The Pan-African Sociologist


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Understanding the City as a Settler Colonial Structure

Much of the scholarship within American urban sociology has concerned itself with the various forms of inequality that have developed in and around US cities throughout its history. The various schools of critical urban sociology have various developed ways of understanding cities as raced (Lai 2012), classed (Reardon and Bischoff 2011), and gendered (Popkin, Leventhal, and Weismann 2010) spaces where broader social hierarchies and system are reinforced and acted upon. Collectively these works argues for a broad understanding of the city as a both a reflection of broad American social values as well as a space that can have great influence over the development of these same values.
Absent from most of discussions within urban sociology is the history and narrative of Native Americans and the history of settler colonialism in the United States. This erasure is analogous to the general erasure of indigenous people and their experiences within most social scientific discourses (Dei 2000; Habashi 2005; Quah 1993). There has been movement in recent years to reverse this erasure. Andrea Smith (2008) while exploring the intertwined logics of slavery, genocide, and orientalism within white supremacy highlighted the current incompatibilities between narratives of indigenous scholars, which mistakenly equating African American “settlers” with white settlers, and African American/anti-racist which scholarship ignoring the existence of settler colonialism and indigenous peoples. Smith called for an integration of these various logics arguing that without doing so we become complacent in reifying these oppressive logics. Similarly, Evelyn Nakano Glenn (2015) discussed on a macro level how the dynamics of settler colonialism in the United States affected the racial formation of various oppressed communities. She concluded with the hope that by bringing together the insights of different inequality frameworks, including settler colonialism, scholars can “work toward a higher level theoretical model that can be widely used by social scientists both in the United States and internationally.”

Responding to Smith’s and Glenn’s calls, I argue for the inclusion of settler colonialism as another, and arguably more fundamental, framework through which to understand American urban spaces, structures, and history. I argue that many of the key aspects of US cities we study in urban sociology, particularly racial residential segregation, white suburbanization, and urban native settlement patterns are either directly connected to settler colonial forms/logics within US society or share great similarities to what we would expect within a settler colonial situation. I demonstrate the usefulness of the framework by reviewing literature on settler colonial logics, racial logics, white neighborhoods and suburbs, urban Native Americans, and urban African Americans. Bringing settler colonialism into discussions about urban inequality rectifies a blind spot within urban sociology that ignores and erases Native Americans and indigenous people within our analyses, builds a stronger historic sociological narrative about American cities, and opens avenues to reconsider how we make sense of current and historical patterns of urban inequality.  Continue reading