Understanding the City as a Settler Colonial Structure

Much of the scholarship within American urban sociology has concerned itself with the various forms of inequality that have developed in and around US cities throughout its history. The various schools of critical urban sociology have various developed ways of understanding cities as raced (Lai 2012), classed (Reardon and Bischoff 2011), and gendered (Popkin, Leventhal, and Weismann 2010) spaces where broader social hierarchies and system are reinforced and acted upon. Collectively these works argues for a broad understanding of the city as a both a reflection of broad American social values as well as a space that can have great influence over the development of these same values.
Absent from most of discussions within urban sociology is the history and narrative of Native Americans and the history of settler colonialism in the United States. This erasure is analogous to the general erasure of indigenous people and their experiences within most social scientific discourses (Dei 2000; Habashi 2005; Quah 1993). There has been movement in recent years to reverse this erasure. Andrea Smith (2008) while exploring the intertwined logics of slavery, genocide, and orientalism within white supremacy highlighted the current incompatibilities between narratives of indigenous scholars, which mistakenly equating African American “settlers” with white settlers, and African American/anti-racist which scholarship ignoring the existence of settler colonialism and indigenous peoples. Smith called for an integration of these various logics arguing that without doing so we become complacent in reifying these oppressive logics. Similarly, Evelyn Nakano Glenn (2015) discussed on a macro level how the dynamics of settler colonialism in the United States affected the racial formation of various oppressed communities. She concluded with the hope that by bringing together the insights of different inequality frameworks, including settler colonialism, scholars can “work toward a higher level theoretical model that can be widely used by social scientists both in the United States and internationally.”

Responding to Smith’s and Glenn’s calls, I argue for the inclusion of settler colonialism as another, and arguably more fundamental, framework through which to understand American urban spaces, structures, and history. I argue that many of the key aspects of US cities we study in urban sociology, particularly racial residential segregation, white suburbanization, and urban native settlement patterns are either directly connected to settler colonial forms/logics within US society or share great similarities to what we would expect within a settler colonial situation. I demonstrate the usefulness of the framework by reviewing literature on settler colonial logics, racial logics, white neighborhoods and suburbs, urban Native Americans, and urban African Americans. Bringing settler colonialism into discussions about urban inequality rectifies a blind spot within urban sociology that ignores and erases Native Americans and indigenous people within our analyses, builds a stronger historic sociological narrative about American cities, and opens avenues to reconsider how we make sense of current and historical patterns of urban inequality. 

United States as a Settler Colonial Society

Primary to this discussion is developing an understanding of settler colonialism as a social structure and the logics that govern its functioning. Lorenzon Veracini defined settler colonialism as a situation “where the colonizer ‘comes to stay’” (Veracini 2010). The “staying” in this formation involves the establishment of a new society on foreign soil. This establishment necessitates the elimination of the native population from the land so that the foreign population can control it. Patrick Wolfe defines this drive for the elimination of indigenous populations and the related drive to build the new settler society the logic of elimination (Wolfe 2006). Although there are other logics that govern settlement, settler colonial histories can be largely defined by the various ways in which settler colonialism “destroys to replace” (Wolfe 2006).

Moving to talking about the United States specifically, a brief overview of its history will reveal the extensive influence that settler colonial ideologies and logics exerts on the development of the nation (Hixson 2013). The most extreme examples of the logic of elimination being played out include the Trail of Tears, passage of the Indian Removal Act, attempts at biological warfare using smallpox infected blankets, and the late 19th century “Indian Wars.” In addition to these openly genocidal practices we also have to acknowledge examples such as US Indian boarding schools that sought to assimilate Native Americans into white society. Intuitions such as these also engage in the logic of settler colonialism and elimination via their attempt to eliminate indigenous culture. These acts coupled with the frantic building of cities, railroads, and other infrastructure constitutes settler colonialism in action. Considering the birth of cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, and Charleston happened during this same time, one would be remiss to ignore the possible causal relationship between their development and the ongoing elimination of indigenous population that cleared the land for these same cities.

