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Great Walls of America

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As Donald Trump becomes 45th president of the USA, the question remains: will he build the wall?

Donald Trump won the election partly on the basis of a campaign promise to build a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico which would, ostensibly, keep people from illegally entering the country. Throughout the campaign, people wondered whether Trump was really talking about a physical wall or rather a metaphorical one, while others pointed out that there are already a number of walls and fences along the border. Regardless of Trump’s intended meaning, the symbolism of the wall was not lost on us.

While the border wall was a specific proposal, Trump also campaigned more broadly on the idea that he would ‘Make America Great Again.’ This slogan harks back to an idealised past—one that perhaps never existed. That said, it’s likely that some of his supporters were nostalgic for a time when blue-collar jobs were plentiful and well-paying, surely, but also a time when white people were solidly in the majority, when there were fewer foreign-born U.S. residents, and when the immigrants who were present were mostly of European descent.

It’s not hard to imagine the border wall as a physical manifestation of, and a metaphor for, Trump’s campaign slogan. The wall will keep out Mexican people who don’t have the right to enter the U.S., or at least it will make it more difficult for them to find a way in. But it might also serve as a psychological barrier to those who are legally permitted to enter the country. Further, if Trump deports many of the people he says he will deport, the wall will physically protect those remaining in the country from those outside it. By creating walls along our borders, we keep those who are favoured in, and those who are disfavoured out.

‘Physical barriers have a tendency to stigmatise’

Some might find the idea of the wall offensive, bizarre or pointless, arguing that people will find a way around it. And while this may be true, physical barriers still tend to do two things: they make access more difficult, even if not impossible; and they have a tendency to stigmatise, degrade, and harm the dignity of those who are physically excluded. We know this because there is nothing novel about using infrastructure to physically exclude people from places where they are unwanted. In fact, the built environment of the U.S. has long been used to make it difficult for poor people and people of colour to access certain parts of their own communities.

Specifically, walls have been used both within the U.S. and around the world to physically divide communities. For example, in Detroit in 1940 a private developer constructed a six-foot-high wall to separate an existing black neighborhood from a newly proposed white one. Historically, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) provided financing for a new development project only if the neighborhood was sufficiently residential and racially segregated. In this case, the FHA would not finance the new housing project unless the wall was constructed because the FHA believed that the proposed new development was too close to the existing black neighborhood. The wall still exists today, a legacy of discriminatory government policy, and though Detroit has experienced declines in segregation in recent years, this city is still the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the United States.

Thinking beyond our borders, when one speaks of walls that divide populations, it’s impossible to ignore the Great Wall of China, the Peace Wall separating Protestants from Catholics in Northern Ireland or the Berlin Wall. And there are an increasing number of barriers being erected to exclude refugees from ‘Fortress Europe’, including the heavily defended borders of the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in North Africa and the fences recently installed by Hungary along its southern perimeter.  

‘Bridges have also been used as tools of spatial exclusion’

In response to Trump’s proposed border wall, protesters carried signs urging us to ‘build bridges, not walls,’ the idea being that we should all come together, rather than be divided. But ironically, bridges have also been used as tools of spatial exclusion. Indeed, the paradigmatic example of physical exclusion by architectural design concerns Robert Moses and his Long Island bridge overpasses. Moses designed much of New York’s infrastructure, including a number of ‘low-hanging overpasses’ on the Long Island parkways that led to Jones Beach. According to his biographer, Moses directed that these overpasses be built intentionally low so that buses could not pass under them. This design decision meant that many poor people, a disproportionate number of them people of colour, who most often relied on public transportation, were unable to access the lauded public park at Jones Beach.

Another example of a bridge that was used as a tool of spatial segregation is the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (formerly known as the Triborough Bridge). As the bridge traverses the East River from Queens to Manhattan, it makes a sharp turn to the north. The result is that bridge traffic is deposited into Harlem, rather than into the wealthy Upper East Side. This terminus location was chosen, in part, because residents of the wealthy neighborhood didn’t want the traffic, and residents of the historically black Harlem didn’t have as much clout. The location was certainly not selected for convenience, as most traffic would be coming from and heading to areas south of Harlem.

These physical, infrastructural features of the built environment separate and spatially divide neighborhoods and people. And while laws that divided cities and people along racial lines were struck down many years ago, walls and bridges continue to do this work today. These infrastructural decisions exclude and segregate; they control and regulate human behavior. But they generally aren’t illegal because we don’t see them in the same way that we see exclusionary laws. Officials may understand that an architectural decision could have an exclusionary effect –they might even intend that result – but they generally do not see this as a form of regulation that should be analysed and patrolled in the same way that a law with the same effect would be. We see architecture and infrastructure merely as features of our built environment. Perhaps we recognise that they affect our ability to physically move through space, but we don’t often view them as political.

‘There is a potential silver lining here’

Trump’s proposed border wall changes that, in some ways. It is not only a physical wall, but a broader political statement. A statement of exclusion. A statement of separation and division. But there is a potential silver lining here. While none of us know what a Trump Presidency will look like, or which campaign promises he will realise, he has expressed an interest in investing in our country’s infrastructure. Many of the roads and bridges in the United States were put in place over fifty years ago, and these systems are becoming overwhelmed and worn out. If Trump decides to take on this problem, it provides the country with an important opportunity to address some of the issues raised here.

However, it also presents a substantial risk. If ‘Make American Great Again’ is really, at heart, about the exclusion of foreigners and minorities, our new infrastructural choices could be just as exclusionary and racially loaded as our old ones. If it is instead about creating a better society, where all citizens have an opportunity to flourish, the new administration should recognize the power of the built environment to help us achieve those goals. We could then begin the long work of rebuilding our infrastructure with an eye toward tearing down the walls that divide, and putting in place bridges that will foster inclusion instead of separation. Just as we should resist the exclusionary nature of the proposed wall along the border with Mexico, we should also be cognizant of the immense power that local infrastructure has to exclude, as well as its power to create inclusionary, welcoming communities.

Sarah Schindler is a Professor of Law and Glassman Faculty Research Scholar at the University of Maine School of Law. She is currently on sabbatical at Princeton University as a fellow in the Program in Law and Public Affairs.

Image by Alex Webb showing person crossing the US/Mexico border at Agua Prieta, Chihuahua, 2001, from the series ‘La Calle’. Source: Alex Webb / Magnum Photos.