Planning for Equity and Racial Tolerance: Reflections from a White Planner on the Zimmerman Verdict

Last week, six jurors acquitted George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, in the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. This sad moment in our nation’s history reveals how racial biases and fears map onto our communities and built environment, a lesson every planner ought to consider. This verdict challenges all of us to ask what biases and privileges do we carry in the work that we do. How do the ways in which we plan our communities either enforce or challenge assumptions of who belongs and who does not?

It seems clear that what can be called casual racism had a significant role in this case. What made Zimmerman think Martin (and the several other African American men he reported to the police) didn’t belong? What assumptions made at least one juror think these suspicions were justified? Why would the police at the scene test the dead black teenager for drugs, but not his killer? Would each of these people have responded differently if Martin had been white? I can’t help but think that the answer is at least “probably” if not “yes.”

These questions have also made me consider how racial bias and white privilege has played out in my own life, and in the work that I do as a planner. I grew up in a mostly white, upper-middle class suburb in California, partly in a townhouse development that looked not too different from Retreat at Twin Lakes, where Martin was staying and where he was killed. While overt racism was not tolerated, subtle biases were rampant. The town rejected new public transit investments and tore down one of the few affordable housing options (a trailer park) to replace it with condos in order to keep low-income people out. I remember being told as a kid that I had to do better in school, or else we would move to East Oakland. At a young age, I learned that white people and white places were at the top of a certain hierarchy, and that others did not belong. I imagine Zimmerman was acting based on similar assumptions.

The research on implicit bias has shown that nearly all of us carry racial assumptions, oftentimes at a subconscious level that we don’t realize or want to admit to. But the consequences of these biases are real and can be deadly, particularly against black men and boys like Martin who are stereotyped in our society as dangerous.

Planning tools are not neutral – they interact with these implicit biases and racial stereotypes, more often than not to keep low-income, African American, and other communities of color separate and unequal from white communities. Single-use zoning and efforts to stop affordable housing developments have been used to keep low-income families (and oftentimes people of color) out of neighborhoods. Non-white renters and home buyers still face well-documented discrimination by both real estate agents and lenders when looking for a home. People of color are shown less home options, and poorer quality options, than their white counterparts. And they are much more likely to end up with a subprime loan, even when they qualified for better terms.

The discrimination may no longer be codified in deeds, but the impacts are clearly visible. Schools are as segregated today as they were 50 years ago, with African American and Latino students overwhelmingly attending low-performing schools in high poverty neighborhoods. But the way I learned this as a kid was that bad students (of color) from East Oakland went to bad schools, as if somehow the students themselves were to blame.

As planners – and especially white planners from the ‘burbs like me – we need to recognize our own implicit biases and think critically about how these assumptions may play out in our work. We need to speak up on issues of equity and inclusion in our cities and towns. We need to recognize when coded racial language is being used (like claims that affordable housing will increase crime rates, or calls for more local control) and engage city staff, electeds, and residents in constructive conversations about race, privilege, and community planning. We need to conduct equity analyses of city plans and policies to identify any negative impacts on low-income communities and communities of color, and ensure these impacts are addressed proactively.

We also need to address these issues at the structural level, creating policies that support inclusion and racial equity. Recent initiatives to promote regional planning, like Sustainable Communities, can help create more integrated and diverse communities that begin to unravel the stereotypes and create better opportunities. We need to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and provide education and workforce training tied to career opportunities so that all residents can succeed, regardless of where they live. And we need to recognize that demographics in this nation are shifting rapidly, with people of color already the majority in many states and regions. Our suburbs in particular are becoming more diverse, and we need to put strong community development infrastructure in place to support them.

We owe it to Trayvon Martin and countless others to create more equitable communities that promote racial tolerance, not feed into racial fears. For many of us, that work has to begin with an honest look inward at our own biases and assumptions.

Chris Schildt, MCP ’12, is a program associate at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity, based in Oakland. She conducts research on equitable economic growth strategies, including best practices for advancing equity in job creation, entrepreneurship, and workforce development. She can be reached at