Recognizing the Settler Colonial Logic in US Cities

Bringing settler colonialism into any space as an explanatory framework would require one to be able identify places where the logic of elimination is being engaged by whites against indigenous population. However when talking about cities one has to recognize the patterns of inequality that exist outside of settler- indigenous one, namely patterns such as racial residential segregation. Wolfe argued that settler colonial studies (and by extension its framework) “…must not allow itself to become Native studies under another name”(Wolfe 2013). To that end my argument not only discusses settler logics that affect indigenous populations, but it also discusses the logics that involve themselves in maintaining black- white inequalities.

The City as a Tool of Indigenous Erasure

In many of the other frameworks that discuss the structuring of American cities the placement of it as a reflection of broader patterns is quite important. For example growth machines (Logan and Molotch 1987) exist as a political and infrastructural project that facilitates capitalist exploitation of land and people within cities, securing it for profit making endeavors. Similarly histories of urban policing from Reconstruction on have cited how segregationists use urban policy to facilitate racial separation of both public and recreational space (Kruse 2005). In both of these examples we see the city as a site where some form of exploitation or inequality is played out, a canvas molded by various ruling interests across time and space.

When one turns this analytic to the settler colonial situation, the role of the city in systems of oppression become more complicated. Instead of being simply a site where settler colonialism takes place, I argue that we can instead understand the city as a weapon in of itself that was used against indigenous populations. By this I mean that the existence of the city itself served as an enactment of the logic of elimination both in its negative form, destruction, and its positive form, construction of settler society.

Within the historical record the urban logic of elimination first manifestation is in the establishment of the city itself. The logic of settler colonialism often evokes a logic of subduing and leashing a wild and untamed land (and people). Examples of this ideology at play in American history can be seen in the cultural values that animated US westward expansion or the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Penelope Edmonds argued that this logic of subduing the native and the land extended to how European settlers understood the cities they were building in their colonies (Edmonds 2010). She argued that stadial theory, an understanding that humanity naturally evolved from hunting to pastoralism to agriculture and finally to commerce, drove much of the settler logics that animated colonization in Australia and Canada. This ideology she argued positioned British colonists and their capitalism as a superior and more evolved form of social organization when compared to the social structures of the indigenous populations they encountered. The city in this ideological construct is a representation of commercial, modern society. It served as the anchor of civilization for the settler and therefore there was no place for indigenous people within its streets as they are.

Extending Edmonds argument, I would argue that the act of establishing the city itself represents a core stage in carrying out the logic of elimination. Examples of this behavior can be seen throughout American urban history. Carl Nightingale discusses early patterns of exclusion which included the establishment of a wall around New York to keep indigenous people out (which would eventually be called Wall Street), the existence of “praying towns” that were separate districts for indigenous populations within colonial cities, and later laws that forbade indigenous people from being present in New York after sundown (Nightingale 2012). A look at the histories of many American cities reveal that they tended to be founded where indigenous people had already established cities and towns. Chicago for instance was incorporated where the Potawatomi nation had previous lived (Keating 2005). New York City was the former settlement of the Lenape people(Pritchard 2002). Atlanta was previously part of both the Creek and Cherokee nations, which lost their claim to the territory as part of their forced expulsion to the west as part of the Trail of Tears(Conley 2008). In each of these examples we see how the placement and development of US cities were dependent on indigenous dispossession and in their creation firmly established European control over the land allowing for the development of commerce.

The other major manifestation of the logic of elimination within US cities involved the transition in the mid-20th century of Native Americans from being primarily a rural or reservation based population to an urban based population (LaGrand 2002). As a result of the centuries of settler colonial practices, the Native American population remains very small at 5.2 million individuals (US Census 2010). Indigenous expulsion and extermination led to most of the remaining population residing on reservations established in rural areas. The turning point in this pattern of expulsion was the passage of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 which encouraged Native Americans to move from the reservations to urban centers. The logic of the law was to eventually end the “dependency” of Native Americans on the federal government and facilitate the assimilation of Native Americans into the wider population. By the 1980’s we see the majority of Native Americans living in cities, a pattern in many ways facilitated by the federal government.

