As the federal government and local municipalities across the nation deployed discriminatory housing policies and allowed racist real estate practices to produce and uphold racial apartheid in the US, white communities, often assisted by the police and excused by the courts, have turned to harassment, vandalism, arson, bombings, riots, murders, and other forms of violence to keep Black people out of what they have perceived to be their territory. The boundaries delineating these hostile lands have often been invisible yet tacitly understood—established through decades of segregationist laws and anti-Black aggression. Even so, in many instances from the 1930s to today, these edges have literally been rendered solid through physical barriers like walls, fences, barricades, road closures, and buffer strips that, in addition to denying easy access into white districts, have served as the first line of intimidation to the Black residents on the other side.
Remnants of these race barriers are scattered throughout the nation; nevertheless, over time many of them have receded into the backdrop of our everyday built environment. For those who have not had to suffer under their oppressive shadow, these obstructions might appear as idiosyncratic elements of the street grid and nothing more. But for many who must confront these literal roadblocks day in and day out, they continue to be tangible reminders of the brutal sites of contestation that are US cities and suburbs. In their ubiquity and apparent banality, race barriers are a form of “terror of the mundane and quotidian.”1 The indifference politicians and judges have shown towards the violence these exclusionary structures have imposed on innumerable Black communities across the country has allowed them to proliferate under the euphemistic guise of crime prevention and traffic control. In their capacity to bluntly demarcate and divide space, these built forms have also enabled vigilante terror by further entrenching the belief among white property owners that the neighborhood in which they live is their dominion.
Consider Miami’s Carver Village terror attacks. In 1951, city commissioners set aside several vacant units in Knight Manor, an all-white apartment complex in an all-white neighborhood, to be converted into Black housing and renamed Carver Village. This residential subdivision was located on the other side of a race wall built in 1939 to isolate what was then a new public housing development for African Americans (called Liberty Square) west of the wall from the existing white community.2 The prospect of integrating the area east of the wall led to bitter objections from neighboring whites who formed the Dade County Property Owners’ Association to lobby government officials to keep the neighborhood racially homogeneous. Parallel to these negotiations, the Ku Klux Klan (in collusion with the Property Owners’ Association) used intimidation tactics at Carver Village. The terrorist group “distributed hate literature and burned giant letter Ks in four locations around Carver Village.”3 In addition, Knight Manor residents participated in a motorcade circling Carver Village, ending in the shooting and wounding of a Black man.4
Tensions reached a critical point in September 1951 when, approximately a month after the first Black tenants moved into Carver Village, the apartment complex was bombed. According to contemporaneous reports, “The bombs, each composed of sticks of dynamite, tore holes in the [building’s] concrete block wall, ripped doors from their hinges, shattered every window in the bombed house and scores more in nearby White and Negro units, ripped out gas stoves, damaged electric refrigerators in the kitchen of the bombed building, ripped the roof of the building and caused widespread havoc.”5 Sixty-nine days later, in November, another blast rocked Carver Village, this time flinging rubble a radius of 150 feet.6 A third bomb was detonated in December. With so many explosions, Carver Village earned the nickname “Little Korea” in reference to the ongoing Korean War. Four suspects were eventually arrested, including three Klansmen, but none were ever indicted.
This was by no means the only act of domestic white-supremacist terror in Miami or beyond. The homes of “Black pioneers,” the first African Americans to move into all-white areas following the landmark 1948 supreme court case of Shelley v. Kraemer, which outlawed racially restrictive covenants, were frequently firebombed. By destroying homes, the perpetrators destroyed livelihoods, traumatized families, stunted wealth accumulation, and sent an unwelcoming message to any other Black resident aspiring to relocate into the neighborhood.
What makes the Carver Village incident notable is that when the initial Black tenants moved into the apartment complex, they not only crossed an imaginary racial boundary, they breached a literal concrete wall meant to separate the races both “psychologically and physically” (as a white public housing official once declared when describing his intentions to construct a race wall in Houston in the 1950s).7 What’s more, this wall was planned by the municipal government, supported by the US Housing Authority, and designed by an architect. Such barriers were often pretexts for developers to access FHA-insured mortgages and procure the necessary permits and approvals from local planning and zoning boards, not to mention ways for county and city officials to mollify irate white residents—the products of real estate interests and white supremacy comingling. Walls were not necessary, of course, for such racist backlash to transpire, but in their visibility and physicality, they put into sharp relief architecture’s active role in America’s vicious history of white supremacy and vigilantism.
