Op-Ed: Housing as a window into white privilege

I have been teaching U.S. Housing Policy in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy (UEP) here at Tufts since 2013. Every year I’ve changed the course a bit. However, I’ve always tried to create a course that would support future planners and community change-makers in their professional practice.

In February 2012, when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., I was teaching urban planning at Jackson State University (JSU), in Mississippi.  JSU is a historically black university and in response to Trayvon Martin’s death, I was keenly aware that the tragedy could have happened to any of my students. My white sons, who were also in college at the time, were far more protected from such acts of violence. Teaching at JSU was formative for me and caused me to think about white privilege in new ways.

Despite those experiences, when I began working at Tufts in 2013, I taught a fairly traditional housing course. I wanted my syllabus to include a survey of national housing programs as well as provide students with tools that they would find useful in their professional practice as policy analysts, planners and community-based change-makers. However, I kept the emotional connections I made with my JSU students, and my glimpse of the reality of their world, separate from the content of housing policy.

However, the next summer, in August 2014, when Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Mo., my course began to take a more pronounced shift. These shootings led me to begin my course every year by asking each student to think about where they grew up and how that has affected and structured their life chances.  That question helps us think about the ways that our childhood housing experiences structure the trajectories of our lives. Housing is not just about shelter, but reflects social priorities and conditions even as it reproduces and reinforces them.

Each year my syllabus changed in an effort to do a better a job of shining a light on the history that has led to spatial patterns of residential segregation that we have in the U.S., as well as to better understand current housing policies, not only in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, but also in terms of the winners and losers. Framing the question of U.S. housing policy in this way led me to a deeper understanding of the racialized practices of federal, state and local government through formal zoning and regulation as well as through the professional practices of bankers, real estate agents and others involved in the real estate and financial industries.

Moreover, I understood these forces as creating and reinforcing white privilege. In June 2017, I read Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” and found a cogent historical and legal analysis of how white privilege operates in the housing sector. But, remember, the important thing about housing is that it is about more than just housing. It structures life chances because housing is also about access to health, education, jobs and labor markets, as well as clean water and safe streets. For white people, this perspective on housing offers a critical historical, institutional and legal analysis for how white privilege operates in one part of our society.

UEP and a group of my students have been working hard to bring Richard Rothstein to campus on Wednesday, Jan. 23. He will be introduced by Boston’s Chief of Economic Development and UEP alumnus, John Barros. We will follow the talk with conversations about how we might put our moral commitments into action. We invite you to join us at 6:00 p.m. in Alumnae Lounge at Aidekman Art Center.

Rosalind Greenstein


Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning