Excerpted From: Keith H. Hirokawa, Race, Space, and Place: Interrogating Whiteness Through a Critical Approach to Place, 29 William and Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice 279 (Winter, 2023) (476 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KeithHHirokawaOne of the greatest modern tricks perpetuated against people of color has been the insistence that racism is big and boisterous, violent and full of slurs, and that racism is always and only those things. In essence, the trick has been that an act or utterance is only racist if it is offensive to the sensibilities of white folks. The trick plays out when we realize that white folks are not particularly insulted by white communities, white culture, white heroes, and white literature. From this perspective, because such spaces do not offend, they could not possibly be racist. And yet, as noted by Elijah Anderson, racially subordinated people “often refer to such settings collo-quially as ‘the white space'--a perceptual category--and they typically approach that space with care.”

Drawing from George Lipsitz's notion that whiteness is “not so much a color as a condition,” this Article embarks on the project of framing the manner and methods through which whiteness continues to dominate space and place. Wherever whiteness dominates space, space carries rules and expectations about the identity and characteristics of people who are present--visitors and jaunters, owners and occupiers--and the types of activities and cultural practices that might occur there. Occasionally, spaces are racialized because of intentional practices of discrimination and segregation. In others, less intentional methods produce racialized space. In both, American spaces tell their own histories of exclusion and violence and hate.

This Article proposes understanding how the white space is maintained by looking to the intersection of race, space, and place. a social construct often designed to create and maintain subordination, is an essential lens for understanding the ways that history and power disparities shape the values we attach to land and that come to define our communities. Space in this Article refers to geographical and temporal location, where racially defining moments may occur. Place, often appearing as a community's sense of place, illustrates the ways that individuals attach to spaces and communities, as well as how spaces and community attach to individuals. This examination reveals that racism produces, and is produced by, the spaces that we inhabit, visit, or even hear about. This examination also reveals that such racialized spaces can become racialized places. Yet, just as place can serve as the consecration of bias, it can also assist in identifying and naming racial subordination.

To understand how the framework of race, space, and place operates, this Article examines the idea of the community's comprehensive land use plan, the publication of which signifies the moment when a grounded group of people raise their flags and announce to the world, “this is who we are.” The comprehensive plan is the grasp of the past, the path to the future, and the self-assessment of the character of a particular community. It is the statement that sets a community apart from others, and it entails the reasons that residents adore (or suffer) their communities. Although there is a lot of anti-racist work to do in the land use context, the comprehensive plan serves as a good launching point because it is intended as a tool of local strength and cohesion. The comprehensive plan is, in the land use context, the essential community-building moment of local governance.

In most cases, community-building in the United States has been an exercise in exclusion, segregation, and racial violence. Indeed, the history of local land use policies provides more than a century of intentional and implicit practices of racial violence. From formal zoning schemes intended to produce segregated neighborhoods, zoning and planning schemes designed to support redlining practices, and discriminatory practices of infrastructure improvement planning, to urban blight removal, and neighborhood-busting transportation planning, local governments have engaged in a rich history of racism. Yet, besides vague and imprecise claims of “diversity,” most comprehensive plans do not attribute generational wealth (and intergenerational wealth) to slavery practices and privilege, do not recount their expressions (individual and collective) of hate and exclusion, and do not plan to acknowledge, much less lift, the lives of survivors of racial violence. Hence, the comprehensive plan is also and always revealing.

Of course, pointing out that communities have either forgotten their racial histories or, worse, have been unable to see past the racialized tropes, is not a particularly novel claim. Yet the exercise is far from mundane, if only because there is little legal literature focusing on the racism that is typically embedded in local comprehensive land use plans. Given the critical role that land use planning plays in the long-term visions of communities, of self-identification and direction, it seems odd that this subject would lay dormant. As the pinnacle of local land use planning, the comprehensive plan is at once the most revealing of a community's racial biases, while also being the best opportunity for a community to identify as anti-racist and act in anti-racist ways.

