Like other fields of study, sociology, specifically urban sociology, has been concerned with inequality across neighborhoods, cities and other scales of geography. The name of the subfield itself invokes some consideration of cities and urbanization processes as points of critical inquiry. Yet, in explaining why some neighborhoods change and why others don’t, why some cities are booming while others suffer from massive disinvestment, it is easy to blame capitalism as the culprit of urban development.
Processes like gentrification and segregation are largely seen as the combined effect of income inequality, social stratification, and to some extent, racial discrimination. Marxist geographers, like David Harvey, have argued that capitalism razes urban spaces to ensure its own reproduction. Yet, given the racialized history of global superpowers such as the United States, among others, it is hard to fully understand urban development without attending to the racial structures of society.
Critical race scholars have long argued that capitalism and racism have a symbolic relationship realized in the built environment. Yet, few have drawn their analysis beyond lower levels of scale to a broader political economy of place.
In a recently published paper, I draw attention to the racial character of urbanization processes. I use racial capitalism as a theoretical framework to describe the modes, agents, and ideologies surrounding urban development. The urban – denoting both a place and set of spatial activities – functions under the constitutive nature of capitalism and racism. Drawing from the work of David Harvey, the late Cedric Robinson, and other critical urban scholars, I sketch out a framework for urbanists to fully unpack the processes of racialization embedded within capitalism’s modes of production. Using racial capitalism as an analytical framework helps uncover the ways in which both people and places are racialized and subjectively valued.
Colorblind Urban Development
Inequality is arguably a central feature of urbanism as cities and urban areas were often seen as containers of different social processes and hierarchies. From the earlier writings of scholars from the Chicago School pushing forth an ecological theory of neighborhood change to contemporary debates on the scale and impact of gentrification, urban scholarship has often treated racial inequality as an unintended consequence of urban development rather than central components shaping it. Even necessary critical interventions such as the growth machine hypothesis or the explanatory value of regime politics do not fully conceptualize race, racialization, and racism within their operation.
The marginalization of social groups, particularly communities of color, is described as the result of power imbalances. Part of my contention here is that the literature assumes one’s full humanity in their vivid descriptions of urban inequality. In this paper, I tease out the particular plight of African Americans, or Black people, as racialized subjects. Once serving as a form of property, Black people have never been able to realize their full personhood.
Following Margaret Radin’s description of the personhood perspective, people possess certain objects that are closely bound up with personhood because they are part of the way we constitute ourselves as continuing personal entities in the world. As American cities grew in the 19th and 20th century, their urbanization processes were constituted by racist housing policies and practices. Even today, Black people fight to be seen and valued.
Seminal work, such as W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, articulated a deeply racialized economic system, whereby race and racism were embedded with the interpersonal, institutional and systemic innerworkings of capital production and accumulation. Robinson’s Black Marxism also contends to the racialization of people within the old feudal order through the exaggeration of regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences. The urban is thus a site and process of racialized development.
Through processes of dispossession and displacement, it creates and recreates an evolved set of social relations between capitalists and laborers predicated upon racial hierarchies. Thus, racism is not an effect of capitalism, but central to its operation. Through modalities of dispossession and displacement, I describe the forms, agents, and competing ideologies that structure the urban political economy.
The Urban Process Under Racial Capitalism
In describing the urban political economy, I put forth a framework that includes three mediums as it relates to the contestation of land and property realized in the procurement of housing. It goes beyond questions of property ownership or the continued subjugation of Black people as independent social phenomena. This approach does not attend to the full reach of racial capitalism as a full interrogation would cut across several other institutions such as education, criminal justice, and transportation. However, the “housing question” is brought into perspective.
The first level involves the twin themes of dispossession and displacement realized through several historical and contemporary modalities of exploitation and expropriation. Here, we see that both people and places are subjectively valued resulting in how we see and describe urban spaces and places. Processes, such as redlining, segregation, foreclosures, gentrification, and evictions, serve as examples of racial capitalism.
Dispossession involves the explicit taking of both physical land and property and the erasure of symbolic forms of occupation. Displacement inherently involves the physical removal of people, however, as other scholars have noted, it encompasses institutional, political, and cultural shifts ultimately rendering certain people and places as disposable and even at times, invisible.
The second level involves the particular agents of capitalism. I exploit Marx’s description of the bourgeoisie and proletariat to denote people as racialized subjects. Here, I discuss racial capitalists and material laborers as conflicting actors within the racial economy. Cities have become more entrepreneurial in their activities striving to attract a particular type of human capital. Through redevelopment efforts such as urban renewal and poverty deconcentration, we can see how racial capitalists derive and redefine the value of Black spaces.
And lastly, level three involves the competing ideologies of racial capitalism. Ideologies of urbanization involve legal, economic and political systems. Capitalism and racism become the prevailing hegemonic spatial logics of urbanization.
Other scholars have pointed to how such beliefs have continued to produce uneven urban development such as Jason Hackworth’s Manufacturing Decline and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit. Even more recently, we see vivid depictions of Black subjectivity in Akira Drake Rodriguez’s Diverging Space for Deviants and Elizabeth Korver-Glenn’s Race Brokers.
Under this frame, we can see how people and places are racialized through subjective forms of valuation based on their proximity to Whiteness. Racial hierarchies are institutionalized through the built environment.
Blurred Urban Trajectories
Racial capitalism is not static or general in its application, rather it is a dynamic mode of organizing the world that operates in particular ways within and across different contexts. To be critical of Marxist geographers’ conceptions of economic activities that shape and reshape cities and urban areas, one must consider the biographical histories of place and space, not as abstract objects but as physical, cultural and symbolic processes. Social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, have argued that the fight for social justice across cities and urban areas must center race and racism at the core of the urban process.
Without these acknowledgements, racial capitalism will remain intact, replete with all of its internal structural conditions.
To read more, see: Prentiss A. Dantzler. “The urban process under racial capitalism: Race, anti-Blackness and capital accumulation” in Journal of Race, Ethnicity and the City 2021.
Image: Philadelphia 1973 by Dick Swanson via NARA (CC BY 1.0)