Assistant ProfessorHistoric Preservation Program, School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, University of Maryland, College Park
In Silver Spring, Maryland, residents of a historically Black neighborhood created a history exhibit in a county-run community center. The exhibit debuted about a decade ago after the local historic preservation organization produced a documentary and published books that omitted African American history and the contemporary community. "We don't exist to them," one lifelong resident told me in a 2018 interview.
Thank you, Jamesha, for your detailed and thoughtful relpy to my post. Briefly, in response to the questions you asked,
(1) My question, based on your insight provided, is why do you feel being a racist is inescapable? I ask because, in my sense of confusion, it seems that you are cancelling out your agency.
Rather than stumble over trying to answer, I'll let a more eloquent scholar explain. Though Robin DiAngelo has done many interviews since her White Fragility was published, I really like this brief interview she recently did with the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart: "The Author of 'White Fragility' Doesn't Think 'Most White People Care about Racial Injustice.'" Cape Up. https://www.washingtonpost.com/podcasts/cape-up/the-author-of-white-fragility-doesnt-think-most-white-people-care-about-racial-injustice/.
(2) Can you please share more insight on the nuances of your experience as a historian/researcher, and how you navigate your agency at the nexus of racism complicity and complacency in this position within the larger system of oppression?
My work and experiences aren't really "nuanced." They're pretty blunt and tend to anger lots of folks. In 2011 I began writing about racism, displacement, and gentrification in Decatur, Georgia. The fragile white residents there who wear their liberal and progressive credentials on their sleeves weren't going to stand for someone challenging them and their community's brand/image (see https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/decatur-georgia-diversity-initiatives-fail-gentrification-equity). They responded violently (see https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/160914). I don't like being bullied, especially by racists (of all positions along the spectrum), and I began speaking and writing about the harmful intersection of erasing Black bodies (gentrification/displacement) and erasing/silencing Black history, especially where my profession has been involved in the erasure by producing books, articles, films, exhibits, etc. that celebrate white supremacy and omit and minimize the Black experience. In some of the public programs I do I like to quote David Billings, author of the 2016 book Deep Denial:
I am speaking to whites against racism. It's been a learning process and I have made lots of mistakes along the way. When I began working with gentrification and displacement, it was accidental and it took me several years to go beyond my training in history, folklore and folklife, etc. There was urgency in my early work because people in Decatur were being racially profiled and harassed by the police (see https://ncph.org/history-at-work/racial-profiling-historical-relevance/), irreplaceable Black history sites were being demolished, and people were losing their homes to predatory real estate speculators. The same was true in subsequent years in Silver Spring: there were plans underway that were going to exacerbate earlier harms inflicted by systemic racism.
There were modest gains in both communities in terms of awareness (see https://mont.thesentinel.com/2019/02/14/navarro-requests-name-change-for-middle-school/), but until we find a cure for white fragility, they likely won't be sustainable. The book I'm writing on gentrification and displacement in Decatur draws heavily on the follow-up comparative research that I did in Silver Spring. Ultimately, very little distinguishes one community from the other, from the ways that historic preservation has perpetuated white supremacy to the gentrification pressures each community is facing to the efforts each community is making to mitigate the damage to their images after the deeply entrenched systemic racism has been exposed.
(3) Discuss the difference between Jane Jacobs' approaches to, and definitions of, community, the built environment, race, racial inequality, and social justice, and Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and Ta-Nehisi Coates' approaches to, and definitions of, these concepts?
That would require a lot more space and footnotes than an email response. Geographers and sociologists are challenging Jacobs and her urbanism. She had a lot of things right by pairing her discussions of the built environment with the people who lived, worked, and played in the spaces. I think a more holistic approach that begins with the uncomfortable premise to many whites is that we need to change our paradigm to be more truthful with how racism-capitalism and anti-Black hate are so fundamental to the society we've constructed. Once we overcome those and the related issues of equitable housing, healthcare, education, policing, etc., then we can talk about better cities, etc.
Thank you, again, for you thoughtful comments.
Good afternoon. If I were subscribed to this with a personal email, I would be responding there. While my employer allows me a latitude to speak somewhat freely, I want to emphasize that I am generally speaking for myself.
