By Mindy Fullilove
From a panel discussion moderated by Michelle DePass.
Dr. Mindy Fullilove is Professor of Urban Policy and Health at The New School and a board-certified psychiatrist who examines links between the environment and mental health. Using psychology of place, Dr. Fullilove has examined the mental health effects of such environmental processes as violence, rebuilding, segregation, urban renewal and mismanaged toxins.
Michelle DePass: How does your professional work and scholarship relate to EJ?
Mindy Fullilove: I am a psychiatrist, and the type of psychiatry that I work in is called social psychiatry, which looks at how social systems relate to the problem of social health. I started doing research in AIDS, and what really became obvious a couple of years into the AIDS epidemic was that Blacks and Hispanics had higher rates of infection than their white counterparts. Why? The primary reason for this was the destruction of Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and one of the principal offenders was the policy of planned shrinkage, which was carried out here in New York throughout minority neighborhoods.
So the issue that I’ve worked on is, what does the destruction of neighborhoods do to people, that creates the problems that lead to AIDS? How does it become related to intravenous drug use? How does it change life in neighborhoods, so people are at sexual risk? That lead me to delve deeply into the long and terrible history of segregation. This is an ever-evolving, constantly changing and really ever-worsening problem. Right now, the piece that we are living with is gentrification, but we have been through other policies in other decades, including: urban renewal, planned shrinkage, disinvestment and deindustrialization, Hope VI programs directed at federal housing projects, and now, gentrification. These have piled up one on another, creating a sorting by race and class, which paralyzes the whole nation.
Environmental justice is part of this longer story of—once you segregate a nation, how do you use the land, and how do you use the people? Step one: put toxins in ‘disposable’ places where Blacks live.
But, it becomes more complicated because places aren’t stable, and there’s no specific place that has to be Black. The Black people have to be Black, but the place doesn’t have to be Black. That’s the point of gentrification. Look at Harlem. Soon there probably aren’t going to be a lot of Black people living in Harlem. Hence, Harlem will not be Black anymore. So, then the toxins that were in Harlem will probably get cleaned up.
So, it’s a very complicated story and what I’ve tried to contribute is, really tracking down this long history of how segregation plays out, and how it has become hidden, so what we call urban policies are really racial policies.
DePass: I would love to hear a little bit about how you can riff on what Maya was just saying in terms of thinking about reassembling people, place and land to be able to combat some of these structural issues.
Fullilove: We might not have a theory of space in the United States, but we certainly have a practice. And our practice is what I call the redlining paradigm. To understand this, you actually have to go back to the origins of this practice.
[Redlining, instituted by the federal government’s Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1937, was designed to steer investment away from risky places. These were defined as those places with older buildings and non-white residents. Literally, the presence of a single Negro family meant that an area was given the worst possible rating, thus setting up the material basis for white flight. Hanchett observed, “The handsomely printed map with its sharp-edged boundaries made the practice of deciding credit risk on the basis of neighborhood seem objective and put the weight of the U.S. government behind it.]*
There are about 237 redlining maps (still not digitized by the federal government—even under President Obama) and what they are about is what is called “infiltration and encroachment.” What they deemed desirable was homogeneous neighborhoods. In particular, white neighborhoods had to be protected from undesirable racial elements. If we were moving in, that’s infiltration and encroachment. That’s literally what the surveys are about.
So, last time you were renting an apartment did you think of yourself as infiltrating? Last time you were on a spy mission did you think of yourself as infiltrating? Infiltration is not something people do when they are house hunting. They’re just looking for a place to live. Encroachment. Have you thought of yourself as encroaching when you were living in a neighborhood? Really, we don’t think of house hunting as either infiltration or encroachment.
In creating these maps, they would rank the neighborhoods—at the top you would have places that were “green” which means there were new buildings, new people and had good restrictive governance to keep the undesirable racial elements out. Maybe we don’t want to call it a theory, but this is the practice. This is the practice of the redlining paradigm.
If you look at what’s happening in the United States, New York City for example, look at where they are putting buildings and for whom are they putting up buildings. You will find that they are putting up buildings in places that they have declared “green.” Meaning, they’re for white people, that is whoever they consider white. These are all arbitrary terms. It has nothing to do with skin color, it’s what they deem desirable elements. Who are the people that are desirable?
They are putting up buildings for those people and they have restrictive covenants, the most powerful restrictive covenant at this point is money. So, where there are neighborhoods that are red, meaning the neighborhoods where poor people live, the undesirable elements and the undesirable people, there are no new buildings going up. If there are new buildings going up, it signals that those people are about to be pushed out because part of the process is ethnic cleansing.
We may not have a theory of space, but we do have a very active practice—a very unstable practice constantly sorting by race and by class, following the rules of the redlining paradigm. Take a look at those 237 maps and look at the supporting documents. Become familiar with the practice of race and space. Because it’s governing your life, my life and the life of all of us. It is the fundamental environmental injustice that is being constantly played out.
What does this do to society? This creates trauma. If you’re going to push people out of their neighborhoods, it’s going to create trauma. Anybody who lived in Harlem and has seen their neighborhood be transformed from an African American neighborhood to a different neighborhood, how are they feeling about that? What’s going on in Fort Greene and Bedford Stuyvesant, and what do they have to say about that? These are terribly traumatic experiences, but they’re built on other previous terribly traumatic experiences. Black people used to live where the Lincoln Center is, and Puerto Rican people, and poor Irish people, and they all got pushed out. So, it’s one after another, after another cumulatively, synergistically destroying communities, which people try desperately to rebuild but then destroy them again. So, not only is there trauma in the present moment that’s happening to communities, but it’s built on previous traumas. What we really do need is to imagine the paradigm that we want. Can we extract ourselves from the redlining paradigm that has been governing the history of our nation? Can we overturn a paradigm that was founded in abusive plantation agriculture that was ecologically destructive of people, place, of the globe? Can we emerge from that ecological self-mutilation, to a way of governing space that’s inclusive, democratic and fun? Can we imagine that?
We’ve got to imagine this new way of how we’re going to live together. Can you have a Black land cooperative? How are people going to own the land?
We’ve got to think about how people are going to own the land because under current conditions, the hyper-commodification of land will destroy people’s habitat—humanity’s habitat. People have to live in communities because that’s our DNA. If we can’t live in healthy communities, we can’t be healthy. Hyper-commodification of the land is completely inimical with long-term sustainability of the earth, for our planet. Certainly for our species. So, what’s the new imagination? That’s your job. You know yourselves to be the kind of people who are going to imagine a better future. That’s really why you are here. So, now that we’ve given you your homework assignment, we would like it tomorrow.