Policies such as the Relocation Act, from the perspective of settler colonial studies would constitute another form of genocide in its aim to assimilate Native Americans into American society. Extermination, expulsion, or disappearing doesn’t have to include the killing of the body. If one can eliminate the culture of the native, they become part of the colonial institution and therefore effectively gone along with their claims of sovereignty. A study of racial segregation of Native Americans within US cities shows that although they experience more than nominal spatial separation from whites, Native Americans also don’t experience the extreme levels of segregation groups like African Americans experience (Wilkes 2015). Considering the difficulties that urban indigenous populations experience (Weaver  N. 2012) one can argue the point that the move to cities enables a layer of cultural violence not possible on the reservation by isolating indigenous populations from each other and forcing them to engage in the settler way of life.

The concept of the city as an active participant in settler colonialism allows us to consider the current life of settler colonialism better considering these same cities, and the inequalities they produce, still exist. I would argue that it also challenges us to consider the city as an active participant in creating oppressive structures versus a molded canvas that reflect them. Normatively, it also encourages us to remember that the “triumph of the city” (Glaeser 2011) is contingent on genocidal violence taking place to clear space for the city.

Suburbs and Ghetto as Structural Opposites

As argued above, one test of the settler colonial perspective as it applies to cities is whether its narrative can explain interactions that go beyond the direct settler-indigenous relationship. I would argue racial residential segregation can be considered the most important among these other phenomena. Racial residential segregation remains one of the most influential processes that have shaped American cities across the 20th century. Usually discussed as a manifestation of anti-black racism, segregation can be thought of as the physical manifestation of the social hierarchy of race in America (Massey 2007). Recently scholars have made some arguments about the relationship between anti-blackness and indigenous erasure arguing that the trajectory of African Americans is necessarily affected by the history of settler colonialism in the United States (Glenn 2015; Wolfe 2006). Although there has not been much work that details the modern settler colonial reality of non-indigenous populations in the United States, we can make an argument about what we may see considering what we know about settler colonial logics including that of elimination.

What does the logic of elimination look like when not applied to Indigenous populations? We can first consider the fact that elimination is necessary in the settler colonial framework primarily because not only do the settler need land, they also are envisioning a society that is white. The previously mentioned praying towns and expulsion policies certainly reflect the goal of creating a white society. Contradicting this goal is the necessity for cheap labor, which in the United States took the form of African slaves. During slavery slave were kept away from each other and close to their owners to prevent possibilities of revolts (Harris 2003) which also had the consequence of reinforcing their designation as property. Black Codes during the Reconstruction era continued this “closeness” between blacks and whites in order to keep blacks under constant surveillance. However with the rise of Jim Crow, and later large racial residential segregation, we see a reversal in policy that results in increase distance between blacks and whites. I argue that our patterns of racial residential segregation constitute not only an instance of anti-black racism but also an example of the logic of elimination as it applies to non-indigenous populations. This elimination of non-whites from the residential life of white Americans I argue is best represented by the rise of suburban life and what it represents for American life.

In Crabgrass Frontier (1985) Kenneth Jackson argued that race played a decisive role in facilitating the rise of suburban life. The euphemism often used was the idea of moving “for the kids” to avoid racial integration in both the school system and residential communities. Tax and housing policy developed before and after World War 2 facilitated this outmigration (Logan 2013). White flight, as this pattern of white out migration came to be known, is premised on the idea of separating oneself and family from the problems of the city which just so happen to always be caused by the presence of black people.

