Top photo credit: The Boston Herald
“We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot… And I’m saying, where is this? Is this a war-torn country?”
Donald Trump said this and similar statements during his run for president, and given his track record, it’s unlikely that he’s moderated this view after taking office. Trump thinks that America’s black communities are “a disaster education-wise, jobwise, safety-wise, in every way possible.” He asks black Americans, “What do you have to lose? It can’t get any worse” as a rallying cry to vote him into office. He claims that illegal immigrants roam through the streets, armed killers each, “and they shoot people.” Meanwhile, in his view the police are entirely crippled. They can no longer pursue violent criminals because they’re “afraid to do anything.” It all sounds very bad, but don’t worry. Donald Trump can fix all of it. He can restore law and order and bring jobs, education, and safety back to what he calls “America’s inner cities.”
In the last two parts of this series, we’ve covered everything from the L.A. riots to Ferguson, to Black Lives Matter and the ongoing dysfunction in many of the country’s police departments. We have followed how conservative punditry has covered these events, distorting them into a narrative can be used to comfortably mask the racism inherent in America’s institutions. The president of the United States only reads conservative punditry, and the more firebrand it is, the more he appears to like it. Trump does not believe that American police departments have problems with implicit bias. He probably doesn’t believe that a disproportionate number of black men are fatally shot by police. But he pays lip service nonetheless to America’s “inner cities” and offers economic and institutional reforms that he promises will fix them.
When Donald Trump says “inner cities,” he means black people.
Strictly speaking, America’s inner cities are doing extremely well. Crime rates are falling, for the most part. Home values have risen faster than anywhere else in the country over the last 25 years. Gentrification is accompanied by droves of wealthy young people, most of whom are white. Take Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, for example: It’s a “nationally iconic black neighborhood” and in recent years an “unsettling symbol of inner-city decay.” Now, however, it’s rejuvenated by “cafes, clothing galleries, expensively renovated homes and factories converted into upscale lofts.” Or look at the Bronx: historically it may fit Donald Trump’s characterization of the “inner city,” but now it’s a fount of wealthy hipsters. The fact of the matter is that when Trump talks about inner cities, he’s not thinking geographically.
There’s really no getting around Trump’s real point when he talks about the inner city. N.D.B. Connolly, a historian at Johns Hopkins states that the phrase is “useful as a synonym for black.” Connolly notes that “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.” It was L.A. during the riots. It was Ferguson during the protests. For many white people, “inner city” has come to be synonymous with many of these events. Trump uses this now inaccurate term to frighten his rural supporters, “who have little experience in inner cities,” with memories of days when “the Bronx was burning and black uprisings roiled many major metropolitan areas.”
Having established that by “inner cities,” Trump means “black people,” we can now address his claims. First, if the inner cities are “a disaster education-wise,” Trump must mean that black Americans are not receiving education. This is untrue: in 2015, 87 percent of black Americans older than 25 had received at least a high-school diploma. Additionally, the percentage of black Americans with a college education is also on the rise. The figures are far from perfect, but they are improving steadily and they do not resemble “a disaster.”
What about poverty? Trump claimed that “African-Americans now 45 percent poverty in inner cities.” The poverty rate among blacks was actually 24.1 percent. While this rate compares unfavorably with a 9.1 percent rate among whites, it is very far away from Trump’s 45 percent claim. Is Trump at least right when he says, “jobs are essentially nonexistent”? Not even close. During the recession, the unemployment rate among blacks was 16.8 percent. In 2016, that number had reduced to 8.3 percent. Again, this rate compares unfavorably with that among whites, 4.4 percent.
Two patterns distinctly emerge from this data. The first is that Donald Trump is wrong on every single point, which either means that he’s unwittingly quoting false data, or more likely, that he’s simply lying to foment anger among his white supporters. The second is that black Americans have significantly higher unemployment and poverty rates than white Americans. Even though the rates dwindle lower each passing year, there’s still an unacceptable economic disparity between these two groups of people.
But, this is unfortunate part of the story where we have to acknowledge that, to some degree, Donald Trump is right. While around half of all black people in the U.S. now live in suburban or rural areas, some do still reside in poor metropolitan areas. In places like Chicago and Baltimore, for example, real problems do indeed exist in predominantly black areas.
Chicago has always been a segregated city.
Trump’s exemplary “inner cities” are usually the most recent ones to scroll across his newsfeed. Back in 2014, they were Ferguson and Oakland, each of which had been making national headlines (there was a murder in Oakland that Trump used to support his claim). Since then, Chicago has come to serve as the newest poster child for Trump’s inner city observations. Its frequently publicized homicide rate is usually Trump’s main point in speaking about the city and demonstrating the need for more stringent policing methods.
