Skip to main content

Injustice by design: Confronting the embedded racism of America's cities

How urban planning and policy decisions created the current racial segregation and injustice in America's cities.

timon mcphearson
Urban Community Ecologist

From Ferguson to Minneapolis, protests over the killing of Black and brown people by police have ignited difficult conversations around race, forcing us to confront the reality that racism exists and perpetuates itself in ways we’ve neglected to fully appreciate. In northern cities generally thought of as progressive enclaves, there’s often a tendency to absolve ourselves and think of racism as primarily a rural problem, or one associated with the deep south and the legacy of Jim Crow. But, as the protests over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis show, racism is very much an urban problem, even in the bluest cities of the blue states. New York City, for example, is home to the most segregated school system in the country and some of the highest levels of economic inequality in the nation.

We think of racism as a social ill, but the urban nature of the current uprisings across all 50 states underscores the need to understand the spatial aspects of racism. We can’t afford to ignore the role of place — of geography and physical environments — in creating and preserving systemic racism in cities. Spatial data and geographically disaggregated data can provide insight. But ultimately, we must rethink infrastructure and design decisions in particular because of the ways they encode bias and discrimination into physical environments in ways that linger long beyond the terms of policymakers or elected officials.

The term “systemic racism” has become widespread in media discussions to describe how prevalent and deeply embedded anti-Blackness is in America. Understanding cities themselves as systems can help us frame racism as not just a social issue, but one that has become literally built into the fabric of America’s urban areas. 

Cities are complex systems made up of social and political, natural and constructed elements, and racism manifests itself spatially across each of these. From economic development to food, health and health care, environment, and policing, all these differ substantially across places within urban areas, and often align closely to neighborhood racial demographics. Spatial data illustrates how cities have become the epicenters of American racial injustice. As data increases our understanding of the depth and extent of racial inequality in cities, we need to also better understand how different elements of our urban systems work together to perpetuate injustices — from laws, policies and regulations to built infrastructure and urban nature. So when we talk about systemic racism in urban areas, we need to not limit ourselves to the social system, but think of the larger system that includes “hard” and “soft” elements that work together to inequitably distribute both risks and opportunities across racial lines. 

It’s imperative that we recognize that this inequitable spatial distribution of risk and resources largely along racial lines is not by accident, but by design. It is by design because of how we embed racial biases into policies — on housing, education, infrastructure, health, climate change — and how these then resonate across urban space and perpetuate themselves across time. The process of undoing these built-in biases, initially, involves exposing patterns of risk, such as those connected to health and climate change, by analyzing disaggregated data across a range of interrelated issues and risk factors.

To be clear, many politicians, scholars and policymakers know how race is encoded in space, they know that the future of a child living in New York City can be predicted quite accurately by looking at the ZIP code in which they are born. But also, that one’s ZIP code may determine their ability to participate effectively in deliberation processes. Essentially, this injustice by design is two-fold — it’s distributional in that those born into poor minority neighborhoods are denied the resources and opportunities those in more affluent white neighborhoods receive; and it’s an injustice of process, as those same residents lack the voice in policymaking that allows more affluent neighborhoods to fight back against planning decisions such as siting hazardous or undesirable industries their areas. This urban spatialization of racial bias is a twice-stolen opportunity — the first when poor communities are robbed of equal access to resources, and second when they’re denied equal voice in the design and deliberation process that decides their future. 

History is full of examples of urban planning and policy decisions that created the current racial segregation and injustice in America’s cities. Discriminatory mortgage lending through redlining continues to contribute to the concentration of poverty in minority neighborhoods, despite being banned more than 50 years ago, while predatory lending has had devastating impacts on Black wealth.

