How many times have you been just sitting around with a cup of your favorite hot beverage while mulling over the various and sundry aspects of social theory, and thought … “I wish I knew more about how the aspects of social geography affected race?” Well look no further, as EOF has a fascinating and enlightening conversation with David Leong about how geographic barriers influences race in our county in the past and today.
EOF: Thank you so much for coming on and talking to us today about your new book, Race & Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation. Let’s just jump right in. How do geographic structures hinder the work of reconciliation and why were those structures created in the first place?
LEONG: That’s a good question. When I began the ministry, before I went to seminary, before I became a professor and so forth, I was really working with youth in urban churches and just trying what a lot of youth ministry workers do, which is get involved in the lives of my students. I didn’t realize it at the time, but part of what really shaped my ministry, and this is at an ethnic-specific church in an urban neighborhood in south Seattle, part of just the reality of doing ministry with kids from a mix of different socio-economic backgrounds and so forth was that I realized just how much the everyday geography that shaped their lives impacted both the possibilities that they had for their futures, and also some of the negative circumstances or consequences of their lives. So, things like where their schools were located and what the economic levels of their neighborhoods looked like. I guess all of that is to say that I spent the next several years, and eventually doing a PhD in intercultural studies with an urban missiology focus, I spent the rest of the time just really trying to understand how cities are essentially designed to keep people apart.
What I mean by that is that I don’t think that architects or urban planners are so much doing this on purpose, it’s more so just the reality that when you pull people together into communities one of the things that happens, and I think it’s both sometimes intentional, and sometimes unintentional, there are economic and political interests involved. But what’s sometimes sadly productive in cities is to create structures, sometimes physical, sometimes social, like freeways and bridges, and sometimes cultural markers — borders and boundaries that essentially separate people. It’s a big question and there’s more that can be said, but that’s where I would start; to say that we interact with these structures everyday but we are just kind of conditioned not to think too critically about them. I don’t know if that makes sense or if you’d like me to be more specific about it.
It’s great to have the abstract, but some people may not have experienced this so I want to make sure people understand where we are going with the conversation, maybe even if you were, at the high level, to discuss “the wall” (I found that fascinating when I was reading the history of it in your book). You don’t have to get into all the specifics, but just get into the gist of it.
That’s one example from the book. I was born in Detroit and my parents were born in Detroit. I actually didn’t live there for very long, we left when I was pretty young, but I had a lot of family in that area where we would go back and visit. In Detroit, during a time of urban growth across the United States, essentially a wall was built between communities. It is a wall that still exists today and it’s relatively small considering the scale of the size of Detroit, which is a huge city. It kind of follows along a road called Eight Mile Road which is essentially the historic divider between north and south in the city. On the south side of Detroit, a much more predominately African-American community and on the north side, a much more white and suburban community really dating back to the construction of this wall, which was literally built so that banks would invest on the side apart from those black communities. There is a lot more context to give here, but there is a long history of urban policy as this country was built and especially in the patterns of our housing where there was some pretty blatant policies put together that I would say were not so much motivated by, say, racial hatred as much as they were motivated by economic interest. Unfortunately, the legacy of that has been a real strong sense of residential segregation, which persists to this day.
To be fair, that wall was built in the 30s or 40s and that was back when it was a really big deal whether you had people of color in your community and how that affected loans. That kind of thing may or may not happen as much today, but that still is part of what the issue is. It is multigenerational. It puts racism in place for a long time to come, even if people may have changed their attitude toward it.
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