Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society




VOLUME 9 (2002)

Geographical Identities of Ethnic America: Race, Space and Place, Kate Berry & Martha Henderson (editors). Reno: University of Nevada Press (2002), 311 pp..


Reviewed by Mary E. Valmont, Valmont Consulting, Brooklyn, New York.

Geographical Identities of Ethnic America: Race, Space and Place is an edited volume that explores and strives to understand the complex relationships between ethnic identity and place. How is geography relevant to understanding ethnicity and race? The editors, Berry and Henderson, respond that it is because such identities are not only created by the labels but also by the spaces and places in which they exist. This collection presents 13 analytical essays that explore the interactions of ethnic identities and the recreation of space and place in the United States and Canada. In addition to providing rich and engaging historical and geographical descriptions, the articles contribute an array of ethnographic and statistical methodologies for conducting such analysis.

In their introduction, Berry and Henderson put forth several assumptions, which resonate with varying success, throughout the essays: place matters in the experience and processes that shape racial and ethnic identity; and such identities are socially constructed. Although the editors note that physical scientific evidence does not support the concept of autonomous races, the foundation of this book is the reality that ethnic and racial identities have social implications for the classification, representation and power differentials that exist among different racial/ethnic groups. They define race as a “condition of individual and collective a flexible element of social structure...subject to continual reinterpretation” (p. 4). As an example of the fluidity of ethnic and racial identities, Berry and Henderson report that the U.S. Census 2000 increased the number of racial categories from five to fifteen.

Berry and Henderson organized the chapters around three scales: macro, meso and micro. As defined by Berry and Henderson, the essays examine race and ethnicity in North America from either the macro level (e.g., broad national or international perspective) or, the meso level (e.g., connections between broader processes and events and particular places) or, the micro level (e.g., specific places and landscaping).

The first three essays fall within the classification as macro – examining race and ethnicity from a broad perspective. These essays include a demographic comparison of Hispanic and Asian groups during the 1980s (Roseman), changes in residential segregation patterns between Black and white Americans between 1970 and 1990 (Deskins and Bettinger) and charting the immigrant experience of Asian Indians in Canada (Fernandez).

Roseman uses U.S. Census data to chart the spatial dimensions of ethnic populations changes in the United States between 1980 and 1990, focusing on ten rapidly growing Hispanic and Asian ethnic identity groups, which collectively accounted for almost half of the population increase in the country during that period. Roseman identifies three major components of ethnic population change: migration, both international and internal; natural population change due to birth and death rates; and identity change as measured by the census (e.g., undercounting certain ethnic groups). Deskins and Bettinger demonstrate the connections between residency, economic place and identity by looking at segregation patterns by using decennial census data from 1970 and 1990 to calculate segregation indices for the 20 largest SMSAs in 1990. Their analysis reveals different patterns of racial and economic integration for Whites, Black professionals and the Black poor. Fernandez describes the migration patterns of Asian Indians, one of the fastest growing ethnic populations in Canada, from the late 1890s to the present. Since the 1970s, Canada’s ethnic groups have pushed for recognition of the racial and ethnic diversity of its cultures. In this relatively new climate of multi-culturalism, many Asian Indians continue to retain many of their cultures and traditions while also adapting to Canadian society.

The essays that take a meso perspective to studying race, ethnicity and place describe the distribution patterns and maintenance of social networks of Greek Americans (Constantinou), an historical examination of how the Oglala Lakota (also known as Sioux) used spatial relationships to resist the U.S. government’s domination in the 1870s (Hannah), spatial connections of Samoans (Koletty), and an exploration of Alaskan natives conflict with wildlife management systems over hunting and fishing rights (Behnke).

