Whitney M. Young, Jr.’s speech at the American Institute of Architects’ 1968 convention was an impatient and indignant assessment of the racial homogeny of the design profession and its “thunderous silence” regarding what he called a fundamental human rights violation: the design of cities for exclusivity rather than inclusivity. Young, then director of the National Urban League, argued that the relevance of the profession and even the future of the country was at risk if this misuse of talent continued.
Young’s stance is as relevant now as it was 50 years ago. Statistics show that less than one in five newly registered architects in the US identify as a racial or ethnic minority. Roughly 2 percent of registered architects are African American, and a mere two one-hundredths of 1 percent are African-American women.
It’s too easy to fall back on the “escape hatch” Young mentioned: that our roles are typically as designers and planners, not builders or developers, so our power to have a meaningful social and civic impact is limited by our service relationship with clients. Maybe that needs to change. Perhaps more designers could expand into development, policymaking, or other roles with a broader impact. More diversity in the profession would promote innovation, just as it does in other industries.
I was born in Mandeville, Jamaica, a country where 97 percent of the population is of African descent. It was there that I was first educated as an architect and first worked in the field. When I moved to the United States in 1999 to pursue my master’s degree at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, I was ignorant of many of the issues Young championed. I did not expect that a comrade from Jamaica and I would be the only black people in the entire master’s class, with just a few other black students and no black professors in the school of architecture.
Over the years I have learned that as black architects we must be excellent, and we must be educators. Early in my career, I designed a large private residence for a client in New Jersey. For many months, our communication took place over the phone or through emails. When we finally met in person, his first comment was, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know you were black. You were great to work with.” There was an awkward silence during which the negative implication of his comment hung in the air. I moved on and hoped this encounter was a step, for one man at least, toward normalizing the idea that an architect can be black.
We cannot, however, simply wait for enough “Oh, wow” moments to organically shift attitudes and make the profession more welcoming and more appealing to a broader range of professionals. Young was a man of strategic action, and that is the path we need to follow to experience the change we need in architecture.
What if a company’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion could be quantified and rewarded? One example is the JUST program, a voluntary disclosure tool that acts as a “nutrition label” for socially just and equitable organizations. Federally regulated nutrition disclosures help support a healthier food culture in the US while also encouraging new businesses and more responsible farming practices. In the same way, we could create an economic environment that goes beyond minimum requirements for minority and woman-owned businesses on public projects and reward firms with higher social justice and equity performance ratings with tax breaks and other financial incentives.
Imagine if such a score became a key criterion for a design excellence award. The AIA Code of Ethics could include a new canon, an explicit industrywide commitment to improving diversity, inclusion, and equity, and topics such as implicit bias could be addressed on the industry’s registration exam as a prerequisite to licensure.
Let’s make it official — make it a truly fundamental part of the profession. Once we do, more equitable, diverse, and inclusive firms can be better positioned to hire and retain top talent. Such performance indicators could also encourage firms to allocate more resources to support minority students who disproportionately come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, improving college completion rates and building a more diverse pipeline of design professionals.
Young ended his speech with a quote from an ancient Greek scholar who asserted that justice for society will be achieved “when those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are,” making it clear that the lack of diversity he observed was not a matter of circumstance but a matter of choice. We must choose to get uncomfortable and have explicit, messy conversations, then commit to making systemic change. Inequity, exclusivity, and racial homogeny in our offices and in the places we design make us less relevant, and that should make every design practitioner indignant. Let’s choose real, innovative change to create a more just profession. While we’re at it, we will be creating a more just society.
Artwork: Born and based in Scotland, Emily Moore is an alumna of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design international exchange program. Her paintings and collages explore the tension between environments and the manmade structures that inhabit them. All images courtesy of the artist.