Design & Racism: Introduction


This fifth issue of The Funambulist Magazine is dedicated to the relationship between the disciplines of design (industrial and fashion design, architecture, urbanism) and structural racism. By structural racism, I mean racism that is directly or indirectly implemented by various forms of administrative, legal, economic and police apparatuses at the local, national or international scale. It is crucial to distinguish structural racism from racist speeches or actions, despite the fact that they usually work hand in hand. While speeches and actions ‘only’ account for the domination of a specific situation in a given space at a given time, structural racism organizes a set of normative and administrative practices of domination at the scale of an entire society, creating inequalities that governments either pretend to disavow, or, in the cases of apartheid in South Africa and Palestine, openly embrace. The examples presented in this issue may interpret the notion of design through its varied manifestations, but they share a common focus on the structural racism that emerges from various forms of white supremacy. This is not to say that racism is only implemented through this specific racial ideology — articles could have been written about policies and legislation against Muslims in India or Burma, against Rohingyas in Bangladesh, against Black people in Morocco, etc. — but, rather, that white supremacy, whether through slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism, or more recently through particularly violent forms of global capitalism, should be approached with an examination that extends well beyond the limits of the Western world.

The articles and projects presented in this issue approach the relationship between design and racism from different historical, geographical, and political contexts. The issue opens with a text by Eze Imade Eribo, illustrated by Rasheedah Phillips, about slave ships. These instruments of absolute dispossession and death — about 15% of the kidnapped African bodies did not survive the Atlantic crossing — can be considered the foundational paradigm of design’s indispensable contribution to racism. To put it bluntly, while naval architects did not invent slavery, without their active participation and that of their counterparts in the Americas designing barracks and other carceral apparatuses for Black bodies, slavery as a systematic industrial system would have simply been impossible. In this regard, it is not a coincidence that one of the most powerful documents used by abolitionists was simply an architectural plan of the British slave ship Brookes, showing an extreme concentration of Black bodies in the hold — a concentration that Marcus Rediker even described as underestimated in his canonical book The Slave Ship (2007), corroborating the horrendous conditions of life and death on the boats as described by C.L.R. James:

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French slave ship La Marie-Séraphine (1770) / Musée d’Histoire de Nantes and Bertrand Guillet, La Marie-Séraphine: Navire négrier, Nantes: Editions MeMo, 2009.

On the ships the slaves were packed in the hold on galleries one above the other. Each was given only four or five feet in length and two or three feet in height, so that they could neither lie at full length nor sit upright. Contrary to the lies that have been spread so pertinaciously about Negro docility, the revolts at the port of embarkation and on board were incessant, so that the slaves had to be chained, right hand to right leg, left hand to left leg, and attached in rows to long iron bars. […] The close proximity of so many naked human beings, their bruised and festering flesh, the fetid air, the prevailing dysentery, the accumulation of filth, turned these holds into a hell. (The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Random House, 1989.)

The concentration camps designed by the Nazi administration in the early 1940s that industrially murdered 11 million people (a majority of whom were Jews, the numerous others being Roma, homosexuals, disabled persons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and dissidents) can be considered as a second paradigm of the necessity that racist political programs have towards architecture in order to implement their industrial deadly aim. However, the mechanisms of structural racism in Europe, Palestine, South Africa, the United States and France presented in this issue should not be lightly compared with history’s industrial holocausts: each of these example has its political specificity, and involves a different degree of violence in the application of a structural racist program. The way they can be compared and engaged into a dialogue is through the similar logic of their implementation, in particular their use of the designed environment’s ability to control bodies in space, whether at the object or city scale.

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Police deployment against a Black Lives Matter march in Oakland, CA / Photograph by Amir Aziz (2014).

This similarity is often obvious to people who are subjected to racialized structural violence (despite radically different political contexts), as Native and African American activists, as well as those of the South African anti-apartheid movement protesting in solidarity with their Palestinian counterparts can attest. Beyond the ideological convergence point of white supremacy and colonialism, there is a system that legally and physically organizes and defines bodies in space through various territorial, infrastructural, and architectural apparatuses. Depending on the situation, the degree of physical coercion which dictates that racialized bodies conform themselves to the schemes that subject them drastically varies — for instance, this coercion is not the same for a Palestinian living in Gaza as it is in the West Bank, in Israel, or in a refugee camp in Lebanon, Syria or Jordan. Yet, the state’s legitimized deployment of violence, incarnated in the police and military, ensures that this scheme is respected, sometimes to the point of racialized bodies’ death, as articles written by Nick Estes, Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon deftly illustrate.

