Uncovering JAPA

Whiteness and Planning in America

American planning’s failure to acknowledge Whiteness is explored by Edward G. Goetz, Rashad A. Williams, and Anthony Damiano in “Whiteness and Urban Planning,” Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 86, No. 2). Their examples highlight the value of changing urban planning’s frame of reference.

The authors introduce (White) urban planners to the concept of Whiteness, recontextualizing the term White supremacy as more than specific, easily identifiable, and contained instances of racism. The authors propose a political economy standpoint within which urban planning discourse should take place. Their literature review makes a case for planning professionals to acknowledge that debates regarding urban inequality must not only be centered in Whiteness but must be viewed as taking place within the White supremacist political economy.

“White supremacy thus entraps Whites and non-Whites in relations of exploitation, as do the analogous systems of capitalism and patriarchy with regard to class and gender,” the authors write.

They argue for a new frame of reference, asserting that doing so has the potential to increase the efficacy of planning interventions. They take a relatively radical perspective by centering Whiteness as the driving factor for racializing urban inequality.

In centering the discourse around Whiteness they are able to flip the focus from over-studied black neighborhoods while showing that White urban affluence is dependent on the hyper-spatialized surveillance of black communities.

The authors provide succinct examples of how Whiteness as exclusion, the value of Whiteness, the invisibility of Whiteness, and the durability of Whiteness, create and reinforce social and economic subordination in urban America. For example, they show that spatialized Whiteness “likens Whiteness to an efficiently functioning racial cartel that monopolizes social and economic advantages and through political power configures systems of rewards that perpetuate those advantages.”

While it is important that White urban planners read this article, it must not be interpreted as novel. Black sociologists, researchers, historians, and urban planners have long been arguing this case well before the last decade.

The very notion of being black in the United States is to have to study oneself from the lens of Whiteness.

More than 100 years ago W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.  One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro ... two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Moving beyond this JAPA article, planners could study how BIPOC urban and suburban neighborhoods have been historically and presently targeted by Whiteness for displaying signs of “wealth” in the United States. For example, planners can examine the case of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 in which the “Black Wall Street,” a marker of “black affluence” was burned to the ground.

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted subscription for $48/year, or a digital-only subscription for $36/year.

Top image:  Sign displayed directly opposite the Sojourner Truth Homes in Detroit in 1942. Library of Congress photo by Arthur S. Siegel.


About the Author
Mariah Valerie Barber recently received a Master in Urban Planning from Harvard University.

August 20, 2020

By Mariah Barber