Eminent Domain Race Ripples

Article excerpt


From the imposition of slavery to the modern trend of eminent domain in the name of economic development, African-Americans have suffered disproportionately from destabilizing trends forced upon them by the politically powerful. Through each upheaval, legalized "takings" first of the person, and more recently of our homes threaten African-American lives, homes and families.

From 1949 through 1973, under the Federal Housing Act, 2,532 projects were carried out in 992 cities, displacing 1 million people, of which African Americans accounted for two-thirds. African Americans then 12 percent of the population were 5 times likelier than whites to be displaced.

Understand that the neighborhoods and homes threatened with eminent domain abuse are not merely buildings; they provide social, political, cultural and economic networks that benefit individuals and society. Their loss is so massive and threatening to human well-being that I use the term "root shock" to describe it. (This term is borrowed from gardeners, who observed that a plant torn from the ground will go into a state of shock, and may well die.) Our homes and neighborhoods "root" people in the world. A home is a biological necessity.

In my research on the long-term consequences of urban renewal in five American cities, I found African-Americans experienced great hardship when their place in the world was stripped from them.

A gentleman named David Jenkins, whose Philadelphia neighborhood was bulldozed by the government, best illustrated this. He documented the magic of his neighborhood through the map he drew for me. Within the narrow domains of a boy's life the area depicted was not 1 square mile small notes highlighted the richness of his neighborhood associations. He could catch turtles in the swamp, buy candy at Miss Maggie's store or sing gospel with Patti LaBelle in the Young Adult Choir at Beulah Baptist Church. In neighborhoods like David Jenkins', we African-Americans started stores, fought for schools and fire stations and organized ourselves for all the activities of living. This was no small feat for any group: Much effort was required to create a functional community.

One of the most important units of organization in any African-American neighborhood has always been the church. …