It is impossible to discuss the history of urban areas, and the challenges their resident face, without discussing race. Ever since the emancipation of slaves and their subsequent migration to the cities of the northeast, throughout the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, and the decades of so-called "urban decline" that followed, African Americans have played an important role in shaping the cities of this country.
As a resident of Washington, DC, a city with racial tension to spare, I know it is important to acknowledge the contributions of African Americans and honor all those who helped make my city what it is. Do we really think that U Street would be what it is today if the greats of jazz like Duke Ellington, Shirley Horn, and Billy Taylor had not graced the streets of our city? How many residents know that in the 1790’s Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught black man born to a freed slave, assisted in surveying the boundaries of a new federal district, what we now call Washington, DC?
While I choose to speak about my own home, every city across the country has parallel stories that residents should explore. It is important to explore our home's collective history because shaping a harmonious and equal world requires that we understand our past.
As much as Millennials like to think of themselves as a fair and equal generation, evidence suggests otherwise. That does not mean we cannot one day achieve social justice, it means that we still have a lot work to do - which requires proactively fighting the status quo.
Understanding our history is a good place to start. Not just the good parts, but also the failures, beginning with the institutional discrimination and racism that have been perpetrated throughout our history, from the indefensible injustices of slavery and segregation, to the policy of redlining during the postwar housing and economic boom.
For those who don’t know, redlining demanded the creation of segregated neighborhoods by denying African Americans, and other people of color, access to the capital needed to buy a home or start a business. In every city in the US you can still feel and see the effects of these policies.
If we are to bridge the divide the past has created, we must do more than merely understand it, we must use it to actively create a vision for the future and work towards equality.
I’d like to think Millennials want to work towards a future where all are afforded an equal opportunity to succeed, no matter the color of their skin, or the wealth of their parents.
This is not a vision that will be realized in the halls of Congress, or on the benches of the judiciary, or behind the desk sitting in the oval office. This is something that starts with changes in our own lives, in our communities, and in our cities.