James Loewen in his work details perhaps the most extreme version of racial separation, which he terms sundown towns (Loewen 2005). Sundown towns refers to towns in Illinois and other places that enacted formal or informal rules that made it illegal (and/or deadly) for African Americans or other non-whites from being in town limits after dark. Examples of sundown town type activity included places like Wilmette, IL which enacted laws that prohibited whites from hiring black labor unless they can live on their premises. The result of these laws is the existence of many all-white suburbs and towns till this day. Loewen and others argue that for these residents the concept of a good community was contingent on it also being all white. Here we see a similarity to the rationales for genocide detailed within settler colonial theory.

Veracini (2011) extends this observation by arguing that the settler colonial and suburban imaginaries share a number of elements. Highlights for instance how suburbs often re-enact settler patterns of spatial organization seen in the primacy placed on having lots of land around one’s house or the naming of suburban housing styles such as colonials or ranches. In terms of moving to the suburbs a narrative of displacement is shared between the two. In addition we see a narrative of “creating order from chaos” as I would call it. Settlers seek to subdue the land and create civilization from it while the suburbanite seeks to use unincorporated land to create community. It should be noted from our discussion of sundown towns that a reoccurring narrative involved whites moving to unincorporated areas at the edge of the city that often had African Americans already living there and using violence to displace them, similar to the dispossession of land from indigenous peoples. Veracini concludes by arguing that the similarities can perhaps be argued to be a continuance of settler patterns on a smaller scale, although he argues that his analysis (much like my own) is simply comparing morphologies.

Considering the above points, there is also the other side of racial residential segregation. This is crucial to include in the discussion considering social processes are always relational in nature. Settler have to disposes someone. Elimination is done to someone. The settler subdues something else. In the case of racial residential segregation the primary someone else that oppression happens to is poor African Americans. The literature on racial residential segregation paints a picture of a population which lack access to the resources and spaces that whites (and middle class people) have access to and is isolated within high crime spaces (Wilkes and Iceland 2004; Wilson 2011, 2012). This separation is absolute enough that it is legitimate discourse to discuss racial residential segregation as have much in common with the practices of apartheid (Massey and Denton 1993).

The question that is likely to be asked by scholars of racial residential segregation is what a settler colonial framework adds to our discussion of this phenomena? Scholars of race and segregation tend to understand the social world and cities within a black- white binary, or in more recent iterations, a black/ non-black binary (Bonilla-Silva 2002). The fundamental flaw of this framework is that it has little room for the inclusion of Native Americans and their unique relationship to both the land and to whiteness. Stories of racial segregation often relate back to slavery, while ignoring the existence (and importance) of preceding settler colonial activity. Historically much of the literature tells an incomplete story and by defining America as a fundamentally racist society (Omi and Winant 2014) versus a settler colonial society we participate in indigenous erasure as well as obscure motivations of whiteness that like outside of its direct relation to blackness.

Internal colonialism theory, put forward primarily by black sociologists, offers us some concepts that can relate racial residential segregation to settler colonial forms. Scholars of internal colonialism argue that black ghettos are exploited for cheap labor and resources by white capitalist interests not unlike the relationship between the colonizers and colonized in classical colonialism(Allen 1945; Blauner 1969; Savitch 1978; Texeira 1995; Walls 1978). This formulation is hinged on the idea that black labor has become increasingly disposable, especially in light of desegregation. If the suburb is the metropole (colonial administrative center, eg. Paris, London, or Rome) and the ghetto is the colony, we can think of this arrangement as a solution to the contradiction of settler colonialism which seeks an all-white society but needs cheap, constrained labor. Theories and narratives of settler colonialism often paint the settler as a person who leave the flawed metropole to establish a superior one on foreign soil. The imagery and language used to describe places like Levittown and other suburbs seem to reflect this conception that the suburban way of life as a superior form of civilization to that we see in the city where the other reside. A frameworks such as this allows us to consider the city and its succeeding suburbs as iterations of a white utopian vision that defines itself not only in relation to the perceived savagery of indigeneity but also blackness and other nations.


