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Tamika Butler, racism, and the segregation of public space


Tamika Butler after her talk at PSU Wednesday night.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

“Why don’t more African-Americans ride bicycles?”

That headline from a national advocacy organization asks a question that’s common to many planners, policymakers, and advocates. It’s a question that helped spark a discussion about equity that has been a focus of many programs, studies and initiatives over the past decade.

For the most part the response to that question has centered around standard stuff like research and data, attempts to uncover the barriers to bicycling faced by people of color, and how organizations can be more inclusive. Those are important parts of the work; but what if we’ve been avoiding the root cause?

What if we aren’t making enough progress because we’re too uncomfortable to acknowledge the racist foundation of our land-use policies, transportation system and planning culture? What if the white privilege of many planning and advocacy professionals has led to the segregation of black people out of bike lanes? What if many black people do bike, but in places white people don’t usually associate with “cyclists” or “commuters”?

Those are just some of the questions that bounced around my head as I biked home from a talk given by Tamika Butler on Wednesday night. Butler was chosen by Portland State University’s Inititiave for Bicycle & Pedestrian Innovation to give the Anne Niles Active Transportation Lecture. She didn’t hold anything back.

“For me, as a black person, what does segregation feel like? It’s this feeling. This heaviness. It’s this constant thing on you.”
— Tamika Butler

Through a tapestry of personal stories, this former civil rights lawyer and director of the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition created a raw and extremely relevant picture of what it’s like to be a young, black, gay woman in America. And she did it in front of a room full of people who desparately needed to hear it.

On the surface, most of Butler’s talk had nothing to do with transportation. But underneath, it had everything to do with transportation. The title was: “Urban Segregation and the Intersections of Race and Place.”

Butler grew up in Okinawa, Japan, then lived in Omaha, Nebraska before moving to Los Angeles where she currently leads the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, a nonprofit that builds parks in underserved areas.

In front of a mostly white crowd that included an impressive amount of advocates, planners, and agency staffers from the city, region and state (even saw a few Oregon Department of Transportation staff), Butler spoke in a way that mirrored her message. She fearlessly shared how her life is worse because she’s black, and urged white people to be just as fearless in helping make it better.

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“Segregation is about public space. It’s about the way we use our land. It’s about realizing this white woman doesn’t understand that the reason she never saw black folks swimming is because there were people in power who made policies that intentionally kept us away from them.”
— Tamika Butler

Butler went beyond the typical topics everyone in the room assumed a talk about segregation from a black woman would cover. Asked what the audience thought of when she mentioned segregation, Butler heard a familiar response: “Schools, red-lining, gerrymandering, white flight, interstate highways,” and so on. Those are the things white people think about. But for Butler, the issue is visceral.

“For me, as a black person, what does segregation feel like?” Butler shared. “It’s when you’re out in a rainstorm and you’re getting drenched and even when you come inside you just can’t get warm. You can’t get the chill off you. That’s what it’s like being a person of color everyday. It’s this feeling. This heaviness. It’s this constant thing on you.”

To illustrate her feelings, Butler shared a story about a co-worker who realized she’d gone swimming and said, “I didn’t know black people could swim.” After shaking off the shock, Butler explained to the woman that the reason that fallacy exists is because, “We we were in a different pool because your parents didn’t want you to swim with my mom.”

Returning to the audience, Butler said, “Segregation is about public space. It’s about the way we use our land. It’s about realizing this white woman doesn’t understand that the reason she never saw black folks swimming is because there were people in power who made policies that intentionally kept us away from them.”

Butler would intersperse stories like this with direct calls to the professionals in the room. “I think that in order to do our best work as folks in this space, we have to be willing to understand the stories of the people who often aren’t at the table,” she said. “We have to be willing to confront the racist history that our country and the systems that we have created in our country were built upon.”

Butler referred to this book by Richard Rothstein in her presentation. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017, Liveright)

Racism is at the root of land-use policy in America. Butler’s worry is that the system will never be dismantled if people are too afraid to even say that word. “How do you change systems if you aren’t able to talk about what’s really at the root of those systems?” she lamented, after telling us about a 90-minute meeting on equity she attended earlier in the day where the only people who brought up racism were the people of color.