But Chicago is an extremely segregated city, and tackling its problems is going to take much more than just brute force. Solving Chicago’s problems means unraveling a dense web of historical discrimination against blacks that stretches all the way back to the civil war.
Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds his readers that slavery didn’t strictly end with the civil war—it took new forms during the era of Jim Crow, but it remained no less potent. Many blacks, fearing the lynch mobs and former slaveholders of the South, journeyed north to cities like Chicago. There, they fell into the hands of contract peddlers. Coates tells the story of Clyde Ross, a black man who purchased a home on contract in North Lawndale, Chicago, for $27,500. The contract salesman had purchased the home for half that amount six months earlier, and was bent on selling it to a black family for an unreasonably high price. But he sold the home “on contract,” which meant that Ross had “all of the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting,” without the benefits of either. Ross would need to pay his monthly bill on time, and since he accrued no equity, if he missed a payment “he would immediately forfeit his $1,000 down payment, all his monthly payments, and the property itself.”
Clyde Ross’s mistreatment was not anomalous. Contract salesman knew precisely what they were doing. The business strategy was to “sell homes at inflated prices and then evict families who could not pay—taking their down payment and their monthly installments as profit. Then they’d bring in another black family, rinse, and repeat.” It was a very lucrative business, since black contract buyers often couldn’t pay a monthly and had no legal recourse to oppose the contract salesmen.
Real estate reflects and reinforces patterns of discrimination especially in places like Chicago. Black homeowners in white neighborhoods in the 1950s genuinely decreased property values. This was partly because of widespread racism against blacks, but it also reflected federal policy. Discrimination against blacks didn’t just come from predatory realtors; systemic prejudice came from the highest levels of government.
As a part of the New Deal to combat the Great Depression, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration in 1934. Their purpose was to insure private mortgages, “causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house.” Ideally, this would make homeownership more feasible for many Americans. But the FHA decided to evaluate where private mortgages represented secure investments by rating neighborhoods “according to their perceived stability.” Good neighborhoods were colored green. Bad neighborhoods were colored red.
This practice is known as redlining, and as you might have already guessed, it was riddled with racism. A green, A-class neighborhood was, as an appraiser put it, without “a single foreigner or negro.” Black areas were almost always red, D-class neighborhoods. They were not eligible for FHA loans, which in turn made property values in black neighborhoods decline further. Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro write in their book Black Wealth/White Wealth:
“Cut off from sources of new investment, their homes and communities deteriorated and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that FHA appraisers deemed desirable.”
Since the FHA evaluated an area’s eligibility for loans based on how many “foreigners” or “negroes” lived there, the presence of even a single black family in a mostly white neighborhood actually decreased home values. This is textbook systemic racism: Discrimination in the federal government was creating an environment where black people, just by living somewhere, reduced that property’s value.
This systemic prejudice was profitable and exploitable for the contract salesmen, who resorted to a tactic called “block-busting.” They would convince white homeowners in areas next to redlined neighborhoods that black families would soon be moving in on their block. As such, the white homeowner’s house was about to depreciate in value precipitously, so the contract salesmen would take it off their hands for cheap. That being done, the salesman would sell the property at an inflated rate to a black family, the neighbors’ property values would decline, and the contract buyer could purchase more houses at cheap prices.
The history of redlining and blockbusting is a case study in how discrimination and racism have permeated the federal government, but it is far from the only case. Interestingly enough, Donald Trump calls his plan to “fix” America’s black communities the “New Deal for Black America.” Evidently, he never bothered to discover that many blacks were specifically excluded from the original New Deal:
“The omnibus programs passed under the Social Security Act in 1935 were crafted in such a way as to protect the southern way of life. Old-age insurance… and unemployment insurance excluded farmworkers and domestics—jobs heavily occupied by blacks. When President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935, 65 percent of African Americans nationally and between 70 to 80 percent in the South were ineligible.”
The same goes for the GI bill, which, although it made no reference to race, essentially excluded all blacks from benefitting from it. This pattern of finding a way to exclude black Americans from these bills is still continuing, even today. The Affordable Care Act, for example, also makes no reference of race. However, its “expansion of Medicaid was effectively made optional, meaning that many poor blacks in the former Confederate states do not benefit from it.”
