10 Ways Historic Preservation Policy Supports White Supremacy and 10 Ideas to End It

Nearly two decades ago, I became deeply interested in how historic preservation doctrine, represented through orthodox preservation theory and expressed in international and national charters and rules, regulations, and guidelines, manifested as a social justice problem. The core issue is how this orthodox doctrine serves as a means to empower conventionally trained experts (e.g., architectural historians, archaeologists) with the control of someone else’s heritage while simultaneously disempowering the laypeople to whom this heritage actually belongs. Early in my journey, I discovered Laurajane Smith’s concept of the Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD), first introduced in her book, Uses of Heritage (Routledge, 2006) that neatly encapsulates this phenomenon.

Originally, I was interested in how the AHD, generally, affected laypeople from all kinds of identities, but I began to realize that because the genesis of orthodox historic preservation doctrine was entirely from White men, it was impossible to disentangle the AHD from its disproportionate impact on people with non-dominant racial and ethnic identities. And, it also became quite apparent that it was through preservation policy that the AHD was enforced and sustained as a means to sideline the voices of African Americans, Asian Americans, Indigenous people, and Latinx people (among many other possibilities) in the name of regulatory efficiency.

In the past decade or so, many scholars—often external from the preservation field (planning and public history are well represented)—have shown that the historical significance associated with buildings and places is overwhelmingly biased toward White, often wealthy, men. Their scholarship has been critical in helping to understand how the places associated with people who have non-dominant racial or ethnic identities are far too often missed, buried, and forgotten. These authors deserve wider recognition for their deep influence on rectifying issues in the preservation field around the recognition of the history of places associated with marginalized peoples:

This is not meant to be an all-inclusive, exhaustive list, but rather a list of individuals who have deeply influenced me and my work on social justice issues in historic preservation that I began two decades ago.

While there are an increasing number of voices from people with non-dominant identities calling out the injustice in how historical significance is assessed and used in historic preservation practice, similar research that directly addresses preservation policy, and especially the relationship between rules and regulations and racial bias, is not only much more rarefied, but, until quite recently, was almost entirely dominated by a handful of White authors. There is a critical need for applied research in this area, especially from authors with under-represented racial and ethnic identities, because preservation policy in the US has been frozen for more than fifty years. The few individuals who have taken on this policy critique mantle also deserve recognition:

But this is a very short list, which is why I was ethically compelled to define how historic preservation policy supports White supremacy as a way to bring a spring to the deep winter of preservation policy. A deep and critical discussion on the racial bias inherent in preservation policies, such as the National Register of Historic Places, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, financial incentives, and environmental review is long, is long overdue. I firmly believe that the field cannot move forward and address its diversity and inclusion issues until this discussion is fundamentally informed by a thoughtful and deep policy critique.

This situation is why I wrote “10 Ways Historic Preservation Policy Supports White Supremacy and 10 Ideas to End It” as a way to jump start the discussion on needed policy change in historic preservation. I discuss my intersectionality in the paper, including my role as a White male in this space. I make clear that the reason I wrote this paper is because (to my knowledge) no one else had holistically defined how preservation policy sustains White supremacy across all of its policy endeavors. To the largest extent possible, I have scoured every piece of scholarly literature on the topic to make sure that the voices of people with non-dominant racial and ethnic identities are a core part of this paper. That is why I reached out to more than 50 people, from all demographics, to make sure that what is in this paper was as inclusive as I could make it. I am not perfect, however, and it is likely that I’ve missed some authors and their ideas or possibly misrepresented others. Let me know what I missed; or better yet, repurpose the ideas in my paper and write your own paper and make mine irrelevant. I only want to be in this space temporarily until authors with voices that are more relevant than mine join the discussion. But, I refuse to sit by and watch the injustice unfold before me, secure in my identity.

You can download “10 Ways Historic Preservation Policy Supports White Supremacy and 10 Ideas to End It” from:

Works cited

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Bronin, Sara C. (2021, forthcoming). Integrity as a legal concept. Change Over Time 10.2, Preprint available at https://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3776001

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De La Torre, A.A. (2003). An analysis of African American participation in historic preservation. Master’s thesis. Athens, GA: University of Georgia.

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Roberts, A. R. (2019). “Until the Lord come get me, burn it down, or the next storm blow it away”: The aesthetics of freedom in African American vernacular homestead preservation. Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, 26(2), 73–97.

Roberts, A. R. (2020). The end of bootstraps and good masters: Fostering social inclusion by creating counter-narratives. In E. Avrami (Ed.), Preservation and social inclusion (pp. 109–122). Columbia University Press.

Ryberg-Webster, S. (2017). Beyond rust and Rockefeller: Preserving Cleveland’s African American heritage. Preservation Education & Research 9, 7-23.

Stiefel, B. L. (2016). Urban space and travel on the Jewish Sabbath in the nineteenth century. In C. Bryant, A. Burns, & P. Readman (Eds.), Walking Histories, 1800-1914 (pp. 219–240). Palgrave Macmillan.

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Wells, J.C. (2021). Does intra-disciplinary historic preservation scholarship address the exigent issues of practice? Exploring the character and impact of preservation knowledge production in relation to critical heritage studies, equity, and social justice. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 27(5), 449-469.

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