The Real State of America’s Inner Cities


The New York Times ran a piece in today’s paper about the state of America’s inner cities – and of course Donald Trump. Their conclusion is that the landscape of America’s cities, and of American blacks – the “inner city” is clearly a racially loaded term – is complex.

I agree with that. I’ve classified America’s cities into three major buckets: elite/vertical success cities like New York, workday/horizontal success cities like Dallas-Ft. Worth, and struggling cities like Youngstown or Flint.

There’s no one size fits all model of cities. Some cities like New York indeed have become amazingly successful. But it’s also true that many post-industrial cities remain in terrible shape.

Even within the successful cities, there are immense divisions. Chicago is booming in its downtown and North Side. But the South and West Sides are seriously struggling.

Black America also has a complex landscape. Highly educated blacks are doing very well. It’s an under-reported story that upscale suburbs like Carmel, Indiana and Overland Park, Kansas are seeing strong black population growth and population share growth, although the totals in both cases remain modest. Cities like Houston, Atlanta, and Charlotte are becoming magnets of black middle class. The black population is also strongly suburbanizing, part of the general trend of the diversification of the suburbs. The South retains a significant rural black population.

But undoubtedly black poverty remains a big issue, both in cities and in suburbs. Black America as a whole remains far behind white America in economic success. Last I checked, black median household income was around $35,000, compared with $57,000 for whites. The wealth gap was even more stark, with the black household median at only $7,000 compared with $111,000 for whites.

So the idea that America’s cities are uniformly decayed or that black America is uniformly failing isn’t accurate, but it certainly is true that significant portions are dealing with bigtime problems.

Where did Trump get his ideas about America’s cities? The media have seemed to suggest he’s simply holding on to outdated 1970s stereotypes. But that seems unlikely. He lives in Manhattan and started building there in the 70s. He knows the difference.

It’s pretty obvious where Trump got the idea that inner cities and black America are in bad shape. He got it from urban progressives themselves.

In the last two years the urbanist discourse has been increasingly dominated by racial issues: Black Lives Matter, housing discrimination and segregation, income inequality, and a general arguing that American society is saturated with racism that is the cause of many and pervasive ills in the black community.

It’s only now, after Trump said basically, “I agree”, that all of a sudden people start talking about this complex, nuanced landscape. Urban progressives need to take an accounting of how they have been talking about things too.

The idea that Trump is intending to denigrate the inner city is obviously false. He uses the same type of rhetoric about “disasters” and such when talking about white working class industrial and mining towns. His whole point is  that the people in these places are victims of a venal and incompetent elite. He surely means the same thing in describing inner cities.

The difference is that he found a rhetoric that resonated with working class whites. That same rhetoric is not resonating with working class blacks. What poor whites interpreted as a validation of their worth, many blacks have interpreted as a denigration of their accomplishments in the face of adversity.  Trump will never win the leadership class in cities. But if he’s serious about wanting to help these communities, clearly on his to do list is finding new rhetoric that speaks to the rank and file urban black community in a way that resonates.

As for the word “carnage,” I don’t know how else to describe what’s happening in Chicago. The global media have been full of front page type stories over the last two years about the horrific violence there, and justifiably so. I agree completely with critics that Chicago’s police department is in dire need of reform. The lack of internal reforms there may explain a lot of the difference in the crime trajectory of Chicago vs. NYC and LA. But the attempts to explain away what’s going on in Chicago – nowhere near historic highs! St. Louis has a higher murder rate! – is unbecoming. It is a legitimate disaster.

There also does remain an immense amount of work to do on integrating blacks into mainstream American success. One mind-boggling factoid that I saw recently came from Mitch Daniels’ open letter to the Purdue University community.  It says that only about 100 black high school grads a year in the entire state of Indiana have GPAs and test scores at the average level of Purdue freshmen. Last year Purdue only admitted 26 total students of all races from Indianapolis Public Schools.

Mitch is making it his business to do something about it. Purdue is planning to open its own high school in Indianapolis to try to better prepare black students for college.

America as a whole needs to do the same. Regardless of who or what is to blame, black Americans, and others left behind in our highly unequal cities, are our fellow citizens whom we should care about as neighbors. Integrating them fully into mainstream success is an imperative.

Trump isn’t wrong that there are big problems that need to be faced. The challenge I’d put to him is to engage seriously on the many complex structural challenges involved. Some problems – rebuilding water and sewer infrastructure, which is a dire need – really are “simple” problems of engineering and money. Many others like policing are not.

In the near term, he needs to put his branding, A/B testing, etc. skills to work, and rebuild the way he talks about cities and the black community. That will be one test of how serious he is about rebuilding America’s inner cities.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo: Flint River in Flint Michigan


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You're overthinking it

Renn states in his second line that the issue is "complex." From reports coming out of the White House, it appears Trump doesn't do complex.

Most city mayors are Democrats. It is more likely a shot at them.

Richard T. Reep, AIA, LEED-AP
Adjunct Professor, Rollins College

Integration into mainstream?

Twice you mention "integrating blacks into mainstream American success" as the proper object of our efforts. But "mainstream American success" is just another way of saying "white success" at least to black activists who see white privilege and white supremacy everywhere they look. My understanding of black activism today is precisely that it has no desire to "integrate into mainstream American success." Yes, blacks want to be successful; they want to live in nice houses in nice neighborhoods and have enough income to afford such things, just like everyone else. But they don't necessarily want to live and work in proximity to whites, within places where the white presence dominates, within institutions established and peopled by whites. This sentiment can be seen more and more frequently, When pressed, most blacks will say that they just want white people to be different, to be transformed, to be "welcoming" and "inclusive" (quotes because I really don't know what these words mean), to not be racists even passively or unawares. But on closer examination what they are in fact saying is that to have to live and work within a white mainstream; to have to succeed within a mainstream whose criteria for success and methods for attaining it are criteria and methods associated with, endemic to, white people; to have to conform to expectations of white people, whether neighbors, employers, professors; even to just feel that this is what they must do whether or not anyone is overtly demanding it of them; all of this is simply impossible. Not every single black person feels or believes this, of course. But the specifically "black" voice these days seems to me to be unequivocal on this point. If I am right, then policies and attitudes directed toward integrating blacks into mainstream American success are bound to produce more hostility and resentment and fail in their intended effect.