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Academic men [sic] are inclined to ascribe an importance to knowledge all out of proportion to its actual role in human conduct. This is particularly true when they talk of race relations. Men [sic] do not wait until the latest findings of science are in before they begin to feel, think, or act on matters that concern race; and even when new scientific findings come to hand, it does not follow by any means that people will promptly change their beliefs and actions to conform to them. ~ Louis Wirth, 1944

For all of the discussion of the “new” urban renewal, there has not been sufficient discussion or understanding of the disproportionate impact of these processes on black neighborhoods and households. We need to reconsider the concept of “Negro Removal” – in the context of today and recent planning literature. It is an intentionally antiquated term for the disproportionate impact of federal urban renewal projects on African Americans between 1949 and 1974.

Displacement of African American households through planning, gentrification and redevelopment processes continues today in cities across the country. Here I re-conceptualize Negro Removal as a way to understand how African Americans are displaced from neighborhoods and cities taking into account a broader set of practices and policies beyond federally-funded urban renewal projects.

The Negro removal occurring in cities today includes what we typically think of as planning and policy impacts – urban redevelopment, eminent domain and housing demolition, but it also more broadly includes political economic practices that disproportionately impact African American households and neighborhoods, especially the hyper-gentrification of fast growing cities and the criminal justice policies of mass incarceration in places with weak economies and high unemployment.


Negro Removal is first and foremost a form of asset stripping. Clyde Woods’ concept of asset-stripping is invoked here to address the ways in which African American assets, including most importantly people, and local businesses, black history and heritage -- are removed from predominantly Black neighborhoods. Black history, for example, is removed from quickly gentrifying neighborhoods as place names are changed, buildings are torn down, and the connection between local history and the people who lived it is erased.

Negro Removal today includes four key components:

  1. Removal of People: Displacement, including the various ways that people are removed from the city

  2. Removal of Economic Independence: Loss of Black wealth, businesses and capital

  3. Removal of Work and the Criminalization of Poverty

  4. Removal of Black History: Memory, lieux de memoirie, heritage sites, historic landmarks, places

While the sources of displacement and dispossession are more diverse than they were during the era of urban renewal, the end results are similar in terms of the outcomes for working class African American households. Today, the complexity of black displacement and asset stripping is driven by changes in federal policy, the urban economy under globalization, and mass incarceration. Cities, counties, states and federal agencies are all implicated, as well as the private real estate market. Thus, Negro removal today is more complex than the “federal bulldozer” of last century.

Black displacement and dispossession involves topics that planning scholars talk about – and don’t.

  • Gentrification – urban redevelopment processes, especially in cities with “hot” or high demand housing markets, and how this leads to black displacement.

  • Public Housing redevelopment – HOPE VI, and the post-Katrina processes of public housing demolition led by HUD under the Bush Administration.

  • Moving to Opportunity – and other housing policies that offer a more “voluntary” means to leave urban neighborhoods, which in some cities has become “moving to work.”

  • Housing and Neighborhood Instability - the recent mortgage foreclosure crisis and its disproportionately negative impact on African American households and neighborhoods.

These are the kinds of policies and processes that planners are comfortable speaking about because they tend to be about land use and housing, the real estate market, the spatial mismatch of jobs and housing, and programs that are about the physical city or the policy landscape. More generally they include the vulnerability of black households to economic shocks due to low wealth, low income and lack of access to capital as well as the disproportionate impact on political processes that shape planning and redevelopment in black neighborhoods without a significant influence of Black participation.


"Prisons, police stations, crime labs and related components of the criminal justice system are land uses that are planned. But they are more than simply neutral components of a necessary function for maintaining social order."


There are also the things that planners don’t seem to talk much about. In particular – I am fascinated by planning’s near silence about mass incarceration, the War on Drugs, policing and the “New Jim Crow.” It seems to me that one of the largest housing policies in the nation today is the use of prisons and mass incarceration, yet I can’t imagine a housing policy course including this topic. This should be something that planners are talking about as an urban policy that is shaping, reshaping and perhaps even de-forming our cities and neighborhoods.

The planning function of local government is also clearly implicated in this system. Prisons, police stations, crime labs and related components of the criminal justice system are land uses that are planned. But they are more than simply neutral components of a necessary function for maintaining social order. Because these public facilities are critical components in a racialized system of criminal injustice, planning for them is part of the production of racialized spaces and the system of social control. Two key components are central to this system: mass incarceration and the persistent racial segregation of African Americans and metropolitan regions. The urban planning profession - despite its nearly complete silence about this system, is complicit and must provide new leadership and research to understand and change it.


