If you support racial justice, don’t be a NIMBY

If we want to effectively fight systemic racism, start in our own backyards

Photo by Aubrey Rose Odom on Unsplash

NIMBY: Not In My Backyard

The white picket fence has become synonymous with the American Dream — a symbol of the idea that anyone in this country has equal opportunity at success and upward social mobilization. The irony in this metaphor is of course that fences by design are there to keep people out. So is true for the American Dream as we know it. This has never been more clear than with the President’s remarks on twitter this week. Donald Trump wrote directly to the “the Suburban Housewives of America” warning that “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream”. This is in reference to the Trump administration’s rollback of the Obama-era expanded provisions in the Fair Housing Act that had encouraged more inclusive communities.

Spoken in this tone by this president, the issue may have gotten the attention of folks that don’t often have to think about how race or equity play a role in their neighborhood. In fact, it may have gotten the attention of many of the white Americans that two months ago were deeply moved by the murder of George Floyd. The same people that signed the petitions, started the book clubs, and began to examine their race and privilege are likely among the people living in suburbs that Trump is addressing. These tweets are an excellent reminder to add this critical mantra to our anti-racist work: don’t be a NIMBY.

The NIMBY — Not in My Backyard — mindset is one of the oldest and most effective tools of white supremacy. A NIMBY is a person who objects to something that they would otherwise support if it was not happening in their neighborhood. It is what helped lead to redlining, racially restricted covenants, and segregated schools. In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein explains how the government, courts, and municipalities upheld racist housing laws and policies. This was done through legal segregated housing. Rothstein lays out the impact this has had on present day America, explaining how The Fair Housing Act of 1968 did little to amend the sins of housing discrimination or untangle segregation from modern zoning laws. Modern day discriminatory housing is one of the main ways we see NIMBYism show up.

Take for example city zoning, something that has perpetuated these inequities. As stated in this New York Times Article, it is illegal to build anything other than a detached single-family home on 75% of the residential land in many American cities. There are plenty of reasons beyond the white picket fence that this this has been appealing for residents. Notably, that property values can soar for homeowners in single-family zones. The existence of these neighborhoods has massive repercussions on modern cities — from housing affordability to climate change and racial injustice.

Map of zoning in Seattle, WA 2019 | Source: City of Seattle

We can see this in cities like Seattle, Washington. The Seattle Planning Commission recently stated “The growing economic exclusivity of detached housing in single-family zones contributes to disparity along racial lines by continuing the legacy of excluding all but those who have the economic resources to buy homes”. Keep in mind that a history of white supremacy in this country has disproportionately affected present-day economic resources for Black and non-white communities especially. It’s a one-two punch: the early systems and policies in America made it harder for oppressed groups to build economic wealth over generations. Systems like slavery, stealing Native land, and low wages for immigrants, to name a few. Then, new systems and policies in place made it so only those with economic resources could get ahead. It’s a sneaky way for something that doesn’t sound like race is involved at all — like the words “suburb” or “single family zone” — to have enormous racial consequences.

The Planning Commission goes on to state that current zoning in Seattle does not promote equitable access to public investments. Meaning, the taxes that all Seattleites pay for schools, parks, and public amenities are not accessible for all. Residents in more dense, multifamily housing like apartments, condos, or low-income housing do not have equal access to those critical, publicly funded resources.

Nationwide, cities are working to reimagine single-family zoning as part of a larger solution to economic and housing injustices. Unsurprisingly, residents in single-family homes have responded negatively towards any change in their zoning status. Often, they claim that while they support expanded housing opportunities, for ________ reason, this neighborhood simply isn’t the place to do it. In short, Not in My Backyard. The statements of homeowners supporting the theoretical expansion of opportunities for mixed housing in some place other than their own neighborhood is one of the best examples of the white moderate that Martin Luther King Jr. writes about in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Michelle Goldberg sums this all up brilliantly in her podcast The Argument (Episode: Whose Statue Must Fall) while discussing what she sees as something that may derail the current movement — white performative self-flagellation.

“…it basically posits that you have these big structural problems and that the answer to that is for white people to do a ton of introspection and a ton of personal internal work on themselves as opposed to just letting apartments buildings be built in their neighborhood or integrating their schools.”

Michelle’s point speaks to the endurance of the NIMBY mentality. It allows the very same white Americans who are signing petitions, going to protests, and reading about racial injustice to at the same time wholeheartedly oppose changes in their neighborhood. Changes that could improve the livelihoods of the Black and Brown people they are doing all the self-flagellation for in the first place.

Building mixed housing units in a previously single-family zone, sponsoring affordable developments, subsidizing rent, and creating neighborhoods welcoming of diversity in all its forms will indeed change the view, the block, and the residents. Rather than a monolith, there will be new neighbors, with the next generation of children having access to better-funded schools, parents and young professionals alike with new commutes that can be more environmentally friendly, and small local businesses that add character to a neighborhood. Housing determines so much of the American outcome, and for generations the playing field has been profoundly unfair. If we can work to eliminate racism in housing, we will build a more equitable future for every resident. It all starts in our backyard, no picket fence required.

What Next?

Read : The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

Engage : YIMBYaction.org

Connect : With your city council to see what is happening at a local level

thinking about the world in seattle, wa