“I don’t want to talk about equity,” she said. “I want to talk about racism. I want to talk about why it shuts down the conversation.”

And if your feelings are hurt after reading this far, Butler doesn’t care.

While acknowledging gun laws and black-on-black crime, she spoke about how black people have been forced to live in unhealthy — and ultimately deadly — neighborhoods, “Because white people don’t want us somewhere else. When they don’t have to see us, and when they don’t have to hear about our pain, they don’t have to do anything about it. And that is really tough.”

“You zoned to allow oil drilling, to allow toxic plants,” she continued. “You zoned to make it such that there are people who look like me in Michigan who still don’t have clean water? And you want me to worry about how you might feel?”

That’s what Butler calls “centering whiteness” and she’s not having it. “I mean, I kind of think white people should feel bad. Because the policies were intentional.”

Butler said she understands that talking about white privilege and racism makes people feel uncomfortable. “But the reality as a person of color,” she shared, “especially in planning spaces, especially in transportation spaces — it is always uncomfortable. But we can’t make you uncomfortable for a second because you’d rather conceptualize racism in transportation as being something that happened a long time ago? You would rather conceptualize it as being about making buses that were no longer segregated and now we’ve fixed the problem?… I don’t even put racism on my first slide even though that’s all I’m talking about because segregation makes white people feel better.”

There’s no debate in Butler’s mind: Transportation is a racial justice issue. And it’s about life or death for people of color — especially in today’s America where white supremacy is alive and well. The reality of our times added a sense of urgency to Butler’s admonitions.

“We can’t even get a flat tire on the part of the highway where we’re not supposed to be, or else, somebody’s gonna’ say we look like a dangerous dude. And they’re going to kill us!” Butler continued. “We have to realize that’s all about transportation, and it’s all about racism.”

To truly tackle equity, Butler said the people who have historically had the least, must be given the most. “You’ve got to give us more because for so long you planned your cities, you planned your institutions, you planned your curriculums, you planned everything to keep us down.” Butler said she wants a seat at the table to make a decision, not just to be a decoration.

As I soaked up Butler’s words, my mind flashed back to my experiences covering the North Williams Traffic Safety Project — especially when she said: “We have to recognize that when white people come into our spaces with their craft beer and their record players and their bikes, all of the sudden the way we’re treated in our own communities is different, because the reality is we were perfectly segregated to the other side of town; but now that you can’t afford your side of the town and you want to be on our side of town, now we’re an inconvenience.”

I’ve learned a lot about my own privilege and racism since the Williams project (and when I mistakenly identified an activist as a police officer). Hearing Butler’s words reminded me I still have much to learn. Her delivery wasn’t bombastic like a preacher, it was personal. Butler spoke from her heart. Even as she skillfully wove in comic relief (in the form of pop culture references that included Rihanna, Drake, and Justin Bieber) her fear and anger were palpable.

So, what exactly can white people do to make things better? Butler said the first step is to admit that you’re privileged, and as a byproduct, racist (“And it’s hard when your instinct is to say, ‘But I’m not a racist,” she said. “You are. We all are.”) Then apologize. Then get to work to dismantle the system. And that doesn’t mean just hashtags or changing your profile picture on social media. She doesn’t want more allies, she wants accomplices.

For white advocates, planners and policymakers it’s not just about just listening to people of color, or about feeling bad for a few hours, then returning to our good fortune of forgetfulness. We have to stand up, be ready to help, cede power, and do more to lift that “heaviness”.

“Everybody has to walk out of this room feeling they have something to do,” Butler said.

What will you do?

More on Tamika Butler: Recording of this talk is now available on YouTube. She was also a guest (with Keyonda McQuarters) on the Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About This? Podcast last week. This talk was recorded by the hosts at PSU. I’ll post the link when it’s up. Also see TamikaButler.com

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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