• Rustopolis

Slow Motion Katrina: Race, Political Economy, and Lost Cities

Updated: Jun 8

For the last half-century, a hurricane has quietly washed over neighborhoods in Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Gary, Flint, Buffalo, Baltimore, and so many other cities in the U.S. It is a disaster every bit as devastating as Katrina, but stretched out over decades.

Above: Land scoured and vacated by the winds and waters of Katrina. Below: land scoured by the dissembling effects of disinvestment.


A major part of the framework for this project is the concept of cities lost through slow violence. Think of slow violence as a kind of slow-motion hurricane. It is a disaster every bit as devastating as Katrina, but stretched out over decades. Of course, the damage wrought by a catastrophic flood is temporally and qualitatively different from the damage wrought by disinvestment. One force is instant, shocking; the other force is gradual, hypnotic. One unleashes the scourging power of water in torrents, soaking the landscape and wasting everything in its path. The other withdraws the reparative power of capital, picking apart the built environment incrementally. One provokes immediate, coordinated response, mobilizing multiple public, private, and philanthropic agencies on an emergency footing. The other remains quietly ignored, deemed a "local" problem to be solved by the weak tools of municipal government. One kills people instantly, the other slowly. And yet both forces bring inexorable devastation to the landscape at the most granular level, cascading over streets and sidewalks and buildings and parks with dissembling effect. Both forces destroy homes, wreck livelihoods, diminish opportunities, and disrupt long-term connections to place.

This project examines the slow violence of racial capitalism in the form of disinvested and deindustrialized landscapes in three metropolitan regions: Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Detroit. Scholars have long recognized this slow violence, resulting from decades of public policy and private investment decisions, as one of the principal conditions within which bodily and psychic harm spark into the world in the course of everyday urban life in the U.S. Of course, the environmental and physical conditions of the urban landscape do not determine behavioral outcomes in any straightforward or predictable way. Nevertheless, the affective emotional and psychological toll of slow violence unfolds against the backdrop of a devastated landscape. Residents in these communities have had to cope with life amid abandonment, and to devise ways of mitigating conditions, repairing damage, creating new opportunities, knitting together community, and demanding justice.

In laying down the framework for our study, we bring two strands of research together: the racialization of urban spatial production through discriminatory practices of planning and policy, and the creation and destruction of cities wrought through cycles of investment and disinvestment. We build on Cedric Robinson's (1983) concept of racial capitalism, where he argued that capitalism itself can only be understood as a political economic system deeply entangled with race as a formative ideology in the distribution of value among human bodies, systems, and communities. In the United States, this has involved not only discrimination against the bodies and movements of Black people, but the racialized apportioning of property, investment, and urban space (Satter 2009; Sugrue 2005; Taylor 2019; Massey and Denton 1994).

All of this has led to what Geoff Ward defines as "slow violence," indicating processes or events "where victimization is attritional, dispersed, and hidden" (Ward 2015, 199). Slow violence emerges as a cumulative effect of multiple policy, planning, and investment decisions over the course of many decades that cause damage and harm to human beings and their environments (Davies 2019; Evans 2004; Nixon 2013; Ward 2015). While Charles Tilly (2003, 4–5) urged caution in the deployment of the term "violence" beyond the immediate circumstance of direct physical and bodily harm, it must be noted that Tilly himself frequently conceptualized violence in an expanded sense. For example, in noting the monopolization of violence by the state, Tilly saw extractive processes of accounting, incarceration, labor coercion, resource distribution, and tribute as inseparable from the cycles of violence generated by state territorial ambitions. In his classic essay on war-making as state organized crime, Tilly wrote that "it matters little whether we take violence in a narrow sense, such as damage to persons and objects, or in a broad sense, such as violation of people's desires and interests; by either criterion, governments stand out from other organizations by their tendency to monopolize the concentrated means of violence" (Tilly 1985, 171).

Scholars have shown over and over that the indirect, distributional violence of racial inequality, oppression, and communal trauma have many of the same emotional, psychological, and neurocognitive impacts as direct violence to the body (Attar, Guerra, and Tolan 1994; Hahn 2017; Hicken et al. 2021; Morsy and Rothstein 2019; Paul and Moser 2009; Stopford and Wilson 2020). This is the case whether we are discussing Black people's experiences in the U.S. and South Africa, the systematic removal of indigenous people in Australia and Brazil, or the long history of anti-Semitism that lead up to the European Shoah. Moreover, the damage wrought to communities through policies that perpetuate poverty, discrimination, and the uneven distribution of resources is among the major factors in the rise of violent crime in the United States (Alexander 2010; Kaufman 2005; Rothstein 2017; National Research Council 2014; Muhammad 2010). While this project is first and foremost about community efforts of care and repair in the face of long-term oppression, we must understand the nature of slow violence in the world if we are to come to grips with the ways that people sit with and heal from traumatic histories.


Works Cited


Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow. New York: New Press.


Attar, Beth K., Nancy G. Guerra, and Patrick H. Tolan. 1994. “Neighborhood Disadvantage, Stressful Life Events and Adjustments in Urban Elementary-School Children.” Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 23 (4): 391–400.


Davies, Thom. 2019. “Slow Violence and Toxic Geographies: ‘Out of Sight’ to Whom?” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, April.


Evans, Gary W. 2004. “The Environment of Childhood Poverty.” American Psychologist 59 (2): 77–92.


Hahn, Robert. 2017. “Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregation as a Root Social Determinant of Public Health and Health Inequity: A Persistent Public Health Challenge in the United States.” Poverty and Race Research Action Council 26 (2).


Hicken, Margaret T., Lewis Miles, Solome Haile, and Michael Esposito. 2021. “Linking History to Contemporary State-Sanctioned Slow Violence through Cultural and Structural Racism.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 694 (1): 48–58.


Kaufman, Joanne M. 2005. “Explaining the Race/Ethnicity–Violence Relationship: Neighborhood Context and Social Psychological Processes.” Justice Quarterly 22 (2): 224–51.


Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. 1994. American Apartheid Segregation & the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Morsy, Leila, and Richard Rothstein. 2019. “Toxic Stress and Children’s Outcomes: African American Children Growing up Poor Are at Greater Risk of Disrupted Physiological Functioning and Depressed Academic Achievement.” Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.


Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. 2010. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


National Research Council. 2014. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


Nixon, Rob. 2013. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Paul, Karsten I., and Klaus Moser. 2009. “Unemployment Impairs Mental Health: Meta-Analyses.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 74 (3): 264–82.


Robinson, Cedric J. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. London: Zed.


Rothstein, Richard. 2017. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright.


Satter, Beryl. 2009. Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America. 1st edition. New York: Metropolitan Books.


Stopford, Annie, and William Julius Wilson. 2020. Trauma and Repair: Confronting Segregation and Violence in America. Lanham, MA: Lexington Books.


Sugrue, Thomas J. 2005. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Revised edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. 2019. Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.


Tilly, Charles. 1985. “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.” In Bringing the State Back In, edited by Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Peter B. Evans, and Theda Skocpol, 169–91. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


———. 2003. The Politics of Collective Violence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Ward, Geoff. 2015. “The Slow Violence of State Organized Race Crime.” Theoretical Criminology 19 (3): 299–314.

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