What does our past tell us 10 about the importance of growth and racial equity?
To talk about equitable development as our future, hard realities about the United States’ past have to be acknowledged. Throughout the nation’s history, some communities and neighborhoods prospered at the expense of others. Real estate redlining and racially restrictive covenants dictated where racially or culturally distinct communities could and could not live and where investments occurred.3 The Federal Highway Act tore apart communities of color with highways from central urban business districts to the predominately white suburbs and the G.I. Bill, along with discriminatory real estate lending and marketing practices, gave white households billions of dollars in home equity as they fled to the suburbs—greatly disinvesting in many urban neighborhoods with high populations of people of color in the process. The 1949 Housing Act’s Urban Renewal policy targeted low-income neighborhoods for redevelopment, many of which were primarily inhabited by residents of color. Homes and businesses were demolished and thousands of residents were displaced, drastically transforming the racial makeup and geography of our country’s cities.
Weakened by continued disinvestment in urban neighborhoods with high populations of people of color, the 2008 housing bubble-induced foreclosure crisis, and more recent shifts related to gentrification, development, and investment in urban areas has often exacerbated rather than reversed historic patterns of racial segregation and wealth inequality in place for generations. Both the private and public sectors helped solidify this systemic and racialized structure of wealth and poverty across the country.
Social structures and cultural identities were also solidified by these place-based policies and investments. Community-based organizations rose to meet the needs of specific cultural groups and neighborhoods. This still occurs today as new immigrants and refugees settle in the U.S. and look to preserve the continuity of their cultures within the mainstream American culture. These organizations and the associated social infrastructure are assets from which to build an equitable future.
The past injustices and numerous policy practices that undermined the integrity of certain neighborhoods cannot be undone, but there are strategies to bend the arc of future growth toward achieving racial equity. And these strategies require public agencies, including local jurisdictions, to recognize and embrace the critical role that public policy and decision-making play in facilitating growth and investment patterns. By consciously and proactively working to reverse patterns of racial inequity in investment and development, communities and their local governments can leverage public and private resources and existing community assets to create neighborhoods of opportunity for everyone, regardless of race or means.
- 3. The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America, Xavier de Souza Briggs, 2005