Industry Watch – The AIA and SARA – How Professional Organizations Are Responding to National Call for End to Systemic Racial Injustice

It’s been a little over two months since my last post.  You can read this article for some background on why. 

Although I have not published anything since June, that is not to say there has been nothing to comment on.

Unfortunately, the topic that has weighed most heavily on my mind has nothing to do with construction. 

I contemplated not publishing this article because this blog was never meant to address politics and race, but this topic deserved some attention. 

Racial Tensions

As if the burdens of COVID19 were not enough, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks, racial tensions in the US have come to a boil.  

The cruel and disgusting treatment of Floyd and the unnecessary shooting of Brooks are just the latest events in a string of acts of violence by police against Blacks in America. 

Responses from SARA and AIA

In response to the murder of Floyd; heads of state, professional organizations, and individuals at large have come out against systemic racism.

The Society of American Registered Architects (SARA) NY, distributed an email containing their statement on the matter.

The statement read:

We condemn racism and fundamentally believe that Black Lives Matter. 

As professionals and leaders, we have a responsibility to engage in active discussion and an obligation to work tirelessly toward eradicating these systemic injustices. We will work with our minority members and diverse communities and support them by strengthening their voices to advance curative public policy. 

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) posted a series of statements as well.  Each State Chapter posted a statement and the National Board of Directors posted a statement.

The AIA Board of Directors wrote:

…the American Institute of Architects supports the protests to stop systemic, state-sanctioned violence against people of color

…We were wrong not to address and work to correct the built world’s role in perpetuating systemic racial injustice, including the use of slave and forced labor, designing housing that marginalized communities of color, helping to design communities that excluded people of color, and participating in municipal projects that destroyed or weakened thriving African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities.

…AIA’s promise from this day forward is to…speak out more clearly and urgently on racially motivated acts of violence and police brutality.

…For the longer term, we will ensure that the profession more closely reflects the diversity of society.

These statements and others echo the solidarity of the majority of American’s against systemic racism.

All Men Are Created Equal – Almost

As Americans, we embrace the fundamental Tennent that “All men are created equal” and that we have the right to “Life Liberty and the pursuit of happiness“.

Unfortunately, while these sentiments ring true and we are fundamentally united by these words, in many segments of America, systemic barriers remain.

But what role do professional organizations like SARA and the AIA play in systemic barriers?

Do the words and sentiments of these well-meaning groups actual have impact?

The truth is that these professional organizations have no influence over the social barriers that prevent low income families from advancing into the middle class. 

There are far more impactful and insurmountable obstacles for low income families than, “housing that marginalizes communities”.  These statement may make the heads of these organizations feel good and they may be good for public relations, but these organizations are powerless against the real issues.

Defining Systemic Barriers

We only ever hear about the most extreme cases of Police harassment.  The killing of Brooks and Floyd are recent examples of many lesser-known incidents of Police harassment, but Police harassment does not have to be violent for it to be an insurmountable systemic barrier.   

In July of 2013 The Police Executive Research Forum published a report chronicling The Department of Justice (DOJ) Investigations of Local Police.  This report follows over 20 years of actions by the DOJ as it filed Consent Decrees over dozens of local Police Departments around the country. 

Under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 the DOJ was given authority over local police departments to place Consent Decrees over Departments that were believed to have unconstitutional policies or were engaged in unconstitutional practices.  Police departments accused of discriminatory and unconstitutional behavior were typically marked by;

improper use of force, unlawful stops and searches, and biased policing. 

Under the Consent Decree, the DOJ was empowered to investigate patterns and practices and enact departmental policies to ensure constitutional treatment of the citizenry.

The 1994 Act followed decades of concern that police practices in urban areas were marked by “harassment tactics” which included “widespread use of stop and frisk“, “excessive police violence“, “derogatory forms of address“, and “arrests without warrants“.

These were just some of the claims of unequal treatment of urban minorities in the 1968 book “Police on the Urban Frontier – A Guide to Community Understanding“. 

