A recently published biography has contributed to the myth that Jane Jacobs was inattentive to issues of race. A book reviewer in the Literature Review of Canada wrote, "Her inattention to racism, whether in the form of American housing markets or in official policies like redlining, is well known—at least within the academy, and it was noticed before Death and Life was published."
These confidently made assertions are wrong. Similarly, the source of the assertions, author Robert Kanigel's claim in Eyes on the Street that Jacobs believed that discrimination against "Negroes" was little different from those of other slum populations and "that was about it" is incorrect and misleading. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs wrote about segregation, discrimination, and racism, with special attention to African-Americans, on multiple occasions and in various ways. She called racism "our country's most serious social problem" (p. 71). She spoke of Americans' "tendencies toward master-race psychology" (p. 284). She wrote of housing discrimination, noting that "colored citizens are cruelly overcrowded in their shelter and cruelly overcharged for it" (p. 274). She wrote of credit "blacklisting" (aka redlining), the denial of mortgages and business loans (pp. 299–300). In fact, as early as 1945, in a short history of the United States written for foreign readers when she worked at the Office of War Information, she honestly observed, “The nation’s 13,000,000 Negro citizens do not yet have full economic equality and opportunity" (Becoming Jane Jacobs, p. 296). And in Death and Life itself, she explicitly rejected the "Physical Fallacy," when she wrote, "I do not mean to imply that a city’s planning and design, or its types of streets and street life, can automatically overcome segregation and discrimination. Too many other kinds of effort are also required to right these injustices" (pp. 71-72). Unfortunately, Eyes on the Street has an entire chapter dedicated to Jacobs's alleged belief in "The Physical Fallacy."
As can be seen in two newspaper articles below— in one Jacobs is reported testifying to a US Senate subcommittee against the discriminatory banking practice now known as redlining (then "blacklisting"); in another she is seen protesting public school segregation— Jacobs not only wrote about these issues, she took action.
By comparison, we can look at the writing about race and ethnicity by one of Jacobs's contemporaries, Nathan Glazer. In the first edition of Beyond the Melting Pot, published in 1963, Glazer optimistically believed that "Negroes" would assimilate into middle-class American life in time, and in ways similar to other ethnic groups, such as the Irish, Italians, and Jews had done. He had very little to say about racism, structural or otherwise. By 1970, faced with criticism, his views had changed. In the introduction to the second edition of Beyond the Melting Pot (1970), he admitted that he had not been attentive to all of the issues. The point here is not to criticize Glazer (he already answered such criticism with the second edition of his book), but to point out that insofar as Glazer allegedly witnesses Jacobs's race-blindness in Eyes on the Street, the source is not what it seems to be from today's vantage point. Rather, in comparison, we should respect Jacobs's contributions to the discussion of structural racism, such as redlining (a topic recently revealed anew here in studies by urban historian Nathan Connolly), and her little-discussed observations and criticisms of the social and economic segregation at large in American society.
Nb. Look for an extended discussion of these topics, which also involves debunking the related myth that Jacobs was a "libertarian," in Becoming Jane Jacobs and a forthcoming 2018 special issue of CITIES journal.
This blog entry was the start of a much longer essay published in CITIES journal, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264275117311319?via%3Dihub