While I try to keep things nonpartisan, sometimes objective truths become partisan issues, and often the study of human geography can improve our collective political dialog. Department of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg (a.k.a. Mayor Pete) said “there is racism physically built into some of our highways.” Online detractors noted that rebar, concrete, and asphalt can’t be racist, etc. You see the over-literal interpretation, but I want to discuss his bigger point—how has racism shaped the building of infrastructure and urban landscapes?
The term redlining has a specific definition and a broader application. First, the narrower definition; redlining was a historical practice in the early to mid-20th century where banks and other decision-makers used city maps that marked low-income neighborhoods (pre-dominantly African American), and would deny potential home-owners’ loans to purchase in these neighborhoods. In an era of legalized segregation, African Americans were in a bind; they could not move into the white neighborhoods, but they could not get loans to purchase a home in their own neighborhood. The maps literally used a red line to mark the neighborhoods where the banks would not provide any home-lending services to the residents. Explore this fantastic interactive map, Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America. You can use this to find redlining close to your home, or the city where I teach, Providence, RI.
More broadly speaking, redlining is not just about the denial of home loans. Many practices such as this meant African Americans in the United States could not get access to the full range of services, utilities, resources, and planning to see improvements in their neighborhoods.
The era of redlining also coincided with the era of the private automobile and the beginning of large freeways on the American landscape. The major freeways in urban centers weren’t placed on conveniently open spaces, but by tearing down (typically) poor neighborhoods that had less of a political voice. This happened in African American neighborhoods in Baltimore, Oakland, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati…the list is far too long. Read this piece in the Guardian for some images and examples.
So, when Mayor Pete says that “there is racism physically built into some of our highways,” he means it, and it’s a part of our historical geography. The road itself might not be racist, but the institutions that plowed through poor Black neighborhoods is, and leaves a legacy on the built environment. Redlining is obviously illegal today, but the neighborhoods they shaped, divided by railroad tracks or highways or both, these communities are still impacted by the policies of yesteryear.
For generations, New York City urbanists have adored Jane Jacobs as the champion for local communities and her opposition to the soulless, neighborhood-destroying urban planner, Robert Moses. This is partially true, if simplistic, because hating one individual (Robert Moses) for inserting oppressive elements into the landscape misses the bigger point that he was simply in charge of the system, and if it weren’t for him, there would have been another to take his place. Let’s use one famous NYC, Robert Moses example of racism in the built landscape:
- Action: Robert Moses designed Long Island bridges and highways with low overpasses.
- Result: Long Island beaches are inaccessible through mass transit.
- Purpose: Limit access of NYC poor from the affluent beaches of Long Island.
What are the implications of these facts? One instance of this type of infrastructural planning might be a coincidence rather than a sign of racial bias, or class-based bias, but the preponderance of evidence across the country from this era leads to the obvious conclusion that U.S. infrastructure, especially the highways, were shaped by racist policies that continue to have racial impacts. The evidence is there; for any honest observer, the conclusion that racism shaped U.S. infrastructure is not controversial.
Examine examples in your own community to see how these practices have shaped your local neighborhoods. Once you’ve seen how your community has been shaped, look at at other examples across the U.S. to see that your neighborhood is a part of a broader spatial pattern that shows how racism has shaped U.S. infrastructure.
Smooth sailing in logistics is never newsworthy; the media will never report on a non-accident. We take for granted that many transportation and communication systems run in and incredibly efficient manner and the exception proves the rule. The March 2021 accident that shut down the Suez Canal was major news; think about the largest freeway near your community. An accident makes for a huge traffic jam…now but imagine that on the Suez Canal, which facilitates roughly 10% of ALL global trade. This negatively numerous global supply chains and impacted stock markets prices of oil and other commodities as it brought Mediterranean/Indian Ocean trade to an absolute standstill. The critical nature of choke points to the entire system are revealed on the rare occasions when things go wrong. The CNN video in the the tweet below explains the economic ramifications of a choke point “choking off” trade. SOURCES: BBC, BLOOMBERG, NPR, AP.
