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The Right to Infrastructure

Mon, Jun 7, 2021    6:30pm

Creative extraction: A Conversation on Concept Development

Danielle Purifoy and Louise Seamster present their conceptual framework for understanding black towns within extractive white space, highlighting questions of citizenship, extraction, and exclusion as they focus on how legal, spatial, racial, and economic systems structure black spaces’ access to infrastructure and facilitate environmental violence. Their work combines an environmental focus with data and frameworks from urban studies, fiscal sociology, geography, and law to show how these harms are not the result of discrete “racist” acts, but are written into the law itself, and are central to the functioning of racial capitalism. Purifoy and Seamster will be introduced by Reinhold Martin, Professor of Architecture and Director of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia GSAPP, and a conversation will be moderated by Catherine Fennell, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University and Buell Center Advisory Board member.


After four years of tracking infrastructure access and local development challenges in Black-led communities and cities, Louise Seamster and Danielle Purifoy found the framework of environmental racism provided inadequate explanation for the predictable cycles of dumping, stagnant development, and socio-ecological vulnerability experienced by Black places. More than the simple result of white NIMBYism and anti-Blackness, these cycles were instrumental to the development of white places. Creative extraction is a race-relational development framework that describes how white towns catalyze their own growth with resources from beyond their own borders, especially from Black places. Seamster and Purifoy explain creative extraction in two articles supported by the Buell Center’s Power and Infrastructure project—“What is Environmental Racism For?” in Environmental Sociology and “Creative extraction: Black towns in white space” in Environmental Planning D: Society and Space. The articles focus on the case of Tamina, Texas, an unincorporated Black community dating back to 1836, to demonstrate how mundane local development practices such as municipal utility districts, planning jurisdictions, and sales tax structures are routinely used to leverage the value and resourcefulness of white places at the expense of Black places. In this conversation, Seamster and Purifoy will discuss how their individual research on seemingly disparate Black places—rural Black-founded towns and urban majority Black cities—led to a series of inquiries culminating with creative extraction.

Louise Seamster is a sociologist whose research examines contemporary mechanisms for the reproduction of racial and economic inequality. She is an Assistant Professor in Sociology and Criminology and African American Studies at the University of Iowa. She earned her MA and PhD in Sociology at Duke University, an MA in Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research, and a BA at Vassar College.

Dr. Seamster’s research centers on the interactive financial and symbolic factors reproducing racial inequality across multiple domains, particularly in cities. She writes about racial politics and urban development, emergency financial management, debt, and the myth of racial progress. Her current book project investigates the financial and political causes of the Flint Water Crisis. Another line of research examines racial disparities in debt. Her work on “predatory inclusion” in student debt has led to extensive policy advocacy, including research informing Senator Elizabeth Warren’s student debt forgiveness plan. Her work has been published in Contexts, Sociological Theory, Du Bois Review, Social Currents, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Ethnic and Racial Studies, among other academic outlets, and has guest edited five special issues on issues around race.

Danielle Purifoy is a geographer and lawyer whose research focuses on the racial politics of development in Black towns and communities, and their relationship to Black geographic and ecological practices in the U.S. South. She earned her PhD in Environmental Politics and African American Studies at Duke University, a JD from Harvard Law School, and a BA from Vassar College. Her work is published in various academic and public forums, such as Environmental Planning D: Society and Space, Environmental Sociology, Duke Law and Policy Forum, Southern Cultures, and Environmental Health News. She is the former Race and Place editor for Scalawag, a media organization devoted to Southern storytelling, journalism, and the arts.

Free and open to the public. Virtual events hosted on Zoom Webinar do not require an account to attend, advanced registrations are encouraged.

GSAPP is committed to providing universal access to all of our virtual events. Please contact Lyla Catellier via email at events@arch.columbia.edu to request accommodations. Advance notice is necessary to arrange for some accessibility needs.

Illustration: Billy Dee Black Towns/White Towns, Louise Seamster & Danielle Purifoy (2021) What is environmental racism for? Place-based harm and relational development, Environmental Sociology, 7:2, 110-121