Blog: On Shared Spaces and Belonging in the "Imagined Community" - Part 1

Sara Grossman

Communications and Media Specialist

This fall, we will explore the use of the police and other government oversight agencies as a tool of power wielded by white people against their neighbors of color—and the various systemic factors that have contributed to this phenomenon. First in this series: the spatial dimensions of race, and how certain spaces have been made to “belong” to whites, while others remain excluded.

It was their first time “out in the real world,” and the teen brothers were eager to visit the university at which both had long dreamed of studying, as their mother would later write.

Things went wrong before they even got there, however. The brothers, Thomas Kanewakeron Gray, 19, and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray, 17, from the Mohawk tribe in New Mexico, found themselves lost in the new city, ultimately arriving 30 minutes late to a scheduled Colorado State University (CSU) campus tour for which they had registered online.

Upon their arrival, the two boys found themselves quickly cast under the suspicion of a white mother on the tour with her child, who found them “odd” and overly quiet, as she explained to the police dispatcher when requesting that the boys be checked out. Another man on the tour also “believed they don’t belong,” she said, adding that she believed the brothers to be “Hispanic.”

The boys, who had arrived alone and were simply shy, according to their mother in a Facebook post after the incident, understandably became nervous when the police arrived. They were ultimately able to prove that they did, in fact, “belong” on the tour—but by that time the tour had already moved on. So the prospective students turned around and headed back home. Another seven hours on the road with nothing to show for it. Perhaps it was not the campus they “belonged” on after all.

In this case, and in many other instances of the police being called for mundane or bogus reasons, the privilege of deeming “who belongs” in shared public spaces is not one bestowed upon those who are most often the target of such calls—people of color.

“Nothing in the world is easier in the United States than to accuse a Black man of crime,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois, back in 1932.

Du Bois’ observation, it seems, remains true today—although now equally relevant for those from other communities, like Native Americans, who are also considered racial “others” in the US.

Indeed, stories of people of color having the police called on them for non-crimes or petty incidents have experienced a media resurgence this year. Such incidences have always occurred before, but Americans seem to be paying more attention in our current era of online sharing, mass protests, and Trumpism.

In this case, and in many other instances of the police being called for mundane or bogus reasons, the privilege of deeming “who belongs” in shared public spaces is not one bestowed upon those who are most often the target of such calls—people of color.

While these stories say much about how police engage with communities of color (more about that in a future article), they also provoke larger questions around belonging and shared spaces. Our nation’s population has long been divided starkly by racial lines—and the varying degrees of wealth, power, and opportunity that come with whatever side of the line you’re on.

In recent years, scholars have begun to recognize the fundamental significance of place-based structures—even more so than individual people or events—in producing the unequal outcomes we see today. Such structures, like where one lives, works, and goes to school, are directly linked with economic opportunity, social mobility, and who “belongs” in what Haas Institute Director john a. powell evocatively calls the “imagined community.”

How housing shapes our “imagined community”

In the case of the Colorado mother, for example, perhaps she did not expect two darker-skinned youth to take up space, or “belong,” in an educational setting such as CSU, which is overwhelmingly white. Perhaps these young men did not resemble the scholars she was so used to seeing at her child’s school or around her neighborhood.

Indeed, despite their diversity, many American cities remain massively segregated, with some areas completely shut out from accessing the same opportunities as neighbors just miles away. According to powell, disparities in housing are at the root of disparities in other areas, like education, wealth, and transportation.

“Housing is central to conceptions of who belongs in our imagined community,” powell has written. “It defines, next to marriage and sex, the most intimate conceptions of our self and our community. These spaces acquire racialized meanings.”

powell rightfully argues that our “imagined community” is inextricably rooted in who makes up our real one. Imagination, quite simply, can be limited in spaces that only offer one conception of “neighbor.”

But how did our shared spaces—like communities, schools, and workplaces—become so racialized in the first place?

As detailed by Haas Institute Senior Fellow Richard Rothstein in his widely acclaimed book The Color of Law, the government—at the local, state, and federal levels—deliberately worked to create and maintain segregation as part of its housing policy for generations. These policies were perhaps most explicit with FDR’s New Deal program, one of the largest wealth creation programs in history.

“Housing is central to conceptions of who belongs in our imagined community...It defines, next to marriage and sex, the most intimate conceptions of our self and our community.”

The Federal Housing Administration explicitly participated in the production of all-white neighborhoods, by, for example, refusing to insure mortgages in or near Black neighborhoods, while also supporting builders who mass-produced communities for whites—with the condition that no homes be sold to Black families. (It should be noted that African Americans were by far the largest racial minority group until the 1990s, and as a result the main targets of racist legislation. Still, policy aimed at keeping down Black Americans functioned similarly against other marginalized racial groups, like Native Americans.) The Public Works Administration, meanwhile, actively tore down neighborhoods that were already integrated, calling them slums and replacing with segregated housing.

Just a few decades later, after whites fled cities for idyllic suburban communities, highways became the tool of choice to decimate minority neighborhoods, as these new suburbanites needed quick access to their jobs in the city—and what was more expendable to urban planners than a poor community with racialized others?

