What Does "Inner City" Mean, Anyway?

The phrase gets tossed around all the time, but where did "inner city" come from and what's it really mean?

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Complex Original

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Politics is a cipher of euphemisms. Without necessarily realizing how fluent we are in such loose, figurative language, we hear and use these euphemisms every day.

Consider two types.

First, there’s the coded, so-called “dog whistle” language that partisans use to identify with one another. Think “family values,” a term with no obvious definition if you read it literally—what sort of family? and which values, exactly? Rather, the term “family values” signifies a range of conservative opposition to marriage rights for couples that fall outside hetero parameters, birth control rights, comprehensive sex education in public schools, etc. You can read all about “family values” in its dedicated section on the GOP’s website.

Alternatively, there’s the relatively benign shorthand that apparently favors no particular agenda. “Inner city,” for instance—a term that you’re as likely to hear in the campaign rhetoric of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as you are in remarks from Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular,” Ryan told a conservative radio host in 2014, “of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here.”

The connotation of “inner city” may vary across audience and context, but there’s no big hint of allegiance or biases in the term itself. What does it really mean?

“Inner city” is a uniquely American term. In its common usage, it signifies poor, black, urban neighborhoods. The term somehow applies regardless of whether such neighborhoods are downtown or central to the city grid. The Bronx is an outer borough of New York City. The South Side of Chicago is marginal to the Loop. Still, anyone might include these neighborhoods in discussion of “inner city” violence, “inner city” poverty, and such.

North American sociologists popularized “inner city” in the early 1960s to address urban migration trends that we can trace back to the federal housing policy shifts of the 1930s. The journalist and activist Jane Jacobs uses the term “inner city” in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in discussion of urban “stagnation and decay.”

At Slate, the writer Jamelle Bouie summarizes the history of “redlining” as a plot by federal policymakers and private banks to starve mortgage lending and investment capital from black neighborhoods, which the Home Owners' Loan Corporation would rank at the bottom of its “desirability” index. In the most desirable neighborhoods of a given city, the HOLC would grant loans with explicit racial covenants that prohibited deed holders from ever selling their property to a black buyer. Effectively, Bouie writes for The Daily Beast, redlining “was almost exclusively a tool to force blacks (and other minorities) into particular geographic areas,” which the Federal Home Loan Bank Board would designate with red borders drawn on its residential security maps—hence the term “redlining.”

“White flight,” another term popular among social scientists of the 1960s, describes the general trend of white residents altogether fleeing several major U.S. cities—most notably Detroit, Cleveland, and Oakland—for local suburbs, packing their wealth and taking it with them. In their wake, working class blacks remained. City centers hollowed, incomes fell, cities bled revenue and resources; infrastructure deteriorated accordingly.

“Inner city,” then, isn’t just a general, apolitical description of black poverty, but also a potent hint at that poverty’s causes. Federal policymakers literally created the inner city, and then the very same policymakers wrecked it. Not that our nation’s running discussion of “the inner city” reflects this; for President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Senator Sanders, “inner city” is a but a rhetorical tic in official remarks about gun violence and youth jobs programs. Just as easily as our political discourse conflates police brutality and “black-on-black” crime as interchangeable concerns, we likewise render “inner city,” a term coined to describe the aftermath of 20th century redlining and white flight, into a broader, common, ahistorical signifier of black poverty and urban decay.

Despite provisions of the Fair Housing Act, enacted as a title of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, redlining persists. In “The Case For Reparations,” the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates notes that “Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, a fact that reflects assiduous planning.” Even as prominent filmmakers, Congress, presidential candidates, and the sitting president himself address Chicago’s gun crisis with somber terms and vague alarm, we imagine “the inner city” as helpless destitution. Which explains why our politics fails to address the most severely protracted policy failure in American history with any precision.

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