One classic example often cited for how racism is encoded into the built environment is an anecdotal story about how Robert Moses ordered overpasses on routes leading to New York City’s Jones Beach to be constructed so low that public buses, presumably carrying black passengers, couldn’t access the beach, while cars driven by white middle-class New Yorkers were unimpeded. Defenders of Moses, however, have pointed out that there’s little evidence to support that the exclusionary end result of the low overpasses was planned. If it’s true that the low overpasses limiting black New Yorkers’ access to the beach were unintentional, it actually does little to prove that racism didn’t exist in planning, but rather shows how it often did, and does, function. Rather than a spiteful, diabolical mastermind plotting ways to build exclusion into city plans, it happens through the everyday racism of forgetting to consider race, of passive neglect or willful ignorance to the differential impacts of decisions, and of the convenience afforded to white people to not think about race.

To be able to forget about race, to allow a day to pass without being aware of it, is a privilege that predominantly white planners, developers, policymakers and environmentalists take for granted, and one not afforded to minorities.

Spatial data has much to offer in revealing racial bias across urban systems. With policing, for example, evidence shows that so-called proactive policing — based on the broken windows theory that aggressively enforcing small crimes and misdemeanors reduces major crimes — happens disproportionately in poor minority neighborhoods and may even have the opposite effect. Such aggressive enforcement of minor violations, as well as tactics like “stop-and-frisk” that target minorities, increase the likelihood of deadly encounters like that of Eric Garner, a black man in New York City who was choked to death by police after being accused of selling individual cigarettes. It also doesn’t help that according to data, police officers in New York City generally do not reside in the communities they cover — for example, officers who patrol Harlem are likely to live upstate. Newly published research underscores the gravity of racial dynamics in policing, finding that although white and Black officers use gun force at similar rates in white and racially mixed neighborhoods, white officers are five times as likely to use gun force in black neighborhoods.

Even before the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations, COVID-19 had already been exposing how systemic racial bias manifests across the urban landscape. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, an infographic by the Association for Housing and Neighborhood Development showed that the New York City neighborhoods with the highest number of cases were also predominantly made up of people of color in service jobs. Analysis from the Urban Systems Lab, broken down by ZIP code, shows that 34 percent of COVID-19 deaths in New York City were Hispanic; 28 percent African American and Black; 27 percent white; and 7 percent Asian. Initially, this disparity was highlighted without appropriate context, leading medical historians to caution against assuming either biological explanations or attributing higher rates to the alleged “misbehavior” of particular groups. For example, on June 5 an Ohio state senator asked, “Could it just be that African Americans or the colored population do not wash their hands as well as other groups or wear a mask or do not socially distance themselves?”

Scientists are still parsing the data, but the information we have suggests that the different outcomes are likely the result of contextual factors related to the history of inequality and racism in American cities. Firstly, preexisting medical conditions, such as pulmonary disease, kidney disease and diabetes are an important factor in understanding COVID-19 deaths. In New York City, as in many other cities across the U.S., low-income residents, predominantly people of color, have considerably higher rates of such diseases, resulting in higher susceptibility to COVID-19.

Intersectional analysis provides a powerful framework for understanding how overlapping categories such as race, gender and class shape experiences and compound impacts and vulnerabilities within urban systems. For example, health inequalities in poor minority neighborhoods can be explained by the socioeconomic health gradient, or the fact that wealthier people experience better health, have access to more nutritious food, better health care, experience better working conditions and are less exposed to environmental pollutants.  

City and county planning decisions disproportionately site hazardous and toxic facilities in minority residential neighborhoods where too often the quality of water, air and soil is seriously compromised, and in turn compromises the health of people of color. Placing polluting facilities in areas where cycles of disinvestment have led to pockets of poverty increases the disproportionate vulnerability that people of color already experience. Environmental Justice groups are constantly fighting for more accurate community-driven evidence and cumulative impacts assessments on communities if a new facility is permitted in their neighborhood, because for millions of Americans in segregated neighborhoods it’s impossible to say “not in my backyard” if they do not have one.

