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The 'Inner City' Reality Is Complicated

It’s not easy, but we need to accept that one candidate’s dark vision of American cities holds certain truths.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Last week, mayors from Kansas City, New Orleans, Dayton, Ohio, and Pittsburgh held a press call where they went on the offensive about the dystopian “inner-city” narratives of Donald Trump, who often speaks of cities in Third World-terms and claims that the African Americans who live in them are mostly or completely job-less and education-less.

“It’s really astounding to listen to an individual who is so dangerously ignorant about what is happening on streets of America, particularly in American cities,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on the call. “It strikes me that Trump is just wrong about the facts, about his perception, about reality, and consequently he can’t help but be anything but wrong about how federal, state and local governments can come together, which is the important part.”  

Landrieu pointed out that the NBA All-Star Game was coming to New Orleans, as if this was essential proof that all things are now good in the hood. New Orleans has made much progress economically, especially since Hurricane Katrina, as a result of the city working closely with the state and federal government. But it’s also true that too many poor people are doing hard time in New Orleans local jails for no other reason than they can’t afford lawyers and the city can no longer provide them.

That latter point was not mentioned by Landrieu, though. It doesn’t fit neatly into the Trump is all wrong about cities narrative. We’ve gotten so used to defending cities against Trump’s inner-city-shaming that it’s perhaps too easy to lose sight of the fact that there is still plenty in the inner city to be ashamed about.  

And this election season has given us a lot of opportunities to muster that defense. Emily Badger wrote for The New York Times that the inner city is doing better than ever. A strong indicator, Badger wrote, was that the Federal Housing Finance Agency reports home values rising faster in major cities than anywhere else in the U.S. over the last 25 years. In Politico, a survey of 60 mayors offered their own pushback on all the hell-hole talk, citing rising incomes, falling poverty, and shrinking rates of uninsured residents in major cities. And last week, Urban Institute researcher Shiva Kooragayala blogged that Trump’s missives miss “an important reality”—that “not all African Americans live in the 'inner city,’ which in itself is a vague and loosely defined geography.” In Atlanta, only 12 percent of the metropolitan area’s black residents live within city boundaries, wrote Kooragayala, which means Trump is only geographically wrong.

(Urban Institute)

In a way, it’s a little sad that one of the best rejoinders we can come up with is, “Well, not all black people live in the city.” (I’m as guilty as anyone on this front.) Meanwhile, we tend to forget that, while it’s great that home values are rising in these cities, this might not bode well for low-income families that currently live there—hence these cities’ current scramble for answers to the gentrification problem of displacement.

It is critical not to allow Trump’s rendition of urban America to be the winning narrative, so the impulse has been to oppose him at every turn. The modicum of truth in his indictments often gets overlooked. Indeed, it’s difficult, but not impossible, to simultaneously accept elements of both narratives: that Donald Trump is full of shit, and he’s kinda right about how life for many African Americans living in the city is anything but exemplary.

Nikole Hannah Jones, the investigative reporter who’s covered the modern impacts of racial segregation for ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine pointed to these inconvenient truths in an op-ed this week:

Trump, in turning the usual rhetoric on its head—claiming that black people are living in inner-city hells and should therefore spurn the Democratic Party—has forced progressives, both black and white, into the uncomfortable position of arguing that things aren’t nearly as bad for black America as Trump would have us believe.

Meanwhile, as Hannah-Jones points out, segregation between black and white children is at its highest levels since the 1970s, as is the wealth gap between black and white families. This is true in cities run by both Democrats and Republicans. “Regardless of how you feel about Trump, on this one thing he is right,” she writes, “The Democratic Party has taken black Americans for granted.”

To be fair, this is not necessarily true at the local level: No mayor or city councilperson can take the black vote for granted in most U.S. cities, regardless of their race or party. Municipal candidates in cities like New Orleans or Atlanta don’t often run partisan campaigns because there is rarely a Republican who can challenge them. But here’s the inescapable reality of Atlanta today, despite having black, Democratic mayors, as detailed in this recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

  • Eighty percent of Atlanta's African-American children live in communities with high concentrations of poverty, compared with 6 percent of their white peers and 29 percent of Asians.
  • The unemployment rate for African Americans in Atlanta (22 percent) is nearly twice the city’s overall 13 percent, more than three times higher than the rate for their white counterparts (6 percent) and more than twice the rate for Latinos (9 percent).
  • White residents earn more than three times as much as their black counterparts, twice as much as Latinos and about $30,000 more than Asians in the city.
(Annie E. Casey Foundation)

There is ample scholarship on how white flight and federally aided systemic racial discrimination are responsible for many of the racial disparities suffered today. Those who take Trump to task for avoiding that racial history are correct. But no one can say that the Democratic Party at any level has come up with (or is even trying to come up with) a master plan for addressing that history head-on. Nonpartisan groups like the Government Alliance on Race and Equity has been enlisting cities in this kind of racial equity work, but this is a venture that’s only just now launching in the past year or so.  

Richard Schlagger writes in his book City Power that there’s no way around cities acknowledging the systemic failures of urban policy. And those failures have come, unfortunately, mostly from the left—though, often with the help of uncooperative, Republican-controlled state governments, it must be said.

Urbanists have been reluctant to acknowledge these failures, though, when trying to score political points against Trump. As the lauded novelist Kiese Laymon recently wrote on Facebook, “Left leaning white folks … spent the last 8 years bemoaning what the right was doing wrong, instead of reckoning with ... what the left failed to do for extremely vulnerable black and brown folk.”

The outcome of that is what Hannah-Jones calls a “trickle-down liberalism,” which after decades of Democratic loyalty,” has left “too many black Americans … still awaiting that trickle.”

Trump knows that this is a liberal vulnerability, and if anything is a hallmark of his campaign, besides racism, it’s exploiting those kinds of weaknesses. It’s understandable that the urbanist bloc would be loathe to concede any political points to such an anti-urban candidate. But we should never lose sight of the fact that knee-jerk defenses of the “inner city” require the erasure of those for whom life is truly hell. Those broken black and Latino families deserve a voice. And even if they likely won’t use that voice to cheer for someone like Trump, that doesn’t mean their lives shouldn’t matter in this discussion.

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