Discriminatory salesmen are also not a thing of the past. During the recession in 2009, “black home buyers—even after controlling for factors like creditworthiness—were still more likely than white home buyers to be steered toward subprime loans.” This is best exemplified by Wells Fargo, which “shunted blacks into predatory loans” and hired loan officers who referred to “their black customers as ‘mud people’ and to their subprime products as ‘ghetto loans.’”
Finally, discrimination in housing is far from gone. When a federal housing act in 1949 provided Chicago with the opportunity build housing projects, “more than 98 percent of all the family public-housing units… were built in all-black neighborhoods.” This created what Arnold Hirsch called “a second ghetto.” The idea that black renters reduce property values has endured to this day, and now the president of the United States appears to be its beneficiary. In 1950, the National Association of Real Estate Boards introduced a code of ethics that stated, “a realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood…any race, nationality, or any individual whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.” This code of ethics was obviously not lost on Donald Trump and his father, whose company was sued by the Department of Justice for regularly denying apartments to prospective black tenants. Trump settled the case, but the Department of Justice only a few years later discovered that while Trump’s company was renting to more black families, it was also only placing them in a small number of complexes, where they could effectively be segregated from white renters.
All of these predatory, discriminatory practices have contributed to Chicago’s modern reality. The city is extremely segregated, with many neighborhoods that are entirely black, and many that are entirely white. The legacy of racism in the 20th century has clearly marked Chicago’s redlined neighborhoods. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of North Lawndale, the area targeted by contract salesmen, as it exists now:
“According to the most-recent statistics, North Lawndale is now on the wrong end of virtually every socioeconomic indicator. In 1930 its population was 112,000. Today it is 36,000… The neighborhood is 92 percent black. Its homicide rate is 45 per 100,000—triple the rate of the city as a whole. The infant mortality rate is 14 per 1,000—more than twice the national average. Forty-three percent of the people in North Lawndale live below the poverty line—double Chicago’s overall rate. Forty-five percent of households are on food stamps—nearly three times the rate of the city at large.”
North Lawndale more closely resembles Donald Trump’s characterization of the inner city. Years of systemic racism and discriminatory federal policies have left the neighborhood derelict. And here is where Donald Trump is right in at least one way: neighborhoods like North Lawndale in Chicago have a serious problem with violence.
Violence in certain Chicago neighborhoods is out of control.
Over Memorial Day weekend in Chicago in 2016, 64 people were shot. One of them was white. Eleven were Latino. The remaining 52 victims of gun violence during one single weekend in Chicago were black. Almost all of them were men. They were shot in cars or on sidewalks and front porches. Six people were fatally wounded.
Violence at this scale is not unprecedented. In 2015, homicide rates in the nation’s 100 largest cities rose. Half of this increase can be traced to only seven cities: Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville, and Washington. Of these seven cities, Chicago had the most homicides with 488. Compare this to New York City, a city three times as large, which only recorded 352 homicides in 2015.
But to say that Chicago had 488 homicides isn’t exactly true. Chicago on the whole remains a relatively safe place to live. In fact, a full fifth of all the killings in Chicago came from two police districts, which happen to be housed in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The murder rate in these neighborhoods rose in 2016 by 45 percent, and the violence shows no signs of improvement. Some experts claim that the rise in violent crime is attributable to the Ferguson unrest, which made policing practices less strict. This claim is not well evaluated. More reasonable explanations take the outrage at the killing of black men by the police as one contributing factor among many. Other reasons why Chicago’s violence is escalating include “long standing conditions of alienation, hopelessness, poverty and lack of opportunities.” These causes seem to be the more likely explanation for why violent crime continues to wrack poor Chicago neighborhoods.
Another reason for Chicago’s large homicide rate is gun policy. For a long time, Chicago was regarded as a bastion of strict gun laws, and used by conservative commentators as an example for how stringent anti-gun legislation fails to cut back on violent crime. However, in the last few years, Chicago has become “more lenient about illegal handguns.” Its ban on handgun ownership was repealed in 2010, as was its ban on handgun sales in 2014. These changes in Chicago gun law have resulted in a city where, as Jens Ludwig, director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago says, “Everyone has to establish deterrence on a retail basis… People carry guns in public because other people are carrying guns. It’s literally an arms race.”
While gun violence rages out of control, so too does inequality. In 2016 the Brookings Institute released a study that found that declining incomes were exacerbating metropolitan inequality. For poorer neighborhoods, this means few tax dollars go to public services, like the police. When the police are underfunded, they are unable to take every call and respond only to the worst problems. This means that many citizens receive no assistance when they call their local police, which only serves to heighten distrust between the police and their community.
