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n the early to mid-aughts, UCLA was roiling with backlashes to affirmative action and the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Diversity now!” and “Books not bombs!” were some of the rallying cries of politically astute organizers who were predominantly working-class students of color. They were confronting the expansion of the US security state coupled with racism cloaked in colorblind rhetoric that intensified in the wake of September 11, 2001 (see Singh, 2017). I was an undergraduate passerby of these actions, and my politicization was gradual: Women’s studies, Ethnic studies, and LGBTQ studies classes gave meaning to experiences I had previously sensed but not yet understood. They also gave me the distinct sense that my life held a chasm that could only be filled if I got to know these organizers who could express the working of power with pinpoint precision and fiery rhetoric. So I knocked on the door of one of them, Sophia Kozak, and we galvanized a campaign for a university-wide diversity requirement as we read Paulo Freire and applied popular education methods to our organizing. These experiences of the university as a place of powerful pedagogy and scholar-activism also taught me that it’s a site of racism and struggle. In short, the university is a contradictory, exciting, infuriating, ever-shifting place. The same could be said for the discipline of geography. It was here where I eventually found a grounded and expansive understanding of the ways that racism and war shape planetary crisis.
How can scholar-activists make sense of the (pluri)discipline of geography within this contradictory university? Over twenty years ago, Laura Pulido (2002) famously called out geography as a “white discipline” in its failure to systematically address racism. While acknowledging the cutting-edge scholarship of geographers of color, Pulido pointed out that we had not yet reached critical mass and therefore “intellectual synergy around race,” particularly in studying race and the environment, had not coalesced. Pulido appealed for the recruitment, mentoring, and funding of people of color in geography programs, and radical change in the disciplinary culture. Twenty years later, Tianna Bruno and Cristina Faiver-Serna (2022) built on Pulido’s provocations by highlighting the emergence of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Geographies Specialty Groups within the American Association of Geographers (AAG) as spaces of conviviality, mentorship, and intellectual community. The 2022 AAG Annual Meeting also saw the potential germination of an Asian/American Geographies formation through a panel that Wendy Cheng spearheaded and I participated in.
Yet persistent problems remain. Drawing from Christina Sharpe (2016), Bruno and Faiver-Serna call these AAG groups “’microclimates:’ life-giving spaces amid [the] larger toxic geography” of the discipline (p. 157; see also Hawthorne and Heitz, 2018). A 2019 report by members of a feminist geography collective (Faria et al., 2019) and an analysis of data from 1997 to 2019 (Jordan et al., 2022) highlight the under-representation of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people (and over-representation of white people) in geography programs across the US. A striking finding is that geography trails the social sciences in general for diversity in undergraduate and graduate enrollment and all degrees conferred, and this gap has widened over time. Yet studies also show that as more students of color and Indigenous students earn Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhDs, the number of geography degree earners from under-represented backgrounds increases as well.
A first step in our work to advance racial justice in the discipline is to analyze the extent of inequalities that we’re up against. So we name the racism that contours both the university and geography as a field of study. This is a necessary task toward structural transformation. Yet when taking these realities into account, our organizing runs the risk of ritualizing anti-racist rhetoric. By this I mean that calling out becomes a political project in itself–at the expense of rigorous study, research, and analysis as the basis of action. I do not mean to imply that this was the intention or result of some of the aforementioned studies; I simply mean to draw attention to a potential trap that scholar-activists can fall into when working to operationalize anti-racism. If naming the problem becomes an end point, we lose sight of the nuances and worlds of possibility that motivated our ongoing commitment to transforming the university and the field of geography in the first place.
In particular, we risk erasing the substantial genealogies forged by our intellectual kin—the “ancestors we get to choose” (Teaiwa, 2014)—geographers who have cleared a formidable path in studies of territory, space, land, environment, capitalism, war, and racism. In radical geographers’ endeavors to develop tools to dismantle the systems that perpetuate the twin crises of racism and environmental devastation, it is imperative we recognize that we stand on (and among) mighty shoulders. I have a stake in this rethinking because I was privileged to attend the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center’s geography program and study amid a caring and brilliant community of scholar activists and mentors, including Ruth Wilson Gilmore. As such, my training in geography was not only defined by racism—rather it was largely a space where colleagues and mentors encouraged me to think, write, and teach boldly and cooperatively. We studied together to change the world. We worked geography not as a conservative discipline, but as one borne of political mobilization, a tool to advance a multitude of possibilities.
Radical geographers must synthesize two competing truths: structural racism permeates geography—and yet this same mode of inquiry has radical roots that open fruitful pathways for undoing the systems that shaped its germination and imperil our planet today. Our task is to dive headfirst into this contradiction as a site of transformative emergence by integrating and advancing the field’s Marxist, feminist, and antiracist traditions.
