The answer has to start, of course, with an acknowledgment that there are multiple things one might call “urbanism,” and that not all of them are notably white. Within recent memory here in Chicago, for example, majority-Latino and majority-black organizations have led marches supporting better bus service and El extensions, and housing activists tend to be a reasonably diverse bunch.
That said, the people who tend to use the term “urbanist” to describe themselves – and the ones whose ideas and political programs are represented in national media outlets and departments of transportation across the country – tend, overwhelmingly, to be white. I suspect anyone who spends much time following “urbanist” news knows this to be true; but, if we need more concrete proof, Planetizen’s list of the “Top 100 Urban Thinkers,” selected by the votes of its readers, contains approximately three people of Hispanic origin and not a single black person. Whether or not this reflects an actual absence of important nonwhite urbanist thinkers (I’m doubtful), it certainly reflects the kinds of people urbanists look to for intellectual leadership.
As Pete Saunders wrote in this 2012 post (which directed me to the Planetizen list), this is curious. In most of the older, walkable, transit-oriented American cities where urbanists tend to congregate – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, DC – whites are a minority. Even in Seattle and Minneapolis, which Aaron Renn once singled out for being urbanist causes celebres with notably pale inhabitants, nonwhites are about a third of the population. Moreover, up until very recently – and still, in certain circles – the very word “urban” was a euphemism for black people.
Saunders has a few ideas about this, and I think they mostly make sense. You should really read the post. But I would synthesize his points, and add a bit of my own ideas, like this:
1. Areas that were built up by the 1960s or so – the ones that are reasonably urbanist-friendly – were subject to public policies and social norms that basically ensured racial segregation, and also ensured that black areas would be starved of investment, and that most white areas would not. Then, of course, we decided to tear down half of our inner-city black neighborhoods and replace them with highways, sports stadiums, or anything else that sounded better to the average midcentury city councilman than houses for black people. Thus, with some exceptions, when people think about urban black neighborhoods – the ones that still exist – the feelings they evoke are much more complicated, and less purely nostalgic and positive, than those felt by young white adults about the neighborhoods their parents and grandparents abandoned.
Moreover, it’s not totally clear how many trendy, vibrating* urban neighborhoods are unproblematic for large numbers of black or Latino people, given general preferences for places where your ethnic group makes up, at least, a large minority of the population (preferences obviously shared by white people, who however are not in the position of having to choose between vibrating urban spaces and being among their coethnics). This is a problem even in places where white people are generally surprised to hear it (for example, large parts of Manhattan), and even the places that come immediately to mind as exceptions are also places where the white population is rapidly expanding.
Instead, the most prosperous black neighborhoods tend to be in the suburbs, or in relatively newer city neighborhoods – places like suburban DC or Calumet Heights in Chicago. It’s not an accident that Saunders writes of his own feelings in a more recent post:
I did not grow up in the suburbs. I grew up in Detroit, albeit in a solidly stable, black middle class environment. As a child, I never saw the suburbs as a place of stultifying soullessness or oppressive homogeneity. I guess you have to grow up in them to view them that way. I always viewed the suburbs as the other side of the new Wall, an escape from the messiness of the city. I grew up a half mile from Eight Mile Road, Detroit’s northern boundary, and in the ’70s the differences between my side and the other side were pretty stark. They still are.
In that context, a movement whose premise – whose ticket to membership – is the embrace of all things “urban,” and a corresponding disdain for suburbia, doesn’t make a ton of sense.
2. Urbanism, broadly speaking, is an optimistic, technocratic movement among people who believe – at their most cynical – that city governments can do the right thing, if only they are harangued enough. Suffice it to say that this worldview is somewhat harder to maintain while standing in a black neighborhood. Since most of the projects of urbanism are about using levers of public policy to reshape neighborhoods (even if, in very important ways, those policies would be liberalizing), there’s a sort of assumed trust in government, and if you don’t have that trust, the movement will be much less attractive to you. Given the sorts of interventions governments have taken in nonwhite neighborhoods, it’s reasonable to think that white people would be more likely to have that trust. (It’s probably worth taking this one more step and saying that, broadly, middle-class and especially educated upper-middle-class white people will be even more likely to have that kind of trust, and, indeed, I think urbanism is a pretty thoroughly upper-middle-class movement.)
Generally, it’s not ideal when a political movement in a democratic society is made up of a group of people who are wildly unrepresentative of the general population. Urbanists clearly have this problem. And it’s not just a matter of optics, or tokenism. Urbanism is still a relatively new, evolving movement, which is being shaped in front of our very eyes by the academics, writers, and activists we’ve just established are overwhelmingly white. If those shapers are missing important perspectives – the priorities, of, say, the majority of the people who live major American cities – they’re going to be missing a lot.
But it also suggests that even when you get people who are trying to construct an egalitarian urbanism, they’re going to have a skewed vision of what needs to be addressed. For example, they might spend an awful lot of time thinking and writing about gentrification, since educated upper-middle-class white people are much more likely to live in gentrifying neighborhoods than other people. They might spend less time thinking about, say, the problems associated with blue-collar inner-ring suburbs, where very few of them live, go to, or come from. Despite the fact that the latter is just as much – if not more – of a problem than the former, and that really they’re both part of the same problem, namely the way current policy encourages income segregation and damaging waves of investment and disinvestment.
Or you might also get people who are more invested in improving bicycling infrastructure – which is, to be fair, worthy in its own right – than bus networks, which carry orders of magnitude more people.
Anyway, I’m not sure what one does about all of this, except that if you’re part of an urbanist organization, you probably ought to make an active effort to reach out and recruit people from various neighborhoods and communities. And you ought to do it not by convincing them of things they don’t already believe, but by appealing to things they consider in their own self-interest. And if they don’t think anything you’re working on is in their self-interest, then you should probably re-evaluate what you’re working on.
* This is my announcement that I will hereafter never again use the word “vibrant,” which I hate, and when I am tempted I will instead use the word “vibrating.”