Without knowing how we got here, we can’t understand where we are going.
The challenges we see today, such as disparities in wealth, education, housing and opportunity, are the result of historic, deep and entangled systems, designs and policies. These old designs linger under the surface of what feel like new and immediate crises. If we want to truly address these challenges, we need to unearth their origins and lived experience using Popular Education methodologies.
Among the most striking examples of these designs is 1930’s redlining, in which “green” areas were mapped out for investment and other places were colored red and cut off from investment and wealth. This system was based almost entirely on race.
When reading a description of why an area was zoned red, we will often find the words “hazardous influences, negro infiltration.” Green areas were homogeneous and white, with “restrictions on infiltration” that kept them that way.
The result is the American geography we are all very familiar with: concentrated areas of poverty in cities, with wealthier and mostly white suburbs surrounding them. This geographic structure determines what is possible next, and redlining therefore represents a key moment when explicit racism was designed into structural racism.
On the heels of redlining, we see practices like slum clearance, urban renewal, planned shrinkage, budget cuts, broken windows policing and mass incarceration. In each instance we find that the crises of one era seem to come from the “solutions” of an era prior. The question “how did we get here” is rarely considered, and meanwhile the collateral consequences felt by the people dealing with these crises are at best an afterthought, and often intentional.
Much of the work being done in community development today is intended to ameliorate the effects of designs like redlining. But are these new policies and proposals “undesigning” redlining, just tinkering around the edges, or worse, retrenching the divisions redlning created?
Without this history front-of-mind, we won’t answer these questions because we won’t ask them. When we look at any system or solution, we have to ask, how was it designed? Here we often find nefarious intentions, whether it is maintaining a racial divide, benefitting some at the expense of others, or exploiting the environment.
Only when we can know this history clearly can we begin to change our approach to undoing it.