SCARS OF RACISM
Scars of Racism seeks to document the lasting physical reminders of racism on the American landscape. The legacy of racism exists throughout our society–in culture, language, and economics. With these photos I’m attempting to highlight how institutional racism of the past lingers today in the roads we travel, the houses we live in and even where we dump our trash.
Recently, there has been substantial reporting about how discriminatory housing policy fueled the massive wealth gap that exists today. White families’ wealth is as much as ten times higher than that of African-American families.
This project is also an exploration of how we observe. Compositionally, shooting from directly above, decades of history fuse together to become a flattened plane, the abstract details of the past scratched onto roofs, streets, and sidewalks.
In turn, the act of viewing these images becomes an active questioning of the image. For a moment we are at a loss visually, with no sense of perspective, scale, or recognition. The images challenge the brain and require us to look more carefully. In doing so, it prompts us to consider our relationship not only to the unfamiliar landscape, but to our history as well.
Racial differences in American communities are not simply a natural process of families moving in and out of neighborhoods, but a direct result of government policy. In 1934 the Federal Housing Administration created maps of every American city (left). Neighborhoods deemed risky -- mostly those with minority populations -- were “redlined,” meaning they weren’t eligible for new federally-backed mortgages. New construction and housing in green and blue areas often included a housing covenant, which explicitly restricted ownership to white families. These practices helped create the racially divided neighborhoods that still exist today. On Long Island, New York (top, right), Garden City and Hempstead border each other, but couldn’t be more different. Garden City, on the left of the image, is 90% white while Hemstead is 92% black and Hispanic. The median home in Garden City is valued at $812,000 versus $309,000 in Hempstead. Another view (bottom) of Garden City and Hempstead. A similar difference exists in California (top, right) between Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. Menlo Park is mostly white and has a median house value of $1.7 million, about three times that of mostly minority East Palo Alto.
After the Federal Housing Administration redlined specific neighborhoods, investment slowed and values declined. At the same time, urban factories needed more space and largely left cities, fueled by the growth of the automobile and new highways. In the redlined Lower Bottoms neighborhood of Oakland (above), an abandoned lot is all that remains of the Phoenix Iron Works plant. The factory employed more than 100 people at its height in the 1960s. The remnants (below, right) of the Goetze Meat plant in Baltimore. A field and playground (below, left) is all that remains of a dense neighborhood of row houses in Johnston Square, a redlined neighborhood in Baltimore. The city is in the process of tearing down thousands of abandoned homes. Houses slated to be torn down (bottom) in the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore, where a third of residents live in poverty. Sandtown was the site of protests in 2015 after resident Freddie Gray died in police custody.
Highways were needed to connect newly built suburbs to urban cores. The decision on where to build these highways wasn’t arbitrary. Urban planners often cited “slum clearing” as a justification for construction. Redlined neighborhoods became the de facto location of these routes, which often divided the neighborhood and further depressed real estate values. Route 40 (below) cuts through redlined West Baltimore. Originally planned as the terminus of Interstate 70, today the depressed highway is only a little more than a mile long and rarely used. A spur of Interstate 280 (above) in San Francisco divides residential and industrial areas of the city. A plan backed by the mayor’s office calls for the demolition of the highway, part of a larger trend across the county.
When they were originally built, the majority of suburbs in America restricted sales to whites. The most common method of discrimination was through housing covenants, passages in deeds that forbade current and future sales to minorities. Westlake (above) was built after World War II outside of San Francisco and is often compared to Levittown on Long Island. Both developments were originally white-only by design. Westlake is also the inspiration of the anti-conformity song “Little Boxes,” by Malvina Reynolds. A much more ambitious planned community 100 miles from Los Angeles, California City (bottom), was launched a little more than a decade after Levittown and Westlake. The experiment failed, leaving a largely intact suburban street grid in the Mojave Desert and just 14,000 remaining residents. New suburbs (below) sprout in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.
Minority neighborhoods are home to a disproportionate number of polluting industries and are more prone to disasters such as floods. Chester, Pennsylvania (below) is a dumping ground for trash from all over the East Coast. Home to multiple waste treatment plants and the nation’s large trash incinerator, the poor majority-black town has a child asthma rate five times higher than the national average. Residents have also reported structural damage to foundations due to the rumble of trash trucks making daily deliveries. In the Los Angeles County neighborhood of Wilmington (above, left) an oil well abuts a playground. Last year the county health department released a report that included the majority Latino neighborhood, saying that the 300 chemicals used in oil extraction “presents public health concerns, ranging from respiratory health effects to development of cancer” for those living in close proximity to wells. In Wilmington, Delaware (above, right) flooding is common in Southbridge, a majority African-American neighborhood. The neighborhood was the site of Diamond Oil, but after it left the residents remained. A new flood mitigation plan for the neighborhood, with $3 million in federal funding, was announced last year.