Unless the United States government is willing to seriously examine issues like inequality, segregation, and violent crime in Chicago, it’s probable that these trends will only continue. Donald Trump has promised many times to “fix” impoverished black neighborhoods, but his proposals are lackluster at best.
Trump’s plans to help poor black communities won’t work.
To start with the most simple of his propositions, Trump’s ideas on how to cut down on violent crime are always built on the concept of overpolicing. During the first presidential debate, he spoke at length about his admiration for the stop and frisk policy, and he voiced support for trying it in Chicago. The president also stated that stop in frisk had worked “very well in New York,” which is a lie. A federal judge in 2013 ruled that stop and frisk was a discriminatory, and therefore unconstitutional, policy. But Trump has never been deterred by the constitutionality of his proposals, so perhaps he should remember that “since New York City has abandoned stop and frisk… crime rates have not gone up.” Donald Trump is one of the few people who could possibly believe stop and frisk in New York was a success story.
One of the few others happens to be in his government. Jeff Sessions, the new Attorney General, peddles everything from drug enforcement to the “Ferguson effect.” Ignoring every statistical measure, Jeff Sessions called the increase in violent crime “the beginning of a trend” (despite all evidence showing violent crime’s steady fall for the last twenty years). Sessions went on to argue that law enforcement should return to “broken windows” policing and cracking down on marijuana possession. Both of these tactics are shown to be less effective than community-oriented policing practices. Finally, in regards to the clearly disproportionate number of black men killed by police, Sessions called such cases “anecdotal.” It seems as though the attorney general always believes the exact opposite of what the numbers tell.
Donald Trump has also threatened to “send in the feds” in order to stamp out Chicago’s gun violence. Most experts agree that this strategy would only lead to escalation in violence, and that the better idea would be to direct “federal funding to Chicago police to increase the size of its workforce. Washington could also provide equipment” or “additional money to fund community policing programs.”
Trump has on several occasions promised infusions of funding into America’s poor neighborhoods, money that he will find in a newly refurbished federal budget. At a rally in Charlotte in November, Trump promised $100 billion for investment in infrastructure in America’s poor communities. He would find the $100 billion by cutting funding for climate change initiatives. Among the initiatives he wants to cut is the environmental justice office, which “provides grants to communities to mop up toxins and rehabilitate abandoned industrial facilities.” The loss of this program, and others like it, would disproportionately hurt communities of color. Trump is basically promising funding to help black Americans by gutting funding that helps black Americans.
Meanwhile, Ben Carson, the new head of Housing and Urban Development, “has vowed to deeply cut federal funding to programmes that make housing affordable.” In New York City, where more than 700,000 people live in federal housing, this proposal would be devastating. New York City councilman Richie Torres told NPR that the New York City Housing Authority is already short about $17 billion that it needs for basic infrastructure upkeep. If Carson were to follow through on his threat to cut federal housing programs, many people in New York would have nowhere to go. Most cannot afford even the cheapest rent available in the city, and Torres believes that, without federal funding, 700,000 people in New York City would become homeless—that’s roughly the population of Boston. 
Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is an ardent believer in school choice initiatives. Trump has claimed that greater freedom to choose one’s school will be to the benefit of black Americans. This claim could be true—certainly, being trapped in poor public education programs leaves many students with no opportunities for a better education. However, the Christian Science Monitor notes that when residents of poor metropolitan communities are given a choice, it’s “often between low-performing public schools and alternatives such as charters or voucher dependent private schools with similar student bodies.” This is not much of a change from conventional public schooling, and it’s also the best-case scenario. Many believe that voucher programs will actually “funnel [minority] students into less selective religious schools and spur the creation of new minority-dominated private schools for voucher recipients.” That is, there’s evidence to suggest that voucher systems worsen segregation.
For all of his bluster about the “dangerous inner cities,” none of Trump’s initiatives are poised to help poor metropolitan areas at all. Neighborhoods like those in Chicago with high homicide rates will receive no aid from the federal government with these current proposals. It turns out that Trump might have been using the “inner city” solely for its shock value all along. In order to galvanize rural voters, Trump offered them an image of cities on fire and black people sinking deeper into poverty and despair. But it was at best a campaign slogan, given that nothing Donald Trump has proposed will actually do anything to help black communities that struggle with violence, education, and housing. At worst, it was a smokescreen to distract voters from the fact that Trump and his cabinet are more dedicated to hurting black communities than to helping them.
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