Although relevant to the discussion, the focus of this Article is not on the more overt acts of exclusion, segregation, divestment, and disempowerment in communities, which has been documented and analyzed by others. Rather, this Article focuses on the structural and implicit prejudices that pervade the land use planning process. Part I of this Article introduces the purposes and challenges of the comprehensive plan, followed by an analysis of the racial biases evident in the planning undertaken in the seemingly picturesque Amherst, Massachusetts. Part II examines the framework of race, space, and place, identifying and illustrating the types of coded language and systemic practices that surface in a racial justice audit of local planning documents. Part III then introduces a variety of devices that will make racialized histories more visible and transform the white domination of space into something more just and inclusive.

As this Article repeatedly declares, where the consequences of maintaining racialized space are not being addressed, they are being ignored and perpetuated. Moreover, that whiteness operates to prevent an understanding of such consequences is a special type of seemingly intractable challenge, as “the blindness of power is a disease that is difficult to cure.” This Article encourages a reading of land use self-expressions to identify missed opportunities in transforming racialized spaces into anti-racist places. Envisioning land use anti-racism through race, space, and place reveals the baselessness of hate and the benefits of community.

[. . .]

A common theme in diversity and inclusion discussions concerns how proud folks are for engaging in a self-assessment of privilege. In these conversations, people often wonder aloud when the self-assessment ends. The questions are understandable, and the pride might be appropriate, but these discussions are going the wrong direction. Being an anti-racist community means the progress will not be linear. It involves so much culture and history, so many ingrained practices, so many assumptions dictated by complicated, lurking social constructs. It involves reflection on the normal, unquestioned acceptance of racialized assumptions. As such, the very idea of completing a racial self-assessment is not sincere. Inclusivity and anti-racism simply are not achievable without recognizing the complexity of excavating racism from a community's forgotten identity and history.

Land use planning presents an opportunity to disrupt historical patterns of segregation and exclusion. Communities are positioned to be unapologetically anti-racist, to act in a way that reverses displacement and diaspora, to foster a diverse sense of belonging in spaces that are historically white-dominated. To sincerely engage in inclusive practices, communities need to be constantly aware that words, vision, and investments occur within a historical context. We are all racists. Ignoring that fact does not solve the problem. It is an active erasure of history and an erasure of identity. It is a violent act.

Communities have a choice. As a community interested in collective well-being and in creating belonging in a particular place, are we acting in an anti-racist and inclusive way? Addressing this question means engaging in an iterative process, one which constantly interrogates whiteness, especially the way that whiteness is relevant to sense of place. It means asking whether particular actions illustrate a commitment to anti-racism and whether a particular approach to inclusivity means expecting people to come to the community, or whether the community meets people in their own spaces. It will do no harm to name the beliefs and practices that maintain the horrific and unjust circumstances of racialized spaces. It may be inconvenient, but it will not hurt. At least, it will not hurt in comparison to the exclusion, denigration, and dehumanization that is being levelled against racially subordinated communities. Whiteness can be interrogated, privilege can be acknowledged, stereotypes can be adjusted, and racism can be reversed. It will not be easy. Excavating and reversing racism is difficult, but the comprehensive plan is an ideal opportunity to engage a local history.

The Lansing Mayor's Report on Racial Justice concludes with hope but in recognition of the difficult work ahead:

This plan is a beginning.

To achieve our vision of making Lansing a city of inclusion, racial equity, and opportunity for all, we must engage the community and we must be transparent and provide regular updates on our progress and our setbacks.

We know this for sure: we are strengthened by our diversity and emboldened by our mission. Diversity combines multiple perspectives to develop better solutions. Our work spans differences and is key to what's coming for our families, children, and neighborhoods.

Generational reach is durable, long-term change supported by meaningful investment and an inclusive, community-based approach to the future.

Let's get to work.

Associate Dean of Research and Scholarship and Distinguished Professor of Law, Albany Law School.