Geography Race and Racism
James A. Tyner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0124


The geographic study of race and racism has a long and sometimes contested history dating to the founding of modern geography around the turn of the 20th century. Early studies were a product of their times, adopting an uncritical stance to the supposed truism that “races” existed. Thus, as European nations began to establish empires throughout Africa, Asia, and North and South America these states needed to come to terms with their conquests and to justify the exploitation of newly colonized peoples. Subsequently, there emerged an assemblage of scientific discourses that purportedly documented the natural division of humanity into a hierarchically ordered set of discrete races. Within geography the study of race factored prominently in the paradigm of environmental determinism. Here, climate and other physical factors were held to impart determining factors that would influence the social and behavioral characteristics of different races. With the promotion of environmental possibilism many of the more outlandish claims of environmental determinism were discarded; however, the existence of essentialized races remained prevalent. Throughout the tumultuous decades of the 1960s and 1970s, as many Western nations experienced major social upheavals, the scholarly study of race underwent a transformation. The advent of more critical approaches to human geography, influenced significantly by the civil rights movement, challenged the essentialist conception of race. Increasingly, race is now understood not as biologically given but as socially constructed. Race, in other words, is a discourse—but one with material ramifications. Because although race is not something innate, the meanings of race are important, as in the ongoing debates surrounding racism. Racism, at a basic level, refers to prejudicial and discriminatory behaviors and practices based on essentialist notions of race. Racism may assume direct forms, such as racial violence (e.g., hate crimes). Racism may also be more subtle, seen for example in hiring practices or admissions standards. How racism is manifest spatially—and how racism can be challenged—remain especially salient topics within geography.

General Overviews

To begin any study on race one must begin from the standpoint that the very nature of the term is problematic. Despite century-old efforts to “prove” that race exists, it is now a widely accepted fact, as the pioneering work of Jackson 1985 that racial differences are not rooted in any kind of biological or genetic difference but are the result of social constructions that meet particular economic, political, and cultural needs. Jackson 2003 provides a valuable introduction to the social construction of race from a geographic standpoint. Two other comprehensive, though dated, volumes include Frazier, et al. 2003 and Roseman, et al. 1996. More recently, Pulido 2006 forwards the concept of “differential racialization,” highlighting both how race and racism are geographically contextualized and how various activists work to overcome racism. Winders and Schein 2014 provides a timely overview of the geographic scholarship on race and diversity. Beyond these general overviews, geographers also have questioned the study of race and racism within specific subfields. Bonds 2013 for example provides a critical overview of research in economic geography on race and racialization. Lastly, geographers have also debated the appropriate epistemological framework from which to study race. Carter 2009, for example, reviews how race, quantification, and raced quantification have been employed in geography and cautions to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Bonds, Anne. “Racing Economic Geography: The Place of Race in Economic Geography.” Geography Compass 7.6 (2013): 398–411.

    DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12049

    A critical overview of race and racialization within the field of economic geography. Bond concludes with a plea for geographers to focus more explicitly on race and racialization processes to demonstrate the mutually constitutive nature of race and economy.

  • Carter, Perry L. “Geography, Race, and Quantification.” Professional Geographer 61.4 (2009): 465–480.

    DOI: 10.1080/00330120903143466

    A critical but sympathetic review of the use of quantitative methods in the study of race.

  • Frazier, John W., Florence M. Margai, and Eugene Tettey-Fio. Race and Place: Equity Issues in Urban America. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003.

    Centered on the contemporary United States, this book confronts racism, racial equity, and social justice from a geographic perspective. Questions of white racism and the interconnections of race, place, and power are highlighted.

  • Jackson, Peter. “Social Geography: Race and Racism.” Progress in Human Geography 9.1 (1985): 99–108.

    DOI: 10.1177/030913258500900105

    An influential article that situates the geographic study of race and racism within social geography; Jackson develops a social constructionist framework to understand the spatiality of race and racism.

  • Jackson, Peter, ed. Race and Racism: Essays in Social Geography. New York: Routledge, 2003.

    An excellent volume with many seminal chapters on race and racism. It offers both general overview chapters as well as more empirically grounded case studies.

  • Pulido, Laura. Black, Brown, Yellow and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

    A theoretically informed, empirically grounded case study of anti-racist activism in Los Angeles.

  • Roseman, Curtis C., Hans Dieter Laux, and Gunter Thieme, eds. EthniCity: Geographic Perspectives on Ethnic Change in Modern Cities. Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.

    A dated but comprehensive overview of ethnicity and racialized places in cities. Case studies are included for American, Asian, African, and European cities.

  • Winders, Jamie, and Richard Schein. “Race and Diversity: What Have We Learned?” Professional Geographer 66.2 (2014): 221–229.

    DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2012.735941

    A critical assessment of the current status of geographic scholarship on race and diversity. It offers suggestions for alternative methodological and epistemological approaches that are linked through a shared commitment to examining both race and racism and diversity and inequalities.

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