow at the Institute for Research in African American Studies and co-directs the Global Africa Lab.
What a speech, but timely more than ever! The only difference is that there aren’t many “chocolate cities with vanilla suburbs” given that state-funded private redevelopment has gentrified many of those neighborhoods. And those neighborhoods that are left, they have been decimated by drug policies, incarceration, unemployment, resource-starved schools, dwindling social services, and deadly policing.
An essay published in March in The Atlantic by Abdallah Fayyad, “The Unfulfilled Promise of Fair Housing,” says it all, but boils it down to the basics: white wealth (has always) required black and brown poverty. Or as Michel Foucault said of the modern state in [his 1976 lecture] “Society Must be Defended,” the liberal state is structured to either “make live or let die.”
The current state of affairs is rooted in what was put into place first by the Declaration of Independence and then was structured into the Constitution—that land and resources, along with tools (guns) to defend that property, were available to select white Europeans. You had to own land to be a citizen. Citizenship has always been racially coded white, which is why you needed the 14th Amendment after the Civil War to clarify rights so that former slaves could become citizens. That “whiteness,” as Cheryl Harris [in a 1993 issue of the Harvard Law Review] succinctly wrote, has been wielded as property. Therefore, I would argue that architects, as a modern European discipline and profession of building, are agents of the development of that property and its value.
My current research is trying to determine in what ways architects are productive of white racial hegemony. Given that it is one of the whitest professions, my hunch is that it’s been a long-term tool (in concert with many, many, many other factors) to produce racialized structural inequalities. Therefore Young is right: Why would public housing, vertical ghettos, succeed? But because architects are visionaries, whose mission it is to craft a better world, retrospection and critical engagement in the current status of the field is difficult to undertake.