Below, is a video that shows the inauguration of the 2015 expansion of the Suez Canal. This gives some solid context for the importance of the Suez Canal. Completed in 1869, with the new expansion the canal is over 200 meters wide and 24 meters deep. This was made to accommodate the largest of the ocean-going vessels, which when turned sideways (as we have learned in this incident) can be over 400 meters and block the entire canal.
The Incident was also great for the online meme creators.
“Divorce—though originally sanctioned more than 1,400 years ago by Islamic law—is still widely viewed in Muslim societies as a subversive act that breaks up the family. Women who seek divorce can often find themselves ostracized and treated as immoral. Despite such taboos and restrictions, however, divorce rates are rising across Islamic countries, even in ultra-conservative places like Afghanistan.” SOURCE: NY Book Review
This is a difficult subject to discuss in the classroom, but it hits as many of the important cultural norms that surround social interactions that are gender-based. Cultural norms explore more than just the legal rights that people many have, but they also look at the cultural expectations, and the communal/family responsibilities that they are seen to have in their society. Divorce is legal in Turkey, but because it was heavily stigmatized, it was quite rare. Today, modern cultural influences from outside the region, (i.e.-the cultural affects of globalization) are promoting and changing traditional cultural norms of the region. This is a very insightful look into the lived-experience of divorce in the Middle East that gives a sense of the cultural impacts of gendered norms.
Oftentimes, we fail to recognize our own cultural norms because they are so…normal. Does a fish realize that they’ve always been in water until they flop ashore? Cultural norms are the air we breathe; in the mountains we might notice the freshness of the air or in an industrial park we might notice the grittiness that comes from particulates that are pollution the air quality, but the point is that we might not notice the air we breathe (or our cultural norms) until we go somewhere else. Much what we see as our own personality has been shaped within our own cultural environment. It is not surprising then to see that where you are born can influence who you are and how you see your place in your community (Source: The Conversation). East Asian children are usually raised to be an integral part of the family and community, while American children who are often taught to become their own individuals and pursue their own path. Another author paused to consider if Western parenting strategies aren’t the “normal” ones, but if in fact they might seen as weird from a different perspective (Source: BBC). Even our psychological profile is also influenced by the type of society in which we were born. For example, children in hunter-gatherer societies are more risk averse than urban kids (Source: The Week). This is not to say that geography is destiny, but where were are from can have a profound impact on who we become.
“How can maps fight racism and inequality? Maps are not ideologically neutral location guides. Mapmakers choose what to include and exclude, and how to display information to users.”
SOURCE: The Conversation
This article is written by two geography professors (@MLKStreet and @JoshGeog), but it is written for a general audience to learn about how cartography and geography can help us understand the historical impacts of racism on the landscape, and how cartography and geography can be a part of the solution. In a society with racism and official institutions upholding them, creating maps is an act of resistance and a path towards greater social justice within society. This article explores Black Panther resistance, redlining, counter-mapping, and modern digital maps that are shining a light of racial inequities.
Questions to Ponder:
- In what ways are maps biased sources of information?
- What is redlining?
- What impact does redlining still have on American cities?
- What is the purpose of counter-mapping?
- What value does diversity of mapmakers (both demographic characteristics of individual cartographers and of the organizations creating maps) have on the production of knowledge?
“If there were a contest for the 2020 event with the most far-reaching implications for global peace and security, the field would be crowded. From the coronavirus pandemic to climate change’s growing impact, the Trump administration’s scorched-earth policies after Joe Biden’s election, the Azerbaijani-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh, and a deadly conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, it has been an eventful year. In 2021, the world will be dealing with the aftermath and sifting through the debris.