The relationship to the police is a common point between three distinct communities subjected to structural racism in France: the racialized youth of the banlieues (suburbs) whose family history almost always involves some form of subjection to the violence of colonialism and slavery (see the interview with Nacira Guénif-Souilamas), the portion of Roma people that live in makeshift habitations systematically cleared and destroyed by the police, and the echoes of the refugee and migrant camps in Paris, Grande-Synthe, and Calais (see Miriam Ticktin’s article). In this regard, it is important not to see these provisional dwellings as the maximal result of what limited local materials and construction skills allow, but rather as an architectural resistance to the surrounding police who continuously threaten their existence. When scores of people are blaming the French and British governments for not doing enough for the refugees and migrants, we should rather insist that the problem is less what these governments passively fail to do, and more what they actively do to perpetuate a system of violent racism. For this reason, not doing anything would already provide better conditions of hospitality than does the current European politics. This is not to say that the flee of displaced bodies from various forms of individual and collective persecution should be met with indifference, but simply that the efforts that are currently put in antagonizing, controlling, expulsing migrant and refugee bodies are much greater than the ones necessary to provide adequate welcoming conditions to their temporary or permanent resettling.

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Police stations of the northern and eastern banlieues (suburbs) of Paris / Photos (1) Villiers-le-Bel (2) Pierrefitte (3) Bobigny (4) Garges-lès-Gonesse by Léopold Lambert (2015)

Questions about the responsibility of designers in the perpetuation of or the resistance against racism are under-discussed within the discipline. At the base of this problem, we can find statistics like the ones provided by Mabel Wilson in her introduction to “Critical Dialogues on Race and Modern Architecture,” a conference she organized at Columbia University on February 26, 2016: 91.3% of current architects in the United States are white — we can expect this figure to be even more overwhelming in most European countries. Just as the architecture field has lagged to address similarly damning statistics of gender inequality,
it is easy to see that popular challenges to white supremacy will be ignored by a profession that is mostly composed of the very bodies benefiting from such a system of inequality. The more this disproportion in the composition of architects disappears — as is likely to happen, in particular when it comes to gender — the more we can expect anti-racism and feminism to be addressed by the profession. However, although it is crucial to consider the problem through this angle — focusing on whether or not a Black and/or female architect can be successful in the industry, for instance — it is not enough to fundamentally challenge the way structural racism operates with the help of design.

Architecture is an instrument of domination. It organizes bodies in space with varying degrees of coercion, from what may appear as voluntary to the most extreme instances of violence. It may not create racism, but it does provide the spatial and territorial conditions for racism to exercise itself. This does not mean that architecture cannot serve an anti-racist agenda, it simply means that its essential function more ‘willingly’ allows the conditions for racism (i.e. for a particular domination) to be perpetuated rather than dissolved. I might add that an architecture oriented against a given system of domination would contribute to producing new norms which would not be without of their own forms of violence that would need to be subsequently addressed: this is what an instrument of domination fundamentally does.

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(1&2) Makeshift Roma village of La Petite Ceinture, destroyed in February 2016. (3) Makeshift encampment in Grande Synthe near Dunkirk. (4) Calais’ “Jungle” makeshift dwellings / Photographs by Léopold Lambert (1&2: November 2015, 3&4 February 2016)

The relationship of design/architecture and racism is therefore a difficult topic to address for many designers/architects. Of course, this difficulty is somehow proportional to the privilege of their own position within the system of domination, particularly in its most expanded form, white supremacy; yet the equivocation is not exclusive to those who benefit from such a position, since the very profession of the architect constitutes a position of power in any given society. This observation does not intend to send us back to the disused conception of the architect as a sort of deity, but rather insists on the fact that architecture as a discipline extends far beyond the personal agency of the individual architect, and that from within it, therefore, a fiercely determined intentionality is required to challenge a given system of domination; racism in particular. While designers/architects’ intention may be irrelevant when it comes to claim benevolent intents when their work triggers particularly violent effects on bodies, it is fully relevant to the strategic construction of a counter logic. Just as we should be less focused on which particular action or speech to label as punctually racist, and more so on what position we occupy and which one to take in a fundamentally racist system, we should likewise take a stand as designers/architects. By continuing to ignore the issue, we necessarily put ourselves in the position of reinforcing the system, regardless of whether it privileges or disadvantages us.

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Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau / Photograph by Alex Zucker (2013)

The design of objects, clothes, buildings, cities that challenge structural racism cannot be naively conceived in the indifference of a society’s schemes of domination between bodies. It requires to be fundamentally constructed against them, either through a reorientation of architecture’s inherent violence towards them or, alternatively, through a constructive “no” answered to commissions for which designers’ agency is not strong enough to effectuate such a reorientation — the construction of a condominium building in a gentrifying neighborhood for instance. Indeed, the tremendous power and violence that architecture can deploy on bodies does not necessarily mean that designers/architects are in control of it. Architecture is a structural political instrument, which means that it involves a variety of decisive actors, architects being only a small portion of them — something that they usually ‘discover’ with great frustration. There is therefore a need for them to simultaneously understand the great responsibility that their work entails, as well as the humbleness that should characterize their position — what may appear as a contradiction at first glance should not be perceived as such in the logic of the argument presented here. The structural characteristics of racism requires each of us to be aware of our responsibility, whether as designers (that is, as actors of the conception of these structures), and as bodies necessarily involved in the normative categorization around which these structures are built. If this issue succeeds in humbly participating to the definition of such responsibilities, it will have accomplished its aim. I wish you a good reading.