It was forty years ago today that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. And there are a lot of days where it seems like our progress hasn't been very fast, either. We still live in a world where race matters, and matters a lot. According to Nancy Denton, a sociologist at SUNY-Albany, 62% of African American families earning more than $50,000 per year still live in neighborhoods that are strongly segregated, as opposed to 44% of Asian Americans and 40% of Latino Americans (Denton, Nancy A. 2001. "The Role of Residential Segregation in Promoting and Maintaining Inequality in Wealth and Property." Indiana Law Review 34.). She writes:
Sociologist Robert Bullard, one of the originators of the Environmental Justice movement, showed in his research in Houston that affluent minorities were, in 1990, more than twice as likely to be denied mortgage loans when compared to Caucasians with similar assets and economic backgrounds (Bullard, Robert D. 1990. “Housing Barriers: Trends in the Nation’s Fourth-Largest City.” Journal of Black Studies 21:1). And he's been active for more than thirty years in assisting communities of color -- including affluent communities -- in their fights against county, state, and corporate plans to locate landfills and waste incinerators in those communities.
Racial segregation and suburbanization are not simply matters of class. Whereas upper middle class and affluent Hispanic and Asian families routinely achieve moderate levels of segregation, even within central cities, affluent blacks rarely make it into the moderate range, even in suburbs, and only within the South and West.
Research also shows that living in segregated neighborhoods negatively affects student performance… In addition to its effects on educational performance and the school environment, segregation also negatively affects the chances of completing a college education because it limits home value.
We've been wandering in this wilderness for a lot longer than forty years, and we've got some distance yet ahead of us. We have no right as professionals to know these things and not act upon them; there aren't enough Fallingwaters and Villa Savoyes in the world to make up for a single city's discriminatory environments. If architecture has anything to do with social justice, then we need to look at the world face-on, and not blink.