Geography and Racial Justice

A.J. Rohn


Professor Rashad Shabazz of Arizona State University recently gave The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Lecture Memorial Lecture, an annual lecture at Minnesota’s Gustavus Adolphus College that recognizes ongoing civil rights work.

The title of his lecture is “Why Geography Matters in the Struggle for Racial Justice”, and it can be heard online.

Professor Shabazz speaks at length on how geographic concepts like space, place, and mobility are crucial at every stage of that struggle, from the slave trade to the Black Lives Matter movement. Though these concepts are abstract, they have real and tangible effects and uses in racial justice movements and are important for explaining their origins.

Studying Racial Geographies

Professor Shabazz explains that racial geographies are necessary in understanding slavery, segregation, and racial violence. These practices are built on geographic violence: immobilization, spaces of punishment, and the denial of safe spaces.

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Slave quarters, plantations, slave trade ships, and more are spaces of punishment. The black body is the most important space ­ more so even than homes, churches, etc. ­ and it has been denied safety throughout history (not unlike the other spaces mentioned).

Shabazz moves from slavery to Reconstruction, the Great Migration, the post­World War II era, and beyond.

The lecture focuses mainly on discriminatory policies that fall within the confines of the law as legacies of racial injustices work to immobilize black people through all of these eras. For example, housing practices afforded middle class citizens the possibility of mobility in many ways including post­secondary education, vacations, and more comfortable living environments.

Civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Dr. King, and the Black Panther Party used geographical tactics to work for change. By entering whites­ only spaces, they “challenged the belief that race should define how communities are organized” and worked toward a “new racial geography that encourages the physical interaction of… the color line”. Shabazz recognizes that “place is central to the production of a black politics”, and “geography matters”.

Cover for the book Spatializing Blackness with the face of a Black man looking straight ahead.

Professor Shabazz’s book Spatializing Blackness: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago (affiliate link) offers more on this topic and is available now.

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About the author
A.J. Rohn
A.J. is a recent graduate of the Geography and Environmental Studies programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a passion for writing and interests in areas ranging from ecology to geosophy to geopolitics. He enjoys the geography of Wisconsin, be it the north woods or city life in Madison. He loves to read research papers in geography, books by scholars like Yi-Fu Tuan and Bill Cronon (both at UW-Madison), as well as classic fiction writers like Thomas Pynchon and Fyodor Dostoevsky. He is very much inspired by the work of all the people he encountered in Madison’s geography department, so expect a wide range of topics when reading his articles here.