With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

In Open Letter, City Planning Officials Acknowledge Agencies' Role in Racist Development Decisions

Eleanor Sharpe recently started using a metaphor when talking about racial justice with her students at Temple University, where she is an adjunct professor for planning and community development. It’s not a metaphor she came up with herself, but it resonated with her.

“I told my students it’s like somebody built a house and did not follow any of the [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements, so people with disabilities don’t feel welcome,” Sharpe says. “We’ve inherited the house, and now we’re here, so how do we fix it to ensure that all are welcome?”

It’s a powerful metaphor, Sharpe says, because it cuts past the fear and guilt that sometimes comes with talking about racial inequity, without absolving the current and future planners in the room from the responsibility of doing something about it. Today’s city planners, whether they realize it or not, have inherited zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans and building codes and built environments that generations of predecessors have infused with implicit and sometimes very explicit racism.

That racist inheritance falls squarely on Sharpe’s shoulders. In addition to teaching, she’s the head of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. That racist inheritance in Philly is painful, but Sharpe says ignoring the true nature of that inheritance only serves to perpetuate its outcomes — Black versus white disparities in wealth, income, health outcomes and life expectancy, incarceration rates, even the average temperature of Black versus white neighborhoods. Planning isn’t the only contributing factor, but Sharpe believes it is definitely a powerful factor contributing to all these disparities.

“Our society is structured around white supremacy,” Sharpe says. “It’s not a debate, but there’s this fear to acknowledge it. That fear serves the retention of the systems that are not working. If you don’t know you’re working in a racist system, without even acknowledging it you’re supporting its goals.”

But some of the most frustrating denial or ignorance of planning’s racist inheritance comes from inside the planning profession itself, still a predominantly white profession. That’s why Sharpe is one of 20 planning directors around the country who recently released a joint statement acknowledging the role of city planning in creating and maintaining systemic racism and segregation, while also inviting their peers around the country to join them in efforts to reverse that.

Read entire article at NextCity