In Manhattan, for example, 33 percent of white households own their homes, while only 9 percent of Black households and 7 percent of Hispanic households do. Homeowners are stronger advocates for “not in my backyard” and locally unwanted land uses, and white homeowners generally have more access to influence deliberation processes. The interdependence of land use zoning, housing policy, the siting of polluting industries and precarious health conditions offer a glimpse into how space-based racism operates in American cities.

Extreme weather events associated with climate change, such as increased flooding and heat waves, amplify existing vulnerabilities in communities of color that are also subjected to what David Harvey refers to as "organized abandonment" by city and state agencies. In the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, N.J., — a multiethnic working-class community — storms like Hurricane Sandy pushed the waters of Newark Bay and the Passaic River into areas that had never experienced tidal flooding before. Ironbound is also home to both the state’s largest garbage incinerator and one of the country's most contaminated land sites — a former Agent Orange dioxin factory. The water carried highly contaminated sediments from three waterways, including from Superfund sites and industrial plants located on the shoreline. The resulting toxic sludge entered people’s homes, basements and businesses. Years later many residents left because of foreclosure or condemnation or because they could not rebuild. Those who stayed to rebuild have faced delays and highly bureaucratic procedures of the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation, or RREM, a federal level program.

Even when programs are designed to rebuild in the aftermath of flood disasters, we see how they perpetuate systemic racism by threatening affected communities of color with displacement or by disproportionately benefiting white homeowners. These examples are only a few among many others across the United States where communities of color face disproportionate vulnerability by being simultaneously exposed to climate change impacts, environmental pollutants and the institutionalization of practices that devalue their lives and bodies.   

Recognizing the degree to which racism is systemic means evaluating every decision, whether it’s criminal justice reform or nature conservation, in terms of how costs and benefits are distributed spatially throughout the many components of the urban system. This means evaluation at least in terms of the impacts on those most vulnerable, and understanding how racism currently and historically functions across elements of the system. But this is just a start; we also have to bring procedural justice to the forefront by involving those affected in the process. Then we need to find ways to change the actual deliberation process itself so that it not only recognizes past and current injustice, but creates routes to transform decisions and outcomes through shifting the power dynamics of who actually makes them.

This means that opportunities for deliberation need to increase and give historically marginalized individuals and groups an equal voice in determining their own actions, through access to accurate information and unbiased hearing of claims. The planning work of community-based organizations like WeAct, UpRose and Hester Street Collaborative come to mind here. Just as intersectional analysis helps to illuminate how the convergence of social and political identities creates various forms of discrimination, critically evaluating how the social, economic and political systems of a city interact with physical systems — both built and natural — can help us to better understand, and work toward dismantling, systems of bias and injustice.

For instance, urban researchers need to engage in diverse research methods bringing together distributional and procedural dimensions in assessing environmental and climate risk injustices. We need to change how we assess the planning process and its outcomes by incorporating equity assessments as well explicitly evaluating race in urban rezoning proposals in order to reduce segregation.

We can protest current leadership for poor policies and insufficient responses, but the legacy of decades of discriminatory policy remains encoded in the physical space of cities, and will take sustained attention and work to undo. While recognition and empathy are important, we can go a step further by handing the tools of planning and deliberation to historically neglected communities.

The enormous level of privilege that allows one to forget, or just not consider, how decisions impact people based on race, class, gender or LGBTQ+ affiliation is not afforded to those for whom those identities are not abstract ideas but lived, daily experiences. The current protests across the nation have brought racial injustice in policing to the forefront of public consciousness, and we’re already seeing change. But to really address racial bias in America’s cities, we have to continue to pursue the injustices built in throughout the entire urban system. 

timon mcphearson
Urban Community Ecologist

Dr. McPhearson's research examines cities as ecosystems to study social, ecological, and technical interactions to understand urban system dynamics. He utilizes both empirical (e.g. Big Data, field experiments) and theoretical approaches (social-ecological systems and resilience theory) with a focus on the role of urban green infrastructure for advancing equity, climate change resilience, and urban sustainability.

More on this topic