Urban Studies in the Age of Charlottesville

I am an urban studies scholar but, at UCLA, I also hold an appointment in the department of Social Welfare. I have welcomed this opportunity to learn more about the ambitions and limits of social reform and social democracy in a highly unequal nation, the United States. From its white liberalism to its racialized regulation of the poor, social work mirrors the history of urban planning.

A few days after Charlottesville, news broke that Matthew Heimbach, one of the main organizers of the white nationalist riot, had been a family case worker with the Department of Child Services in the state of Indiana.  Fired only weeks into the job for his racist views, he described himself as a “community organizer” with a “life’s calling of public service.” I asked my Social Welfare colleagues: can any profession claim innocence? Heimbach, with his bold claim that “on paper,” he was “the perfect candidate” for a career in social work, stood in stark contrast to the social justice oriented students of color we train at UCLA, many of whom intern as case workers with child services in Los Angeles. Or did he? Had disciplines like social welfare and urban planning, speaking the liberal language of diversity, equity, and inclusion, become color-blind?  In other words, had we, in our post-racial euphoria, overlooked the persistence of white supremacy in our very midst?

I use this example to make a set of provocations about urban studies at the current historical conjuncture.  First, Heimbach reminds us that there is no place of innocence in racial capitalism.  Charlottesville is not the exception. Heimbach is not the fringe. The KKK rally is not the anomaly.  As Paul Gilroy has insisted, racial terror lies at the very heart of innocent modernity.  I do not think we have acknowledged this enough in urban studies, steeped as we are in Eurocentrism.  We still treat postcolonial thought and the black radical tradition as exotic outsiders.  Yet, it is precisely those frameworks that can allow us to stage what Walter Mignolo calls “epistemic disobedience.”  And to state the obvious, the problem with Eurocentrism is not only that it blinds us to the non-West, but also that it blinds us to the “colonial present” of the West.

Second, the title of my remarks today references an essay by Kate Derickson, “Urban Geography in the Age of Ferguson.”  In her call to take up the task of antiracist scholarship, Derickson repeats Katherine McKittrick’s warning that to focus solely on “anti-black violence and black racial death” might condemn analytical futures to death.  This is an important challenge because urban studies, as it confronts the charred skeleton of Grenfell Tower or the deadly crossings to the shores of Europe, must be more than a chronicle of necropolitics.  Following Clyde Woods, I thus ask, what does life after death entail?  Or put another way, what is the relationship between the freedom movements of our time and urban studies?  Are those movements only, and at best, the epistemological object of our study or are our categories and vocabularies relevant to them?  Are their horizons of liberation present in our theories?

Finally, I am proud to be a part of the IJURR community because it has wrestled with these questions and because the stewardship of the journal and foundation has created resources, financial and otherwise, for a robust intellectual project.  IJURR is thus able to partially resist the assembly-lines of neoliberal academic production.  This must continue.  Powerful journals must nurture the next generation of scholars, those who often labor in precarious academic jobs.  Powerful journals must buck the trend of over-used keywords that mindlessly reproduce the canon.  Powerful journals must give space to the slow, the slow pace of ethnographic research and historical inquiry.  And powerful journals must speak back to power.  I do not mean by this public scholarship, a mandate that is not easily adopted. I mean by this a renewed commitment to the very specific project of critical theory, which as Nancy Fraser reminds us, is to reflect on our current historical moment and ask what it demands of us…urban studies in the age of Charlottesville.

Ananya Roy
September 8, 2017

IJURR Editorial Statements

IJURR Editorial
Julie-Anne Boudreau, Matthew Gandy and Maria Kaika (2015) Volume 39.1

Reflections on the Academic and Economic Environment
Julie-Anne Boudreau and Maria Kaika (2013) Volume 37.6

IJURR: An Editorial Statement
Jeremy Seekings and Roger Keil (2009) Volume 22.3

The Origins of the Foundation for Urban and Regional Studies, or the Advantages of Owning the Title and Having Charitable Status in the Running of Journals
Chris Pickvance (1998) Volume 22.4

IJURR: Policy Statement
Patrick Le Galès, Susan Fainstein and Linda McDowell (1998) Volume 22.1

IJURR: looking back twenty-one years later
Michael Harloe, Enzo Mingione, Chris Pickvance and Edmond Preteceille (1998) Volume 22.1

Founding Editorial Statement
Michael Harloe (1977) Volume 1.1


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