Three vignettes from Kansas City, along the Prospect Corridor, show how planning interacts with the criminal justice system and the production of the New Jim Crow.

April 5, 1968

The day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, School District administrators in Kansas City, Missouri decided to hold school instead of canceling classes or organizing a memorial. By the end of the day, the Black youth of the city went from peaceful protest, marching and negotiating with city officials to fighting with police and rioting along the Prospect Corridor. Several incidents led to the rioting, each related to the actions of the police. An inter-racial dance was broken up with tear gas and the police killed a young Vietnam veteran. These events led ultimately to three days of strife, six people dead and at least one million dollars in property damage. For many years, African Americans held Police Chief Clarence Kelley responsible for the deaths.

October 2002

Three decades later the Prospect Corridor suffers from the unresolved social tensions of 1968. Decades of population loss on the corridor fueled physical deterioration of housing, commercial buildings, city blocks, and infrastructure. Loss of jobs at the nearby industrial corridor on the Blue River, at the General Motors Leeds facility in 1987-88, helped to fuel the area’s decline. Efforts to revitalize Prospect in the 1990s through a mix of businesses, job training and commercial redevelopment had limited success. As a result, city leaders and planners teamed up to develop a community-based plan, the Prospect Corridor Initiative. The implementation of this plan, however, is stymied by city politics, regime changes at city hall, and the deepening crisis of concentrated poverty. Downtown continues to take precedence over the eastside neighborhoods.

April 2011

On a sunny spring day in April, elected officials toured an area selected for a new crime lab and police station at 27th and Prospect. Funds raised from a municipal public safety tax, renewed in November 2010, provided the local revenue for construction while HUD funds were used for relocation and other costs. The project was fast-tracked. The local press swiftly contained dissent about the project’s impact on long-time homeowners. Four blocks of housing with a mix of vacant lots, abandoned housing units, and well-loved, historic homes in excellent condition were demolished to make way for the new facility. The project was touted as an economic development strategy for the area that will bring jobs and fight crime. Once again, the bulldozers returned to a Black neighborhood, but this time there’s no grand narrative of renewal.

Referring to the events of April 1968, Bruce Watkins, one of Kansas City’s great African American leaders, reminds us that the roots of police brutality and excessive force run deep. “I will never forgive him [Kelley] for those blacks that were killed,” said Watkins in 1973, after President Richard Nixon appointed Kelley Director of the FBI.


Traveling through Kansas City’s eastside neighborhoods four decades later, the multiple layers of unresolved history and trauma are evident in what remains of the once prominent neighborhoods and homes. The events of April 1968 continue to cast their shadow over the city streets and neighborhoods along Prospect Avenue, but it’s not just the riots of 1968 that haunt these city streets.

The remnants and reminders of the War on Drugs and its impact on African-American neighborhoods and families can be read in this urban landscape if one knows where to look. Abandoned and boarded-up homes linger, waiting to be restored or demolished. Some houses labeled as drug houses have COMBAT spray painted on the boards covering windows and doors, evidence of the county’s anti-drug tax and funding mechanism for drug-related law enforcement efforts.


"Planners have significant power to impact the production of spaces in neighborhoods, cities and regions that are embedded in the racialized system of social control dominant in the US."


Urban planning is an important component of the development and production of systems of social control in U.S. cities. Planners have significant power to impact the production of spaces in neighborhoods, cities and regions that are embedded in the racialized system of social control dominant in the US. Municipal planning, as a space of democratic practice (including opportunities for debate, legislative action and public funding) has potential to reshape or impact this system. As such, the local planning apparatus offers a site of intervention for communities of color and their allies seeking to address the intended and unintended consequences of mass incarceration, racial segregation and the War on Drugs.

Despite this important opportunity for democratic debate and physical transformation of cities, the planning profession has largely been silent on the topic of mass incarceration, the War on Drugs, and the impacts of these policies on local cities, neighborhoods and residents. A 2005 APA policy guide on Security, for example, makes numerous references to terrorism, public safety and crime prevention through environmental design, but not a single reference to the increasing impact of mass incarceration on urban neighborhoods and the implications of this trend for the future of cities. Nonetheless, cities with African-American residents and communities of color cannot afford to ignore the costs and consequences of this system of social control and its human, financial, environmental, psychological and social costs. And yet planners (in general) seem to be largely uninformed about the issues facing inner city communities of color and thus poorly prepared to see their own role in the perpetuation and intensification of this system.


Jacob Wagner is Associate Professor of Urban Planning + Design, Department of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design, University of Missouri, Kansas City.



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