Constantinou explores Greek immigration to America using data from the 1990 census and other sources. This essay documents the diversity of the immigrants on a variety of factors such as education, income, and employment skills and discusses their spatial distribution in America. It also describes the ways in which the immigrants retained ties to their homeland through cultural connections such as the Greek Orthodox Church and the creation of numerous Greek American organizations. Hannah details the Oglala Lakota resistance to the government’s attempts to make them permanent settlers in the late 1800s. Their spatial mobility as resistance of control included “scattering” which occurred when groups of families would move from place to place within and outside the reservation without the permission of the government agents. The United States government completed the transformation of the Oglalas’ relationship to their land, from a highly mobile population to a permanently fixed one, by administrative procedures such as the taking of census and distributing food rations. Koletty’s essay on Samoans movement between the Samoa Islands and urban cities in the United States details how their mobility supports the continuation of Samoan culture among its migrants. The link with the homeland has never been severed because Samoans constantly travel back and forth not only for business and vacation but also to participate in rituals and celebrations. Behnke examines the 20-year conflict between the Native Alaskans and the federal government because of restrictions placed on the natives’ access to their traditional hunting and fishing resources. Behnke provides an interesting analysis of the various representations of “landscapes” and notes that different groups of people with unique histories and purposes will interpret and affect the landscape for their own purposes. Alaskan landscape interpretations include the land as the “last great wilderness” versus a view of it as the “last frontier.”

The remaining essays investigate race, ethnicity and place from a micro level, examining specific places and experiences. These essays discuss Spanish settlers’ landscapes altered by later Anglo settlement (Smith), geographic isolation as a barrier to health care for Native Americans (Dillinger), Vietnamese resettlement in Louisiana (Airriess) and Russian acculturation in California (Hardwick).
Smith’s essay uses three “landscape variables” – settlement shape and design, the distribution of the meeting house, and the distribution of the social/worker support houses – to describe how the migration of “Anglos” from the late 1840s through the 1950s altered the cultural traditions of the Spanish people of the region. Smith concludes that many of the Spanish communities changed spatially to accommodate the Anglos. Dillinger’s essay on the geographic isolation of the Round Valley Indian Reservation describes how this segregation acts as a barrier to the access and provisions of health care. Residents must travel great distances to receive basic medical services provided at the hospital. This situation has also made it difficult to recruit and retain physicians who fear the professional and social isolation. Airriess explores how a Vietnamese refugee community in New Orleans has used their ethnic landscape signatures of vegetable gardens, churches and retail shops to recreate a sense of place. Airriess contends that refugees may feel this need more than other immigrant groups because they have been forced to migrate, often for political or religious reasons. Hardwick’s essay relates the adaptation experiences of Russian Baptist and Pentecostal refugees in Sacramento during the mid- to late 1990s. Hardwick highlights the roles that changes in residential patterns, economic transition and language acquisitions occupy in the transformation of ethnic identity and place. Hardwick also notes the important distinction between adaptation and integration.

The concluding essay is an epilogue by Shresta and Smith. It reflects upon relations among race, racism and place and presents some current trends in the construction of race including multiculturalism.

Many of the essays told compelling stories of the histories and challenges of adjusting to changes to place and space for different ethnic groups. Airriess’ imagery of the Vietnamese refugee community in New Orleans vividly showed how their churches, retail shops and vegetable gardens serve as cultural reminders of the traditional practices and values that were left behind when they fled Vietnam and aid their adaptation to a foreign social and physical environment. Hannah’s descriptions of how the Oglala used their mobility and the terrain of the western planes to resist dominance and oppression was compelling, but ultimately, mobility did not equal freedom for the Oglala Lakota. The macro level essays, especially Roseman’s ethnic mapping and Deskins and Bettinger’s description of Black and White residential and economic segregation provide interesting glimpsing into the future of America – it may becoming more multi-racial and ethnic and separate.

In other essays, the links between race and place were not always well defined. In Koletty’s description of Samoan immigrants, the author never acknowledges that many of the methods of continuing ties to a homeland is typical of most migrants - not unique to Samoans as an ethnic group. Smith’s ironic investigation of how the migration of “Anglos” altered the cultural traditions of the Spanish people of the region fails to mention of how this Spanish settlement may have disrupted the Native Americans and Mexicans indigenous to the area. In addition, the vagueness of the editors’ definitions of the macro, meso and micro scale made it difficult to categorize the essays within this framework. It was assumed that the essays were arranged in that sequence.

Overall, this volume provides well written essays that used the main themes to relate how very different ethnic or racial populations attempt to maintain or recreate their identities in terrains that are changing, or are changed because of relocation. The essays describe a variety of interactions between race, space and place within the social-spatial topics of immigration, landscapes, housing and social connections. These interactions illustrate the complexity of examining relationships to place. I recommend this volume to all social scientists who strive to understand such complexities.