I have struggled to figure out how preservation can play a role in this ongoing evolution of public response to the systemic racism of American life. Public historians seem to be in a better position to be able to respond and connect with these stories of systemic oppression upon anyone that is not white and European in background. Historic preservationists, being rooted in large part in regulatory authority, are "inside the machine" and may have a more difficult time finding a route out to speak on this topic. The field, even as it is perceived as young and grassroots, is now starting to become moldy and moribund. Making major shifts are difficult. Even if we broaden our scope to museums and we have someone like Vagnone to speak for the changes necessary, we are still dealing with a field that is struggling to adapt. We were having a hard enough adapting because of a global pandemic, so how can we quickly adjust to 400 plus years of systemic racism and oppression?
The only method I can see for change within the system (i.e. responsive and inclusive to the diverse stories of history as they impact the cultural landscape) is to start a process at the top levels – ACHP, NPS. And in today's political landscape I'm not sure I see that happening. We must pressure these institutions as the gatekeepers to the "rules" of preservation. I believe there is a possible route that moves from the grassroots to change our systems, but it may take another 20 to 40 years and will require rebuilding the system completely. Neither will be easy, but nothing worth doing is easy, right?
As a middle aged, white, male I have felt that my role in the many changes - #metoo, BLM, etc – has been one of listener. I have to understand my biases and how they manifest. (I really like this list of racial macroaggressions as a way to check myself before writing or saying something: https://www.sph.umn.edu/site/docs/hewg/microaggressions.pdf) Raised in a white community, attending school in white communities, living now in a majority white community (even in a majority African American county) has kept me isolated in many ways. But I have had two experiences which have helped me see that while I can keep my voice muted, I can be effective in how I support and change the systems.
First, I was given the great opportunity to be a mentor to a diversity scholar at a NTHP conference a few years ago. This young professional was working her way into landscape preservation. You could see she was energized by the topic. But she brought to light my inherent benefits by being white. Her parents expected her to go into medicine. She didn't have the passion. So she managed to get them to agree to biology. Then she managed to shift to environmental science. Then she shifted to landscape architecture. At least her parents could see it was a money earning field. My parents, blue collar, working class people, may have made a quick question about my plans for pursuing a degree in historic preservation but they never spoke against it. They never said I needed to earn more money or choose something that is mainstream. I was free to choose whatever path I wanted. Why? Because as a white man I would be able to make something no matter my degree or interest. As a black woman, she would be limited in her choices and needed to choose something that would get her the furthest possible. I realized we needed a process to get diverse voices into the field and that starts with changing the perception of the academic accessibility. Morgan's program is good start and I'd love to help expand it to other HBCUs. But we need our other academic institutions be more inclusive. Maybe COVID will be a big change maker for this issue. Students should feel good about entering historic preservation and not stigmatized.
Secondly, during a meeting of heritage area directors, a participant stood up and criticized us for not giving more grants to African American groups. I was incensed. How could we be accused of this when no one applies for these grants? And, of course, that is the crux of the issue. The organizations don't have the resources and capacity. They are operating on much thinner margins than white led organizations. They can't even afford to apply for funding – you need money to get money. I found that the best way to use my influence and power as a white male was to seek ways to change the system internally and support those organizations that needed to get out of the cycle.
I have tried hard to bring stories out from communities with a knee on their neck. We are thrilled that projects that highlight civil rights and Jim Crow's impact we be moving forward out of our granting mechanisms. We are building and revising partnerships with African American and Latinx groups to make sure they have access to our work and programs. We are meeting directly and asking what they want – not directing them to follow our rules before we can grant access.
So if I can offer one consideration, I would simply suggest that we (and I guess I mean white preservationists) take a moment and look at our systems that are in place. Are we open? Do we understand that preservationists, particularly white ones, are often seen as gatekeepers and not partners? If we can do nothing else in the coming weeks, months, and years we must continue to pressure those that oversee the internal controls of the white biased regulatory system to change and not just be more inclusive, but to work toward being unbiased.
Be well. Be safe. Do what you can, where you can.
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