A Brief History of Radical Geography’s Roots
Geography is embedded in histories of European capitalism, racism, empire, and colonialism, and yet it is a contested field shaped by a messy mix of ideologies (Livingstone, 1992). For example, upon geographer Alexander Von Humboldt’s encounter with Indigenous lands at the turn of the nineteenth century at what is now called South America, he characterized the landscape as wild, gigantic, unclaimed, and timeless. This imagined geography erased a long history of Indigenous organization while encouraging the zeal of Europeans to assert their dominion over land (Pratt, 1992). In warfare, militaries have used these ideologies to forge territorial divisions, navigate the battlefield, and imbue officers with a sense of status as white bearers of civilization (Hudson 1972). Yet Humboldt’s political views were not straightforward, and others have written about his opposition to monarchism and support for revolutionary movements such as proletarian internationalism, anti-colonialism, and the abolition of slavery (Rupke, 2005). More than anyone, Humboldt exemplifies the contradictions at geography’s core.
I applied to the CUNY Graduate Center’s geography doctoral program to ponder the intersections of race, militarism, and the environment unaware of this disciplinary history because I had never taken a geography class. My earlier experiences in the university simply compelled me to return and devote my time and effort to generating ideas, specifically related to my growing interest in environmental justice. CUNY’s geography program would allow me to learn with leading Marxist intellectuals engaging with urgent planetary problems, specifically Cindi Katz, David Harvey, and Neil Smith (Ruth Wilson Gilmore had not yet arrived.) I had other practical considerations: Amid the financial collapse of 2008-2009, I faced precarity in my employment working on community organizing campaigns, so I eventually patched together a living by adjuncting, bartending, and cashing unemployment checks. A doctoral program at CUNY would give me an excuse to stay in New York City and a shot at eventual job security in the university to do what I loved: thinking, learning, writing, and teaching. In the fall of 2009, I was thrilled return to the classroom after the full-time organizing grind. Our readings were packed with Marxist theory, and class discussions involved exhilarating debates between communists and anarchists. Our program opened my eyes to geography as a realm of possibility.
CUNY’s doctoral program formed out of the radical geography that grew partly out of fraught efforts to confront race and class inequalities in Black urban communities. The Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute (DGEI) of 1968 aimed to map racism in Detroit and reorganize power relations in the domain of knowledge production. Yet Gwendolyn Warren, a lead organizer of the DGEI, recounts that university administrators and the complex class, racial, gender, and interpersonal politics that typically inflect collaboration between grassroots entities and academic institutions stymied this project (Warren, Katz and Heynen, 2019). Early articles in Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, founded at Clark University in 1969, focused on urban crisis (Harvey, 1972) and analyzed these issues through a Marxist lens to counter the theories that reflect “the values and interests of the ruling class” (Folke 1972: 13).
Radical geography also grew out of opposition to the US military operations of the Cold War. Neil Smith describes the 1970s convergence of "radicals, anti-war activists, marxists, feminists, humanists, socialists, environmentalists and many others sprout[ing up] in the fertile soil of a long-fallow discipline, often displacing a budding positivism." Geographers had not yet thoroughly developed their own social theory, so radicals were unburdened by obligation to pay heed to narrow doctrine and therefore "the discipline lacked any immune system to neutralize the invader" (Smith, 2005: 888-889). Radical geographic scholarship from the late 1960s through 1970s foregrounded imperialism (Blaut, 1969) and made connections between global empire and urban poverty in the US (Blaut, 1974). Yet white men dominated the field. In response, feminist geographers critiqued approaches to race and gender as “epiphenomenal” to the broader social structure (Christopherson, 1989) and integrated Marxism and feminism (Foord and Gregson, 1986; Katz, 1996). During this same period, in 1983 geographers launched Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. At its inception and to this day, the journal cultivates critical social theory within geography, and brings spatial perspectives into the social sciences to foster epistemological pluralism (Oswin, 2018).
Analyses of race, colonialism, gender, and sexuality gained momentum in geography in the 1990s. During this period Environment and Planning D became a critical forum for examining these issues as they converge with space, place, territory, and resources (ibid). A 1998 workshop on geography and race/racism brought about a 2002 special issue of The Professional Geographer that gathered luminaries including Bobby Wilson, Laura Pulido, Clyde Woods, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. This issue included Gilmore’s famous article “Fatal Couplings of Power and Difference: Notes on Racism and Geography” that synthesizes Marxist geography with a historically grounded analysis of race to analyze how the territoriality of power, as shaped by state and capitalist restructuring, shapes racism. This body of scholarship widened the portal for theorizing racism as overdetermined by space, place, history, regional regimes of accumulation (Wilson, 2002), crisis, gender, class, and scale.
