Black Urban Ecologies and Structural Extermination

56 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2021

See all articles by Etienne C. Toussaint

Etienne C. Toussaint

University of South Carolina School of Law

Date Written: June 25, 2021


Residents of low-income, metropolitan communities across the United States frequently live in “food apartheid” neighborhoods—areas with limited access to nutrient-rich and fresh food. Local government law scholars, poverty law scholars, and political theorists have long argued that structural racism embedded in America’s political economy influences the uneven development of such Black urban ecologies. Accordingly, food justice scholars have called for local governments to develop urban agricultural markets that combat racism in global corporatized food systems by localizing food development. These demands have only amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged Black communities where residents suffer from preexisting health conditions and weakened immune systems associated with food insecurity. However, while local governments are increasing development of urban agriculture in Black urban spaces, in some instances, this has only driven Black and minoritized residents to compete against one another for access to healthy food and scarce farmland. Thus, the development of urban agriculture may function to recreate the very problems of racial capitalism and neoliberalism embedded in America’s political economy that animate food insecurity in the first place.

This Article argues that urban agriculture imbued with racial capitalist norms and neoliberal politics—e.g., “neutral” and “colorblind” policies that ignore historic state-sponsored racial discrimination, limit governmental market interventions, and promote individualistic competition and private ownership—will fail to mitigate the structural oppression that drives food insecurity in Black urban landscapes marred by environmental degradation, or Black urban ecologies. Instead, such forces distort urban agriculture into a weapon of exploitation, expropriation, and erasure, each foundational elements of a social theory of ecological systems change this Author calls structural extermination. This Article illustrates the theory of structural extermination, which has broad explanatory power, by examining Washington, D.C.’s history of urban farming legislation, beginning with the passage of the Food Production and Urban Gardens Program Act of 1986 and continuing, most recently, with the Urban Farming Land Lease Amendment Act of 2019. By documenting a visible shift in political discourse about Washington, D.C.’s urban farming program, from a community-oriented initiative for gardening and food donation to a market-centered program for land leasing and tax abatement, this analysis reveals how decontextualized and dehistoricized urban agriculture risks legitimating and rationalizing competitive market structures that enact violence upon the poor, and push low-income residents out of the city altogether. Finally, this Article calls for the democratization of ecological placemaking in Black urban geographies, a decolonial praxis that would embrace a justice-based vision of community economic development premised upon the principles of social solidarity, economic democracy, and solidarity economy.

Keywords: environmental justice, urban farming, food insecurity, urban development, racial capitalism, neoliberalism

JEL Classification: H7, K32, O1, O13, O38, P12, P48, Q1, Q5, Q56, Q58

Suggested Citation

Toussaint, Etienne, Black Urban Ecologies and Structural Extermination (June 25, 2021). 45 Harvard Environmental Law Review 448 (2021), Available at SSRN:

Etienne Toussaint (Contact Author)

University of South Carolina School of Law ( email )

1525 Senate Street
Columbia, SC 29208
United States

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