Countless white communities throughout much of the twentieth century not only prevented Black families from moving in next door, they also (formally and informally) banned African Americans from even entering after dark under the threat of arrest or worse.8 Some of these white communities employed barriers to mark the boundaries of their so-called “sundown towns.” Take, for instance, North Brentwood, an African American suburb in Maryland near Washington D.C., where into the 1960s Black residents knew not to cross a road barricade that divided their community from the white neighborhood of Brentwood, or risk violence from the KKK.9 The barricade still stands today.
In Lake Worth, Florida, a wall the length of four football fields continues to enclose the historic African American neighborhood of Osborne from the rest of the city. As told by former City Commissioner Retha Lowe in a 2019 interview, into the 1950s, “if a Black person worked downtown, at five o’clock in the afternoon, they had to be off the street and had to be back down here in Osborne.”10 And Ferguson, Missouri, too, was a sundown town. Up until 1968, white residents from Ferguson blocked the primary road from the adjoining African American enclave of Kinloch with chains and debris.11 While Ferguson is now majority Black due to decades of white flight, the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 at the hands of the police illustrates that it is still not safe. As historian Beryl Satter notes, “This is what happens when you have massive racial change in a community and the power structure remains in the hands of whites and the police force acts as this sort of mediating force between the white power structure and what is now a black community and has very little empathy or knowledge about that community.”12
There is a clear relationship between the architectural ghosts of segregation that persistently haunt us and the actions of white vigilantes both past and present. It is in this legacy of sundown towns, exclusionary architecture, and the endangerment of Black people that the killings of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery can be situated.
The racist fortress mentality that has spurred so many communities to wall themselves off from supposed intruders, is what, in part, emboldened George Zimmerman to murder Trayvon Martin in 2012. The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated community in central Florida where Martin was walking that fateful day, is encircled by fences and regulated access points. As urban policy scholar Edward J. Blakely wrote in 2012 about the connection between gated communities and Martin’s death, “Gates and security guards also convey to residents that their preserve is outside the wider community’s laws. It is their kingdom; anyone who enters it is subject to new rules that transfer public authority to private individuals.”13
Similar in spirit, access into Satilla Shores, the subdivision in Georgia where Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in 2020, is limited to only two streets. Tucked behind a wall of tall trees lining Jekyll Island Causeway, this small majority-white coastal community is intentionally hidden and secluded. Like Zimmerman, Arbery’s vigilante murderers acted with perceived impunity under the presumption that their exclusive neighborhood was their private domain to police as
they saw fit.
Race barriers, though, go beyond enabling vigilante terror. They physically restrict movement, denying easy access into white areas and forcing Black people to take lengthy and burdensome routes to reach important amenities. In their ability to inhibit people’s full freedom and enforce a racial caste system, these exclusionary structures are a form of physical, social, and psychological abuse in themselves.
From Arlington, Virginia to Melbourne, Florida to Fort Worth, Texas to New Haven, Connecticut and beyond, walls, fences, and barricades have been deployed by white communities throughout the nation to block direct paths to schools, doctors, jobs, and grocery stores for countless Black residents.14 Emphasizing the harmful emotional consequences of these obstructions (and expressing a feeling that undoubtedly is shared by others who have experienced the effects of these barriers), Black Memphian N. T. Greene, in a 1981 supreme court testimony against a barricade installed by the city of Memphis along racial lines, put it this way: “Because we are Black, we cannot drive through a piece of property that is owned collectively by us. This would cause psychological damage to me personally,” adding that the Memphis street closure is “simply an extension of the insult and humiliation that we have tolerated and experienced too long already.”15
While they have the power to physically dictate how people traverse the urban landscape, to those who do not grasp their significance, these segregation walls often remain an unremarkable feature of our built environment. As the legal scholar Sarah Schindler points out, “courts and lawmakers often fail to recognize architecture as a form of regulation at all, viewing it instead as functional, innocuous, and pre-political.”16 As in so many cases of white-supremacist vigilantism wherein the courts have sided with the accused defendant (like Zimmerman), when Black residents have challenged the construction of a physical race barrier on grounds of racial discrimination, judges have routinely dismissed their complaints (see City of Memphis v. Greene and Thompson v. HUD). Outrageously, in the case of Thompson v. HUD, the court ruled that a fence constructed in Baltimore in 1998 to divide a majority Black public housing project from an adjacent white suburb did not amount to discrimination, even if its construction was partly motivated by racist sentiments.17 Consequently, numerous majority-white municipalities across the nation continue to erect physical barriers along Black-white borders under the pretext of crime prevention. Their effects are not dissimilar from their Jim Crow counterparts: to divide and control.