Organizing to Transform the Discipline
Geographers build on these legacies and continue to transform the discipline, demonstrating that it is possible to advance significant institutional change within a relatively short period of time. When Gilmore arrived at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2010, she accomplished just that. In graduate seminars, she deepened our understanding of the significance of geography as the multitude of human-environment relations across the earth’s surface. This definition enables us to attend to the ways that racism, as a spatial and therefore material project, contours the grounds for capital accumulation on global and local scales. Moving away from sweeping identity politics, Gilmore’s teaching and scholarship urge us to approach all life as precious. Therefore, clean water, free education, a guaranteed living wage, strong labor contracts, public pensions, fresh air, and a place to call home must constitute the fundamental goals of our scholar-activism. Further, rather than facilitating the common academic practice of cutting down and critiquing, she encourages her many students to engage in generous reading. In contrast to the contemporary style of calling out that risks alienating earnest learners, she offers a patient and rigorous method rooted in organizing practice that informs our thinking toward liberation.
As Gilmore served as the chair of the CUNY Graduate Center Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (housing the geography program) graduate admissions committee for seven years, the composition of our department transformed under her leadership, particularly the diversity of our student body. The following graph shows that upon Gilmore’s arrival in 2010, 21% of newly enrolled students in the department were students of color (four out of nineteen students). This is grossly disproportionate to the general population of New York City, where approximately 59% of the population are nonwhite. By 2014, 46% of newly enrolled students were of color (six out of thirteen students). These numbers leveled from 2017 to 2021 to 30-33% (averaging 3.6 students of color for about 11.4 admitted students per year) because
Gilmore is no longer taking graduate students and CUNY Graduate Center administrators have refused to create another line in the department. Yet the number of students of color still remain higher than before Gilmore arrived. From this data we can infer that the presence of a women of color geography faculty advancing powerful scholarship on racism attracts the matriculation of graduate students of color in a geography program.
The following graph traces the shifts of racial demographics for the total number of students, with 18% students of color (fifteen total) enrolled in the program 2010 and more than doubling to 40% (thirty-three students) in 2020. Gilmore shared with me that “political will” drove this transformation of the racial composition of our student body. Offering tactical insights based on experience, she stressed the strategic importance of joining admissions, search, and promotion committees over “diversity committees” that typically favor discussion over action.
This sort of organizing, typically spearheaded by women of color geographers, not only changes one department; it transforms the discipline. It changes the sessions and programs at the AAG annual meeting, publications in journals and forums such as this one, and faculty composition evident by increasing job calls in Black geographies and geographies of race. These shifts make us better equipped as geographers to engage with the material conditions of racial capitalism, war, and planetary crisis. Before scholar-activists foreclose geography's possibilities via critiques of the discipline, the recognition of this history can spur us to continue building on this powerful legacy.
When we, as public intellectuals, speak of the crises of the university, we are spotlighting institutional problems with which university administrations are largely complicit. This includes austerity; sub-obtimal working conditions; union-busting and strikebreaking; attacks on teaching about history, race, gender, and sexuality; the institutional devaluation of the humanities; bureaucracy; classism; debt; racism; and the university’s embeddedness in the police state—to name just a few structural conditions we’re up against. These are products of the current historical moment and such conditions are far from fixed. Zealous critique is vital to pushing back against these grotesque assaults on our thinking. And yet when we only critique, we risk losing sight of what we’re fighting for in the first place and the worlds of possibility that the university can crack open. Schools can serve revolutionary purposes, for example by overturning the functions of colonial educational systems (Borge, 2019). Geography’s emphasis on the material conditions contouring the earth’s surface offer powerful tools for turning the university on its head to use it as a venue for revolutionary purposes.
Like the sacredness of growing Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Geographies specialty groups (Eaves, 2020), I venture to argue that the university and discipline of geography are also sacred places. And by sacred, I do not mean untouchable or restricted. Rather, drawing from Clyde Woods, I mean sacredness rooted in places that are “critical sites in the construction and revision of theory, method, and praxis.” These are our seminar rooms, online spaces where we gather and debate, and the tables where we break bread, laugh, and ponder the world’s problems with our comrades.
The university and the discipline of geography are dynamic and ever-changing. They are the spaces we create together and fiercely protect, and they are where we stretch ourselves to make connections with global movements and struggles. While we recognize the pervasive inequalities that shape geography and the university in general, let’s widen the radical pathways already established by our intellectual kin. These contradictions, continuing to serve as the basis of radical pedagogy and scholar-activism, burst with possibility that will surely awaken the consciousness of the next generation of student revolutionaries.
The author wishes to thank Caroline Faria, Yoko Liriano, and Will McKeithen for offering incisive and fruitful ideas that significantly strengthened this piece.
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Laurel Mei-Singh serves as an Assistant Professor of Geography and Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on environmental justice, militarization, the relationship of race and indigeneity to histories of war, fences and self-determination, abolition, racial capitalism, and the Pacific.