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Virginia Parks

Madeline McKinnie Endowed Professor, Urban and Environmental Policy

Virginia Parks studies labor, employment, and inequality in cities. Her fields of special interest include urban geography, urban labor markets, immigration, racial and gender inequality, and community organizing and development.


Education: B.A., University of Colorado; M.A., Ph.D, University of California Los Angeles

Virginia Parks joined the Occidental College faculty in 2015 and is the first faculty member to occupy the McKinnie Endowed Professorship, established through an estate gift from Madeline McKinnie, a friend of the college. Previously, Professor Parks was an associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

In her research, Parks analyzes the patterns and ramifications of spatial inequality, particularly as they manifest in urban environments at the intersections of race, ethnicity, and gender. Her primary focus is on how urban contexts mediate labor and employment outcomes for immigrants, native-born minorities, and women. A central concern informing Professor Parks's research and teaching is how local communities can respond to these patterns of inequality through organizing and development efforts. Her papers in top-ranked academic journals such as the Annals of the Association of American Geographersthe Journal of Urban Affairsthe International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, and Urban Geography consider issues such as how the racial wage gap and rates of low-wage work vary across cities, African American employment in the public sector, the role of unions in protecting the rights of immigrant workers, and the relative position of immigrant and African American workers in the labor force.

Find full-text of many of her publications at:

Select Publications

Virginia Parks (2016). "Rosa Parks redux: Racial mobility projects on the journey to work." Annals of the Association of American Geographers.

Abstract. The iconic image of Rosa Parks sitting at the front of a bus documents the most famous commute in history. Rosa Parks was traveling home from work when she refused to give her seat to a white passenger in 1955, an act of civil disobedience that set the Montgomery bus boycott in motion and propelled civil rights onto the national stage. Sixty years later, cities in the putatively postracial era continue to generate profound racial inequalities. Drawing on Rosa Parks's defiant commute as a framing device, I situate the journey to work as a racial mobility project that extends from historic urban processes of racial discrimination, reveals lived experiences of intersectional inequality, and generates future racial disparities. I define commuting as a racial mobility project that organizes, redistributes, and mobilizes resources along racial lines in conjunction with the movement of bodies across space. This framework links the discourses of race and mobility, both of which highlight the dynamics of politics and power. By positioning the journey to work as a racial mobility project, this article seeks to resituate the commute for geographers—conceptually, empirically, and politically—at the nexus of geography, mobility, and the struggle for racial justice in the city. 

Virginia Parks (2015). “The urban imperative of labor and employment policy in the Age of Obama.” Journal of Urban Affairs 37(1): 62-65.

Virginia Parks (2014). “Enclaves of rights: Workplace enforcement, union contracts, and the uneven regulatory geography of immigration policy.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102(2): 329-337.

Abstract. Recent geographic research on U.S. immigration policy highlights the devolution of policy formulation and implementation to local state actors. This study extends this research by analyzing how labor unions shape the implementation of state immigration policy and innovate institutional practices that affect regulatory spaces for immigrants at the local level. Using a case study of the hotel union in Chicago and Los Angeles, this article examines the origin, content, and implementation of immigration provisions recently negotiated in the union’s contracts. These contract provisions mediate the implementation of state immigration policies by specifying rules that govern employer actions in response to immigration enforcement activities by the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies, including admittance to the workplace, inspection of I-9 forms, and Social Security no-match letters. The contracts also establish nondiscrimination protections for immigrant workers, such as guaranteed leave to attend immigration proceedings. The legal codification of these protections and the robust practices of union enforcement yield “enclaves of rights” at the local level, further contributing to the highly uneven space of security for immigrant residents in the United States The article concludes by examining the possibility that unions—given their influence in local labor markets, their federated (or national) structures, and their role in the broader moral economy—could extend these rights beyond the confines of the enclave.

Virginia Parks and Dorian Warren (2012). “Contesting the racial division of labor from below: Representation and union organizing among African-American and immigrant workers.” Du Bois Review 9(2): 395-417.

Abstract. Popular discourse and academic scholarship both accent divisions between African American and immigrant workers. These debates most often focus on the question of job competition, positioning African Americans and immigrant workers as a priori adversaries in the labor market. We take a different tack. Drawing upon a case study of hotel workers in Chicago, we identify ways in which workers themselves challenge and bridge these divisions. Specifically, we reveal how union organizing activities, such as diverse committee representation and inclusion of diversity language in contracts, counter notions of intergroup competition in an effort to build common cause that affirms rather than denies differences. We argue that these activities represent political efforts on the part of workers to contest and even reshape the racial and ethnic division of labor, thereby revealing competition as a socially contingent and politically mediated process.

Virginia Parks (2012). “The uneven geography of racial and ethnic wage inequality: Specifying local labor market effects.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102(3): 700-725.

Abstract. This article extends research on intermetropolitan and regional wage inequality through an investigation of the uneven geography of racial and ethnic wage inequality across metropolitan labor markets. Prior geographic studies largely restricted analysis of the source of intermetropolitan wage disparities to differences in industrial structure. The study described in this article further expands the analysis of labor market effects by conceptually describing and empirically analyzing the effects of three significant racial labor market institutions: public employment, unionization, and the penal system. I investigate these effects as part of a more extensive analysis of how local labor market structure—comprised of industrial mix, demographic composition, and institutional and regulatory arrangements—matters in mediating racial wage inequality. I use data from the 2000 U.S. Census and multilevel methods to analyze the wage differentials of African American and native- and foreign-born Latino men relative to whites across 186 U.S. metropolitan areas. Local labor market structure mediates different types of racial wage inequality in distinct ways: Regulatory context matters most for the relative wages of African Americans; both regulatory context and industrial mix influence the relative wages of native-born Latinos; and industrial composition matters most for the relative wages of foreign-born Latinos. Against these broad patterns of difference, not all effects—especially regulatory and institutional effects—are singularly group specific. Unionization shores up wages for both white and black high school–educated workers and mitigates racial wage inequality. Higher minimum wage rates boost the relative wages of high school–educated whites and native-born Latinos.