The effects of excluding some Americans from housing opportunities reverberated beyond just neighborhoods—this exclusion directly contributed to massive racial wealth gap under which the US suffers today. While white families have long enjoyed returns on capital investments—largely from investments in housing, facilitated by the helping hand of government programs that excluded people of color—Black families, as well as Native Americans, Latinos, and other marginalized groups, were kept out of critical investment opportunities.

Today, Black children are more likely to grow up in poor neighborhoods than they were 50 years ago, in the midst of the Civil Rights Era. In 2016, the net worth of the average white family wealth was about $171,000, while for Hispanics it was $20,700 and for Blacks just $17,600—disparities that essentially influence where families are able to live and with with whom they share space.

Schools as spaces of exclusion

The US government has long recognized the powerful role of schools in creating—and destroying—a sense of belonging in American communities, as illustrated by the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which affirmed the pernicious effects of school segregation on Black students and their access to systemic opportunity. Following that ruling, significant and strategic action was taken at the highest levels of government to desegregate US schools.

Today, however, we are seeing a reversal in government action. Just a half century after the landmark Brown v. Board ruling, America’s schools are resegregating.

According to Will Stancil, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School, the number of segregated schools—where less than 40 percent of students are white—nearly doubled between 1996 and 2016. In that same amount of time, the percentage of children of color attending segregated schools rose from 59 to 66 percent, Stancil wrote in The Atlantic.

Similarly, enrollment in public schools in many US cities is today dominated by kids from lower-income households, generally Black and Latino students, according to writer Mimi Kirk in CityLab, as white parents move their children to alternative institutions.

Just a half century after the landmark Brown v. Board ruling, America’s schools are resegregating.

“More affluent white urbanites who’ve moved to gentrifying city neighborhoods often send their children to private or charter schools, because of fears about underperforming local public schools—and the predominantly non-white kids who attend them,” Kirk wrote.

And it is to their loss. Segregated schools have pernicious effects, not least of which include increased racial anxiety and discomfort with those who are different. Research has shown that white students may lose out on critical skills and abilities that will help them to succeed in future careers. A study from the National Coalition on School Diversity, for example, found that white students in diverse learning environments experienced more complex classroom discussions and developed better critical thinking and problem-solving skills than peers in less diverse settings.

Surveys of white high school students in Kentucky’s Louisville-Jefferson County, where there have been extensive desegregation efforts on the systemic level, also found that a wide majority agreed that diverse classrooms allowed them to better comprehend alternative points of view—and their parents agree. A 2011 report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that more than 90 percent of parents in the county see diverse educational settings as having important benefits for their children, while another majority say that decades of school integration have improved the larger area.

Rucker C. Johnson, associate professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy, emphasized the compounded effects of integrated schools on both students of color and their white peers in a panel discussion at the Institute’s Kerner at 50 conference earlier this year.

“Nowhere is this potential greater to foster racial harmony and be enriched by diversity than in our public schools,” said Johnson, who is also a member of the Haas Institute’s Race, Diversity, and Education Policy research cluster.

He noted that true desegregation is not just about putting Black students in the same schools as white ones, but the “integration of school resources, teacher quality, and class offerings.”

The period after Brown v. Board of Education, he said, when the courts slowly began desegregating schools nationwide, witnessed the “greatest racial convergence in academic achievement, in earnings, in health status,” and general life outcomes.

“Nowhere is this potential greater to foster racial harmony and be enriched by diversity than in our public schools.”

And yet, “relapse can occur if you fail to apply the treatment,” Johnson concluded. Today, we are failing to apply the necessary systems-level remedy to integrating our shared educational spaces.

Since the latter part of the 20th Century, courts nationwide have begun striking down Civil Rights Era-desegregation mandates, under the premise that schools and districts had already “achieved desegregation.”  And the effects are already here: schools in the South today are nearly as segregated as it was 60 years ago, just after Brown v. Board.

Belonging, of course, is difficult to foster when very few people look like you—or, as in the case of the Colorado mother—actively express your “otherness.”

Expanding our “imagined community” today

As the US barrels ever faster to a majority-minority population, it is more crucial than ever to figure out how we can foster shared public spaces that are inclusive for people of all backgrounds and expand our “imagined community” on a wide scale. By desegregating the main places where humans interact—communities, schools, and ultimately workplaces—white people may be less likely to identify their peers of color as “not belonging” in shared spaces.  

One day, perhaps leaders of these spaces will not have to release statements reaffirming that people of color do, in fact, belong.

“Two young men, through no fault of their own, wound up frightened and humiliated because another campus visitor was concerned about their clothes and overall demeanor, which appears to have simply been shyness,” wrote CSU’s president Dr. Tony Frank after the incident on his campus. “The very idea that someone—anyone—might ‘look’ like they don’t belong on a CSU admissions tour is anathema.”



In 1903, nearly three decades before he commented on the policing of Black men, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that “the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line.” 

Today, while remnants of that color line certainly remain, perhaps, as our Director john a. powell often says, the problem of our current century is the that of othering—and the necessity of fostering an "imagined community" where everyone belongs.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Haas Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.