For example, in 1994, after a string of violent crimes that peaked with the murder of an elderly white couple in the wealthy white area of Guilford in Baltimore, residents of Guilford lobbied the city’s Public Works Department to barricade certain streets connecting to York Road, as well as transform several roads into one-way streets leading out from Guilford. York Road is the main thoroughfare dividing Guilford from the adjacent working-class Black neighborhood. The murder of the couple was initially thought to be the doing of a nonresident burglar; however, the culprit turned out to be the couple’s grandson. The street revisions, nevertheless, remained.18 As anthropologist Teresa P.R. Caldeira writes about the proliferation of gated communities in her book City of Wall: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo, “The talk of crime works its symbolic reordering of the world by elaborating prejudices and creating categories that naturalize some groups as dangerous.”19 She continues, “[The universe of crime and fear] stimulates the development of two novel modes of discrimination: the privatization of security and the seclusion of some social groups in fortified and private enclaves.”20
Like Guildford, residents of Miami’s affluent Morningside neighborhood, a majority white area located immediately east of the majority Black community of Little Haiti, chose to block every road leading into Morningside with landscaped barricades (mostly installed in the early 1990s) and security gates (installed in the early 2000s), despite the fact that there is a public park within the borders of the neighborhood. In a community meeting in 2000, a Black community member “complained the guard gates made her feel as if she were subject to apartheid.”21
In their essay titled “Itemizing Atrocity,” sociologist Tamara K. Nopper and community organizer Mariame Kaba comment on non-Blacks’ inability to see, hear, or empathize with Black Americans’ everyday suffering unless it comes in the form of shock spectacle, such as images of graphic violence or comparisons to war. In so doing, “the terror of the mundane and quotidian,” (a term they bring up from Saidiya Hartman’s book Scenes of Subjection) is overlooked. As Nopper and Kaba point out, “the problem is that the formulation suggests it is the excess against which we must rally. We must accept that the ordinary is fair, for an extreme to be the problem.”22
In their commonplaceness, race barriers represent an architectural manifestation of the “terror of the mundane and quotidian.” But it is through framing these structures as spectacles (often referring to them as a city’s Berlin Wall), as well as sustained activism that, in certain cases, Black residents have successfully pressured local authorities and the courts to remove some barriers. Such was the case in Atlanta in 1962–1963 when the city’s board of aldermen ordered the construction of steel and wood road barricades to discourage any more African Americans from moving into a white neighborhood known as Cascade Heights after a Black surgeon named Dr. Clinton Warner purchased a home in the area. The story made national news and the backlash was swift. “Petitions were filed in Atlanta’s courts, protesters picketed City Hall with signs referring to Atlanta’s ‘Berlin Wall,’ civil rights organizations called for boycotts of white businesses around Cascade Heights, and black leaders publicly lambasted the mayor.”23 At one point, activists damaged one of the barricades. The next morning, white residents retaliated by closing off the street with debris. Protesters returned that night to set fire to the ad-hoc barrier. The city then rebuilt the barricade, with Klansmen standing guard after its construction.24 Finally, the Superior Court of Fulton County ended the feud by issuing an injunction to remove the obstructions. The barricades were taken down less than a year after they were erected.25
More recently, in 2017–2018 in Palm Springs, California, residents from the historically African American neighborhood of Crossley Tract successfully pushed the city to remove a row of tall tamarisk trees that stood between their neighborhood and a golf course. Residents believed the trees were planted decades ago to segregate the neighborhood from the rest of Palm Springs, keeping their property values low.26 In the act of exposing the racist intentions and effects of what would appear to be a “mundane” element of the urban fabric, these activists were able to transform the public’s perception of the trees in their backyard into physical embodiment of oppression. Now that the trees are gone, Crossley Tract residents have an unobstructed view of the mountains in the distance.
Unfortunately, such triumphs are the exception. Most of these pieces of racist infrastructure continue to hide in plain sight while in many cases still reproducing the injustices they were built to inflict. Furthermore, they represent “just one set of forms by which to segregate built space, along with highways, train tracks, low bridges, one-way streets, misaligned city grids, and a lack of sidewalks or crosswalks.”27 These structures solidify in built form the hostile tactics inherent in white supremacist vigilantism and reveal design’s active role in inflicting violence. In their concreteness, these structures should be a call to action to redress the lasting impact such planned systems of dispossession and terrorism have wrought.