To hear Donald J. Trump tell it, America’s “inner cities” are on fire. They’re “a disaster education-wise, jobwise, safety-wise, in every way possible,” he declared in this week’s presidential debate.
“You walk down the street,” Mr. Trump said in his first debate with Hillary Clinton, “you get shot.”
It often sounds as if he is describing the Bronx in the 1970s, and not American cities like New York and Washington, D.C., that today surround his own real estate projects.
But that’s the power of this perception. The phrase “inner city” is often used to suggest that the historical image and the modern place are one and the same — or even that the “inner city” is still a meaningfully identifiable place at all, with clearly implied demographics (black, poor) and connotations (violence, decay). It still invokes the particular context when the phrase became popular in the 1960s and ’70s.
In reality, the central neighborhoods of many major American cities are thriving. A recent analysis by researchers at the Federal Housing Finance Agency found that home values have risen faster in the heart of big cities than anywhere else in the country over the last 25 years, a sign of their turnaround and a trend Mr. Trump, as a real estate developer, is likely to be aware of.
In Washington (home to his newest project, in the Old Post Office building) the coveted neighborhoods right around its metro stops are growing whiter, wealthier and more educated. The same stretch of the Bronx that was on fire in the 1970s is now home to half-million-dollar ranch houses and tidy lawns.
That’s to say nothing of violent crime, which has fallen precipitously since the 1990s all across the country. Though homicide rates are up over the past year in places like Chicago, American cities on the whole are far safer today than they were in the 1970s.
Over this same time, both blacks and the poor have been moving in large numbers to the suburbs. Today, more of metropolitan America’s poor live in the suburbs than in cities. Chicago, frequently mentioned by Mr. Trump, lost 17 percent of its black population between 2000 and 2010 alone. Nationwide, a majority of blacks in large metropolitan areas now live in the suburbs, a huge demographic shift, particularly among the black middle class.
And as they have moved out, in some gentrifying neighborhoods, the rich have been moving in.
“Inner city,” in short, is imprecise in describing today’s urban reality. It captures neither the true geography of poverty or black America, nor the quality of life in many communities located in central cities. But politically, its 1970s-era meaning lingers.
“I think it’s actually very useful, and it’s useful as a synonym for ‘black,’ ” said N. D.B. Connolly, a historian at Johns Hopkins University who never uses the phrase himself. It doesn’t matter, he says, that the term as Mr. Trump uses it is no longer demographically accurate.
“The point is, it doesn’t have to be, because what it does is it conjures a narrative about what happened in American during and after the 1960s,” Mr. Connolly said. “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.”
The phrase can also imply, Mr. Connolly argues, that the problems of “inner cities” are of their own making — and are not the result of decades of policies that withheld mortgages, sanctioned discrimination or undermined schools. It might be more accurate to call them “disinvested neighborhoods.” That language acknowledges that society actively chose to withhold investment from these places (but that not all urban neighborhoods suffered that fate). Or “neighborhoods of concentrated poverty” might be a better phrase: If what we really want to talk about is deep poverty, this recognizes that it can be found anywhere, whether in rural Appalachia, suburbia or Detroit.
Mr. Trump, to be fair, is far from alone in using “inner city” this way. Two years ago, it got Paul Ryan in trouble, when members of the Congressional Black Caucus accused him of dog-whistling in comments on the “inner-city” culture of men who don’t work. Bernie Sanders also alked about “inner cities,” in trying to make the case for investing in them. President Obama has deployed the phrase himself. Just a few weeks ago, at the dedication of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, he said, “A museum alone will not alleviate poverty in every inner city or every rural hamlet.”
In invoking the phrase like that, the president isn’t using it as a synonym for all black experience, the way Mr. Trump was accused of doing (many of the “inner city” comments Sunday night came in response to a black questioner at the town-hall-style debate — who did not ask anything related to the topic).
But in any context, it is hard to shake the phrase’s association with an era when American cities looked very different than they do today.
“It’s just a wrong term to use descriptively, proscriptively,” Mr. Connolly said. “All it does is reach the ears of white voters in a particular way.”