In a series of 1994 Monographs published by the Bureau of Justice Assistance on Community Policing the Bureau wrote “In some communities, it will take time to break down barriers of apathy and mistrust…

There are dozens of other studies citing widespread distrust of the police and biased policing practices in low-income communities.  Having grown up in one such community, I witnessed and experienced many encounters with police which I would classify as biased or even predatory.

Many of these encounters were completely non-violent, but the effect of repeated encounters like this can have long-lasting effects.

For a person of even modest means the result of these encounters might be considered inconsequential.  However, for low income families even a minor infraction could result in crippling fines. If you are unable to pay these fines, that minor infraction could lead to arrests, criminal records, or jail-time.  These are the true barriers that hold low income individuals from advancing.

The Benefits of Consent Decree

So when activists line the streets chanting about biased policing they are addressing the systemic barriers that these predatory practices place over them.

These are the barriers that hold people back from ever making the decision to become an Architect, or a Lawyer, or a Doctor. 

Certainly, there are many more hurdles to overcome after such a decision is made, but if you are hampered by tickets, fines, or a police record, that first decision may never come.

In 2009 the Harvard Kennedy School of Criminal Justice published a study showing how the use of Consent Decrees by the DOJ had transformed police practices.

Beginning shortly after the beating of Rodney King where 20 police officers looked on as 4 of LA’s finest beat King while he was down on the ground, the DOJ sued the City of Los Angeles over a pattern-and-practice of police misconduct.

That misconduct was underscored by the sham trials held in Simi Valley resulting in full acquittals of the 4 officers who were clearly visible beating King while he lay still on the floor.

The result of those trials led to the 1992 LA Riots and ultimately the officers were retried in federal court where two were found guilty.  In the aftermath of the trial and riots, the LA Police department fell under consent decree from the DOJ.

According to the report, over a period of 8 years under consent decree the LAPD made a substantial change for the better.  Despite more than double the number of pedestrian and motor vehicle stops, the use of force fell year over year.  At the same time the percentage of arrests has gone up and so have reports of public satisfaction with the LAPD.

In the same period, the report also cites that serious crimes are down in every division of the LAPD.

Unfortunately, the report also cites “persistent differences in the experience of policing among Hispanics and Blacks“.  The most concerning finding being that “10% of Black residents report that almost none of the Officers they encounter treat them and their families with respect“.

In short, the findings suggest that Consent Decrees work to strengthen and improve police practices, but there is still work to be done. 


So while I’m sure SARA and the AIA are well-meaning and no one will begrudge their show of support, we need to remain mindful of where the true barriers lie and we need to address those barriers directly.

In one of his final acts as Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum where, “he instructed the department to “exercise special caution before entering into a consent decree with a state or local governmental entity.” It permitted DOJ lawyers to enter into such decrees only in limited circumstances. And it required that those lawyers get permission from many of the Justice Department’s most senior officials before entering into a consent decree.”

This has had the net effect of zero consent decrees being issued since Trump has been in the Whitehouse.

So with a resurgence of Police violence in major cities across America, it seems contradictory that we would limit Federal oversight of Local Law Enforcement.

The effects of not policing the police are far reaching.  The fundamental rights of every citizen in America are directly impacted by the way they are treated by local law enforcement.  If we are truly interested in removing systemic barriers, we need to address this basic issue first, only then will the words and acts of professional organizations impact the future of people of color.

I don’t want any of this article to be construed as an endorsement of the ridiculous calls for “defunding the police“, that is not a conclusion that any rational individual would come to.  On the contrary, the communities that would be most impacted by such an act are the ones that need the most police funding.  Instead, I would call for increased oversight, more training, and a higher standard of conduct for law enforcement.

With that I will close this article and welcome your feedback on this issue.

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoyed this content, please feel free to browse my previous articles and please like, share, comment, and subscribe.  This helps promote my content and is greatly appreciated.

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