In Sudan, Lebanon, and Venezuela, to mention but a few examples, one can expect the number of unemployed to grow, real incomes to collapse, governments to face mounting difficulties paying security forces, and the general population to increasingly rely on state support at a time when states are least equipped to provide it. The lines separating economic dissatisfaction from social unrest, and social unrest from outbreaks of violence, are thin.”
SOURCE: Foreign Policy
There are always some ‘hot spots’ around the world that might boil over into armed conflict, and some that are already at that stage, but that we collectively might have forgotten about during the pandemic. These 10 conflicts are highlighted to list some of the geopolitically most pertinent conflicts in the world right now.
- The Sahel
- Climate Change
If you haven’t been following the news in Russia, it is time to start. Sometime we are so focused on our own country’s issues, that we fail to see recognize the significance of world news. Currently (late January, 2021), the streets of Russia are full of unrest and more blazenly against Putin’s regime than the have in the last few decades (explore this map with the various protests across Russia). I’m not making predictions, but this has the feeling of a geopolitical event that could topple a regime. If that does happen, we need to keep our eyes on the ground. First, what is the backstory of Alexey Navalny, that the protesters are asking to be released? This article from the New Yorker is a great primer to the backstory of Alexey Navalny’s push to shine the light on corruption within Putin’s regime. Second, how is the Russian government handling the protests and the what might it mean for the regime? There are main great articles, but read a few to stay current on this topic.
- More than 3,000 arrested in Protests (AP)
- Social Media fuels the protests despite governmental attempts to censor (NPR)
- US Response to Russian protests (The Hill)
- The Kremlin’s Response to the protests (Al-Jazeera)
- Recap of the issue (USA Today)
- 3-minute podcast about the protests (NPR)
- Why these anti-Putin protest might to different (CNBC)
The economic restructuring of the United States is reconfiguring cities, political alignments, rural patterns and so many more systems. I would like to highlight how retail has changed in the last few decades in the United States.
In the early 2000s, I was visiting a small, declining Pennsylvania town name Bradford. One of the residents was bemoaning the economic and demographic decline of this Appalachian city of about 10,000 residents, noting how the most ambitious and brightest high schoolers from the area have moved out, leading to brain drain. Many locally owned businesses on Main Street had been struggling, and the resident said, “Thank goodness for Walmart and the Dollar stores…those are the only things that are keeping business around this town.” Out of politeness to my host, I didn’t mention that I saw the opposite happening: Wal-Mart and the Dollar stores, were capitalizing on economies of scale to muscle out locally businesses, creating an economic pattern that would have negative long-term consequences on this community and others like it.
Bradford, PA is not unique, but emblematic of many places in the United States. Over 10,000 new dollar stores have sprouted up in the United States since 2000, especially in small towns and rural areas. Some places are starting to push pack, since the communities are not seeing this as a positive development for the community.
Online shopping is another persistent pattern of the last few decades that is reconfiguring our cities, and the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified these issues that were already under way. Department stores have been anchors of shopping malls, which themselves are struggling after overexpanding. Many department stores have gone under, and those remaining brick-and-mortar department stores are struggling against the online shopping paradigm shift. Business with continue, but it will not be business as usual.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER: Why can cheap retail stores have a negative impact on a local community? Can you see this anywhere in your community? How does online shopping positively and negatively impact your community?
SOURCES/Further Reading materials:
CITYLAB: The Dollar Store Backlash has begun
VOX: Death of the Department Store and the Middle Class (from November)
NY TIMES-Death of the Department Store (from April)
CNBC-Department stores could be in their last stages (from September)
There are many great cartographically-themed XKCD comic strips (here are a bunch of my favorites). This particular one ALMOST looks right and finding the inaccuracies is a little harder than you might think (yes, I am proud of myself for finding them all, and yes, that is the ridiculous bit of profession pride).
Questions to Ponder: When you see a map, do you assume that it is 100% accurate? If so, how come? Where you able to find the “missing states” in this psuedo-map?