Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The kind of thinking that equates black communities with “inner-city” crime has infected public policy and pop culture alike.
The Netflix/Marvel hit TV series Luke Cage, which follows a bulletproof African-American superhero looking to save Harlem, portrays the historically black Manhattan neighborhood as a place flush with violent thugs and guns. That may have been true of the Harlem of the 1940s and 1950s, during the era of Bumpy Johnson, or the Harlem of the 1960s and 1970s, under Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes. It could even describe the Harlem of the 1980s and 1990s, when gangsters like Alpo and Rich Porter and gangs like The Supreme Team were at their zenith. But it certainly would not neatly describe the Harlem of today, or even of the past 25 years.
Nevertheless, in one scene from the series, a group of thugs gathers before their gun-running crime leader, spitballing ideas on how to defeat Cage. One of the leader’s minions responds by offering up a short urban history on Robert Moses, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the white flight that both enabled, and the urban policy prescriptions touted by Daniel Moynihan in the 1970s.
“This cat named Moynihan went and hollered at Nixon,” he says, “and told the prez that maybe the inner city could benefit from benign neglect.”
It’s an interesting line, except Moynihan’s “benign neglect” theory was not about “inner cities.” The reference is from a memo Moynihan wrote to President Richard Nixon on January 16, 1970, about prevailing economic and social “Negro” conditions. Here are the exact words Moynihan used when mentioning his “benign neglect” theory:
“The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’ The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.”
Moynihan was talking about race relations. But to be fair, by that point the phrase “inner cities” had pretty much become a euphemism for everything wrong with black communities and black people. As John Hopkins University historian N. D.B. Connolly told Emily Badger in The New York Times: “The inner city is the place that burned when King was assassinated. It was Watts. It was the place Ronald Reagan had to try to conduct the war on drugs.”
Nixon ended up investing little in Moynihan’s “benign neglect” theory, instead taking the opposite track by amplifying racial rhetoric, characterizing rising crime rates and drug usage as uniquely Negroid features of major U.S. cities. Nixon used this characterization to justify his political position that these “inner cities” needed brought to heel through aggressive “law and order” tactics.
Donald Trump is following the same playbook. In the October 9 presidential debate, he said that “inner cities” across the U.S. are “a disaster education-wise, job-wise, safety-wise, in every way possible.” As Badger points out, this is anything but the truth for U.S. cities.
The problem here is that Trump immediately jumps to this “inner city” diagnosis anytime he is asked questions about race. His race-relations solutions, specifically for “the blacks,” are as misguided as Luke Cage’s portrayal of Harlem as a neighborhood still besieged by violent crime. As Justin Charity of The Ringer wrote of the Marvel superhero: “Any other uptown native might’ve been quicker to discover that Harlem’s greater, untouchable menace is the NYPD. But what, Luke Cage wonders, about black-on-black crime?”
Trump wonders this, too. Meanwhile, even the NYPD is unnerved by Trump’s mischaracterizations of crime, particularly in New York City, where his best bro, Rudy Giuliani, was mayor. The fact is, crime—and violent crime specifically—are at their lowest rates in decades. (And this has happened despite, rather than because of, Giuliani’s heavy-handed policing regime.) That’s true not only in Harlem, but across New York City and almost all major cities in the U.S. This explains why so many law enforcement leaders are at odds with Trump’s anti-crime proposals, including his ill-considered call for expanding stop-and-frisk.
Additionally, #NYC is on pace to have one of the safest years on record for crime. Murders, shootings are ⬇️ significantly— J. Peter Donald (@JPeterDonald) September 27, 2016
It’s bad enough that Trump conflates all African Americans with “inner-city” problems. It’s worse that Trump does not have an updated understanding of poverty, which is today found more in suburbs than cities. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that many of the high-profile police killings of African Americans have happened in suburbs: Michael Brown in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis; Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota; Walter Scott in North Charleston, a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina.
What Trump conveniently leaves out of his “inner city” tirades, as do many black-culture-birther urban crime theorists, is how the aiding and abetting of white flight did more than anything to turn urban cores into destitute ghettoes. That kind of neglect was not benign—it was purposed.
Here’s how James Baldwin addressed the question, back in 1980, in an interview with Wolfgang Binder:
Binder: How do you see the state of the black ghetto in the inner cities in America?
Baldwin: It is a ghetto and white people turn them into ghettos to get away from the niggers. It’s a vicious circle: They move out, the entire economic basis of the city crumbles, because nothing is taken care of in Harlem. The City has no responsibility for the ghetto, the cops don’t live in the ghetto, tax-payers don’t live in the ghetto, so nothing comes in. What little was coming in is lost. Nothing is owned by black people in Harlem, or a fraction of what is owned in Harlem is owned by black people. It is owned by banks, by real estate, by vast organizations including the Catholic Church, including universities. So houses are boarded up, and presently what will happen, what is happening in other cities is that bulldozers move in, move the niggers out, somewhere else, and the land is claimed by white people.
This is the true American “inner city” story, and has been for at least the 20th century forward. But misreadings of Moynihan and the parroting of other “tough on crime” enthusiasts along the way have infected not only policymaking but also pop culture. These are not the “inner city” visions of Stevie Wonder or Freestyle Fellowship; they are the visions of people who only see black people in criminal terms. Life is far from perfect in any city—and it’s certainly not perfect for many black neighborhoods across America. If black lives aren’t improving in these places, it just might be because our political debates are neglecting to name the real villains.