A Critique of “Anti-Blackness and Urban Geopolitical Economy” by Cowen and Lewis

In “Anti-Blackness and Urban Geopolitical Economy”, Cowen and Lewis (2016) give a comprehensive history and current state of the urban economic policies and systems in place that fundamentally discriminate against black and racialized communities, specifically under the colonized structures that America has been built. Cowen and Lewis emphasize the fact that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement charge has been led by intersectional female leaders, that it is undermined by a slew of power hierarchies with regards to police murders, and that this all has a relation to the “racial and colonial violence that dates back to the containment and capture” (Cowen and Lewis, 2016, p.2) of Black individuals and the “great migration of 6 million blacks out of the rural south to the industrial cities of the Midwest and west” (Rosenman, 2017), much like the “state-sanctioned” (Cowen and Lewis, 2016, p.2) segregation that occurred at Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis. As the evidence states, this discrimination is nothing new, but BLM has shed new light on the problems that Black individuals face in the modern day. The construction of distinctly black and white neighbourhoods as a starting point, is an example of this discrimination. There is a relation to how spaces are used and sometimes delegated to racial enclaves and the social construction of power in cities, in the form of geopolitical economies of power. In this instance, space is used as a catalyst for oppression based on race, in connection to what Cowen and Lewis call “racial capitalism”(p. 3), or seeing black and racialized people as worth less, as a result of a commodification of race. This racial capitalism emerges from a similar place as colonial or white supremacy—the commodification of Black and Indigenous workers as slaves has engrained a hierarchical race structure that is embedded in the ways that we see spaces as distinctly black or white, and associate differing values with the both.

In the “1960s Black Power Movement”, a group of Black individuals stood up to this kind of blatant discrimination and oppression, but lacked an intersectional lens and were thus largely made up of and represented black men. In the current BLM movement, queerness, transness, and racism being addressed in conjunction is seen as a welcome and necessary addition to the realm of action that the BLM individuals analyze and take, especially when talking about topics related to “internal colonialism” (p. 5). Cowen and Lewis, whether directly or indirectly, draw on Lefebvre’s spatial practices portion of the conceptual triad in explaining how BLM emphasizes a “domination of a people” (p. 6), in that domination is used as a distinctly spatial reference because of the “terrain of police domination and violence” (p. 6). There is an increasing evidence in this piece by Cowen and Lewis of links between urban geographical tendencies and discrimination based on race, for example, “internal colonialism” is embedded in how colonials colonized Indigenous spaces, leaving lasting consequences that discriminate against those same populations, both spatially and socially.

Under our current capitalist structures, there is no way to engage in decolonization, as exemplified by segregated neighbourhoods and spaces that are seen as “black areas”. For example, “inner cities saw disinvestment” (p. 7) because they are operating under colonial standards of acceptance, perceived attraction, or desirability. There is also a connection between the police and state-sanctioned gentrification or displacement of Black individuals out of their homes, especially as “police violence in New York is a key marker of the increasingly aggressive gentrification at work” (p. 8), and as “gentrification has been linked with growing rates of incarceration, particularly for Black men” (p. 8). Gentrification has always yet increasingly been “anchored in the production of urban space” (p. 9), and mirrors the displacement and discrimination of Black and racialized populations, historically. When the “mortgage industry began to target racialized groups with extraordinarily exploitative loans” (p. 10; Fields, 2013), the targeting of already vulnerable populations enforced capitalist gains for those least in need, otherwise known as primitive accumulation, a tactic that prohibits marginalized populations from climbing the capital ladder, which can also be attributed in part to the fact that “Black ghettos were far from factories” (Rosenman, 2017).

In this modern era of neoliberalism, there has been an “entrepreneurial approach to economic development that has been the new global consensus for the past 30 years” (Rosenman, 2017), so it is no surprise that the “entrepreneurial racism” (Cowen and Lewis, 2016, p. 12) that is experienced by Black populations is occurring in places like Ferguson, being enacted and perpetuated by police. These racialized people are seen as “potential offenders and sources of revenue” (p. 12), as fundamentally different than white people because of their neighbourhood and skin colour.

If this piece of writing by Cowen and Lewis is seen as a form of activism in and of itself, the ways in which it can be critiqued can align as such. The political benefits that some individuals reap from the systemic discrimination of Black populations is partial to largely white men, as their “exclusive access to political power and privileged social and economic standing” (Hooker, 2016, p. 455) contribute to their continued gentrification processes, which in turn, translate into their economic benefit. In many realms, the racism expressed by white individuals lies in the “tension between the desire for equality and the desire to maintain one’s racial standing” (p. 455), and can also be conveyed spatially, in the demarcation of white neighbourhoods as good and black neighbourhoods as bad, and as the defensiveness to protect the distinction between the two. If and when this distinction is blurred by means of equity and opportunity for Black folks, “the dominant group might develop a sense of white victimhood” (p. 455). On that same note, spaces specifically occupied by Black populations can be criminalized by the state, in “naming a neighbourhood or locale high crime”, in that it “denigrates and criminalizes the person killed by police through subtle and implicit associations” (Obasogie and Newman, 2016, p. 560).

BLM is often seen as a radical movement of “greedy” social justice warriors and Black individuals and their allies, but BLM is really a systematic undermining that analyzes and calls our discrimination in its purest, most systemic form, and must be front and centre in all progressive change-making conversations with a fundamental decolonizing and anti-capitalist framework. The problems that Black people face are transnational, reach beyond borders, and persist as a general trend of social and political conjunctional gentrification.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

Cowen, D., & Lewis, N. (2016). Anti-Blackness and Urban Geopolitical Economy, Reflections

on Ferguson and the Suburbanization of the “Internal Colony”. Society and Space.

Hooker, J. (2016). Black Lives Matter and the Paradoxes of U.S. Black Politics. Sage Journals,

44(4), 448-469.

Obasogie, O., & Newman, Z. (2016). Black Lives Matter and Respectability Politics in Local

News Accounts of Officer-Involved Civilian Deaths: An Early Empirical Assessment.

Wisconsin Law Review, 2016(3), 541-574.

Rosenman, E. (2017). Lecture Jan 23. University of British Columbia.

Rosenman, E. (2017). Lecture Jan 25. University of British Columbia.

Rosenman, E. (2017). Lecture Feb 3. University of British Columbia.

 

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