Monday, January 16, 2023

Where the Roots are Weak


Jim Rouse was a racist.

I think that today is a good day to confront that. 

This does not mean that he was a bad person or did bad things. It doesn’t mean that his life’s work has no meaning.

We laud Rouse for many things, and most especially because he was ahead of his time in his insistence that Columbia would deliberately include more than white residents. He made it clear that the practice of steering people of certain races to certain areas would not be tolerated in the New American City. 

Jim Rouse was a racist in the same way that all white people in America are racist. The way that I am racist. Because the system was set up for white people and we grow and thrive in it, often without knowing how much that is true. It is in the air we breathe and the water we drink. 

This is a photograph of what was called “The Work Group”. They were chosen to brainstorm and plan Columbia. I found it on the website of the Community Foundation of Howard County but the original is surely in the Columbia Archives. This image has always bothered me.

Everyone is white. (And there are so few women!)

Jim Rouse took actions that no one else was willing to take at the time. But what he did was rooted in the sort of white liberalism that sees white people as the vital do-gooders in lifting up/making things right for Black people. I am not sneering at that. I was raised in that way of thinking. For a very long time I thought that was the answer.

If asked, most people would probably say they are not racist. And they’re especially likely to say it after they’ve already done something racist. As Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, notes in his book How to Be an Antiracist, “When racist ideas resound, denials that those ideas are racist typically follow.”

But as Kendi also notes, it’s not enough to simply be “not racist.” “The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist,’” he writes. “It is ‘antiracist.’” What it means to be anti-racist, Anna North, Vox

An anti-racist Work Group for Columbia would not look like the photograph above. Members of the diverse communities Rouse planned to welcome would be at the table. They wouldn’t simply be invited to sit there. They’d hold leadership positions. They’d be making the decisions. 

This is why I squirm inside when people hold forth that present day Columbia has lost its way and that we must get back to what Rouse wanted. In Rouse’s world, as aspirational as it was, white people still ruled the table, the plans, and the decisions. If the dream of Columbia has meant anything to us shouldn’t our priorities be far bigger than that?

Can’t we examine our own internal limitations and see where we are too comfortable to sit at the table and listen to people like ourselves? What would we learn? Would we be willing to act on it?

I’m sorry to have to say that the vast majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously. - - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, 1967 (speech: Which Way Its Soul Will Go)

As Columbians we sometimes have a bit of “the city of the hill” pride about our origins. It’s good to love one’s community. But perhaps we could make more significant progress if we learned about and accepted the weakness and imperfections present in our very roots. We could choose to do that. 

It’s a hard sell in the New Amercian City. 

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