This paper was a brief, and admittedly incomplete, analysis of the usefulness of settler colonialism as an alternative or additional framework in understanding US urban history and sociology. My primary goal was to highlight morphological similarities between the logics of settler colonialism as developed by settler colonial and indigenous scholars and the structures of US cities and the social processes that drive their development.

I first described the settler colonial situation and the social logics that govern it which is permanent settlement and the logic of elimination. The logic of elimination is premised on the idea that in order to construct settler society, the indigenous person and their culture must disappear. All positive development of the settler society is contingent on the continued disappearing of the other, whoever they might be. These twin dimensions of this logic us what settler colonial scholars argue is fundamental to understanding the social, economic, and discursive development of settler colonial societies such as the United States.

I first demonstrate the logic of elimination in American urban history by recounting the relationship between the establishment of cities, indigenous removal, and the ideological significance of cities in settler colonial societies. Using Edmonds argument of staid theory, an orientalist conception of human development, I show how the existence of major US cities represent the supremacy of the settler over the native. This supremacy was further carried out through the westward expulsion, establishment of reservations, and measures that prevented indigenous people from contaminating the settler colonial triumph. Reversing this trend of excising indigenous populations from urban spaces, later into the 20th century the federal government used cities to encourage assimilation of indigenous people into mainstream society. The city in this case served as an active weapon erasure that could be used to isolate indigenous people and create a situation where the last remnants of indigenous territory and sovereignty could be dismantled. In both cases we see cities as an active, versus passive site of settler colonial activity that continues today.

My second demonstration of settler colonial theory’s usefulness was in its ability to make sense of racial residential segregation. This example is particularly important in that it possibly allows us to theoretically justify using a settler colonial framework when not talking directly about indigenous populations and their relation to settler populations. I highlighted scholars who argue along with myself that white flight and suburbanization not only reflect the black-white relations descending from slavery but may also reflect the settler colonial imaginary of building the metropole or white utopia. Patterns of racial residential segregation, the existence of sundown towns, and internal colonial understandings of black ghettos lend credence to this reading of history.

Where can we go from this analysis and argument? At minimum I hope that the simply highlighting of indigenous absence from urban sociology and histories will prompt scholars to interrogate who’s stores they chose to tell and why. Much like discussion of bringing women’s and black perspectives into the academy, the argument can be made that at worse no harm can come from having another perspective present and at best we arm ourselves with analytical tools that open up new avenues of inquiry and opportunities for social justice.

A previously unstated contribution of a settler colonial urban sociology, if it proves its usefulness, is that it fundamentally changes the dynamics that animate urbans sociological work. Most of urban sociology tends to focus its attention on the deviance of the urban poor/disadvantaged from the middle class, often white, normal. This kind of discourse, which has its roots in early discussions of the “urban crisis”, renders whiteness and richness as invisible and allows for poverty and destitution to be turned into a kind of spectacle. By discussing the world through a settler colonial frame, we understand that there are multiple dimensions of inequality that enable and constrain the process of settlement and expulsion (Glenn 2015). Specific to my discussion of white flight and suburbanization, acknowledging that whites navigate the city in relation to both indigeneity and blackness we are encouraged to center whiteness as a central organizing principle. Centering whiteness versus deviant blackness or invisible indigeneity allows for more critical analyses of white supremacy and settler colonialism that privileges discussions of power versus inequality.

The obvious next step in constructing a settler colonial urban sociology is expanding on the evidence we have of settler colonial formations in US cities. This is crucial considering that for example there is only one article in urban sociology that has ever attempted to understand patterns of racial segregation for Native Americans. In addition there needs to be more non-historical work on both settler colonialism that reflects Patrick Wolfe’s often cited quote that “settler colonialism is a structure, not an event.” Lastly I call on scholars studying non-indigenous minority populations to contribute new understanding of settler colonialism for those population who are neither settler nor indigenous.

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