Commissioned in 1968 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), the Urban Institute was charged with “renewing our cities and transforming lives,” and in many ways, we have succeeded. While Urban’s 50th anniversary is cause for celebration, it is also an occasion to reflect on our past.
Johnson’s undeniably complicated legacy
Taking office in 1963—one of the most controversial and tumultuous times in American history—LBJ transformed American life and politics with the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the Higher Education Act of 1965, and several other landmark legislations. These Great Society programs are not relics of the past; they affect millions of lives and are a major focus of Urban’s research.
Johnson even called for white America to take responsibility for its role in the breakdown of the Black family and fought to ensure Great Society programs were equitably implemented. For these massive steps toward ending poverty and improving the lives of the most vulnerable, LBJ is often hailed as a civil rights hero.
Credible accounts, however, revealed LBJ engaged in racist acts, including verbal abuse and surveillance. He had a strong affinity for racial stereotypes and antiblack slurs. As he fought to desegregate schools and unlock educational and economic opportunities for Black people, he routinely berated his Black employees, calling them “furniture.”
LBJ also continued the Kennedy administration’s wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr., and mired his decision to nominate Thurgood Marshall, the first Black supreme court justice, with slurs and tokenization (PDF).
While distressing, the disconnect between Johnson’s actions and words is not intended to spark a debate on his “goodness,” but to illustrate his complexity and ground Urban’s reflection on its past.
Shaped by legacy
Urban was founded in troubled times for complicated reasons by a complex man and administration. It is not a question of whether but how these sociopolitical conditions influenced our charge, composition, and work. The conditions of 1968 influenced our mission and affected staff composition—predominantly white men. Their voices and lenses guided our research questions, methodologies, norms, and the perspectives and experiences we value—many shaped by privilege, paternalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.
Urban was established as an impartial, nonpartisan, and evidence-based voice for understanding and addressing pressing societal issues. But this noble mission was not developed in partnership with people living in marginalized communities. Even though Urban strives to serve the common good, our funding structure leads us to work at the behest of powerful institutions.
Lived experience and proximity to societal issues shape our work. America was segregated in 1968 and remains so today, including our home of Washington, DC. Yet the people tasked to address the racialized problems facing low-income people of color did not live in those neighborhoods.
Even today, most Urban researchers are white and do not personally grapple with the inequities we study. As a result of segregation, racial discrimination, and unequal access to opportunity, Urban is part of a larger academic history and field of highly educated, higher-income white researchers studying racial and economic inequities from a distance.
A legacy in action
How does Urban and its founder’s history influence our research and our interpretation and dissemination of our work?
- Urban’s expertise and decades of work have undeniable value and validity, but we have only recently begun to include community members into in the research process as equal partners. This more inclusive approach leads to a more contextualized interpretation of findings, greater impact, and more accountability. Like other research institutions, we have sometimes taken the traditional approach of studying populations and communities at a distance, running the risk of telling people closest to the problem what we think is best for them or empowering outside institutions or decisionmakers to do so without their input or expertise. We know now that we cannot do the highest-quality research without a good faith effort to incorporate the voices of those affected.
- We have perpetuated race as a category rather than a social construct, routinely inserting “race” as an independent variable in statistical models, with “white” invariably used as the reference category or default—the category from which all other racial outcomes are measured. Treating communities of color as derivatives of whiteness elevates whiteness above all else. We need to be explicitly critical and mindful of how we integrate the concept of race in our analyses and interpretations.
- Our research, together with the language we use to describe marginalized populations, has often been inaccessible, stigmatizing, and even dehumanizing. Our historical, physical, and social distance from marginalized communities lets us unknowingly alienate people from research created from their lived experience. We should employ more humanizing, people-first language and invite more people close to our research topics to become our colleagues.
- We have not consistently shared our research with the people it most affects. Giving data back and building community capacity to engage in research helps safeguard against extractive, exploitative research. Accessible dissemination methods like Data Walks are promising solutions.
- Until recently, we have failed to recognize the role of structural racism and white supremacy in our research writ large. Even though LBJ called out white people’s role in Black families’ struggles, our work does not routinely reflect a deep analysis of structural racism. When we highlight racial disparities or deficits without examining the structural causes or explicitly denouncing common racist myths, we end up pathologizing communities and families of color and ignoring those who face intersectional oppression.
Urban is not alone. Countless research organizations like ours, founded with the best intentions, have perpetuated and even exacerbated negative and racist perceptions of people from disadvantaged, disinvested, and undervalued communities.
Our vision for what our next 50 years will bring prompts us to acknowledge these shortcomings. Research organizations often fail to be explicit about how their histories have contributed to the inequities they aim to address. Institutions like Urban should examine their past work in a transparent way and seek to remedy any role they played in perpetuating or justifying structural racism. We need to continue examining the implications of predominately white research institutions being tasked with studying policies and programs that disproportionately affect communities of color.
Urban’s inclusive future
Urban has been examining research’s role in structural racism—and research’s role in ending it. We cannot ignore centuries of subjugation, discrimination, exclusion, and injustice by excluding ourselves from our analyses. Bringing communities into our research is challenging, but we can “bridge the gulf” and connect seekers of truth, progress, and equity.
Forging new inclusive methods isn’t easy. Grappling with history and adopting a more inclusive research process will take time and compromise, but we challenge our colleagues to turn a structural racism lens to traditional research norms and include impact and inclusivity in their definition of quality research.
With creativity, partnership, and reflection, we can invite communities into the research process without sacrificing rigor and validity.
There is no immediate or one-size-fits-all strategy, but every research and academic organization can take concrete steps to promote equity in their internal culture, external activities, and content. We encourage others to join us as we reckon with our past to envision a better future.