Creative Extraction: Black Towns in White Space


This article interrogates the “anomalous” case of Black towns in the South—so-called because of their relative [in]visibility, their unique struggles for self-determined development, and their externally ascribed narratives of dysfunctional governance, frequently invoked to explain their lack of access to basic infrastructure. We propose illuminating some of these so-called anomalies through Charles Mills’ “racial contract,” which we argue structures space at a deeper level than traditional legal arrangements and allows us to look relationally at Black towns in “white space.” We examine a paired case study in Texas to build from extant scholarship on Black spatiality and environmental inequality. While existing research on Black communities’ struggles for infrastructure usually blames their unincorporated status, in combination with their allegedly dysfunctional governance, we show how a southern Black town experiences racially predatory governance and resource extraction by nearby white towns, while white communities can sometimes use unincorporated status to their advantage. In other words, jurisdictional boundaries serve white interests. To illustrate this, we focus on three overlapping mechanisms of “creative extraction” that create the advantages or disadvantages of incorporation: theft, erosion and exclusion. These mechanisms are tied to the environmental harms inflicted on Black towns, as some of the existential threats they face.

A rusted and broken metal fence in the foreground, with a piles of gravel in the background

Extractive industries like gravel factories surround Tamina. Residents report foul smells, polluted water in ditches, illegal landfills, and trucks day and night.


Editors note: The paper associated with this abstract was released in November of 2020 in Society and Space. For more, see Purifoy DM, Seamster L. Creative extraction: Black towns in white space. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. November 2020. doi:10.1177/0263775820968563, linked to the right.

A small white pitched-roof building is shown in front of a red water tower.

Tamina’s current water tower. Tamina is currently exploring the possibility of building an independent water/sewer system.

A white and hunter green bus with white lettering that says "The Woodlands Express"

Although it is unincorporated, The Woodlands’ extensive infrastructure includes a bus system, “The Woodlands Express”, which connects the community to the larger metro Houston area.

a marshy area with trees and grasses

Tamina’s historic cemetery, Sweet Rest, has been underwater and unusable since 2007. It has been flooded by runoff from an illegal landfill made by neighboring white towns.

Two pink and red road signs read "A-1 Discount Bail Bonds" and "Bustin Out Bail Bonds"

Sign on the road into Tamina, a marked contrast from signage in nearby white towns. Such advertisements indicate Tamina is a target for policing, like many Black communities.

A black-and-white photo of an outdoor mall, with a sign that reads "We'd do anything for kids. So why do 1 in 6 children in America struggle with hunger?"

The Woodlands’ downtown-substitute outdoor mall features a simulacrum of a town square. Messaging elicits empathy for inequality—abstracted from Tamina, located only 2.2 miles away.

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