In a nation as sprawling and diverse as the United States, collective American life is often understood in large part by constructs, defined as ideas or theories composed of many conceptual, often subjective, pieces. Images and associations come to mind when we hear and discuss “rural” life, just as they do when “the suburbs” “New England,” or “The South” enter thought or conversation. These constructs are typically useful and often expeditious; however, when they are used as the groundwork for proposed policy approaches, they become dangerous.
One construct of American life that came into particular focus in the presidential debates was the “inner city.” This essay seeks to explain why treating the codified construct “inner city” as a real place, with homogenous populations and problems, maintains unequal power structures in our country. It will additionally aim to explain why “law and order” is not an actionable solution, but an idea crafted by and for those in power, to maintain control over our most marginalized.
Urban America has long held captive the imagination of suburban and rural America; there is a distinct otherness in the phrase “inner city” itself, an implication that separates here from there. Those gazing from those being gazed upon. Though semantically the phrase refers to an urban center, the “inner city” is not spoken of as such, but rather utilized as a codified construct embodying (and conflating) people of color, poverty, crime, and violence. When politicians say “inner city,” they are not speaking of geography. They are speaking of our poorest, brownest, and blackest communities.
Over the course of the 2015-2016 election season, Americans actively or passively engaged in something that author Chris Jennings calls “the contemplation of an ideal polis”: the reflection on what an ideal state–economically, politically, socially, and otherwise–would manifest as in our country. Contemplation of an ideal state of affairs begs participation in contemplation of our country’s greatest strengths and greatest areas of need, and a subsequent analysis of which proposed candidate could right wrongs and guide the nation to this ideal state. As Jennings notes, even thinking about what an ideal polis may look like is a civic act. Simply engaging in this type of thought process identifies and addresses areas of public concern. Through this lens, problems are seen in idealistic terms: a problem is a problem because it either comes into conflict with or exposes a dissonance between “the way things are” and “the way things should be.”
During all three Presidential debates, Donald Trump used “our inner cities”to make statements about street violence, poverty, “race relations,” and the steps our country must take to attenuate these issues. In doing so, he consistently chose to invoke the phrase “law and order” as a potential remedy to these ills. Nigerian author Chimamanda Adiche said that power is the ability to tell the definitive story of a people. The story of the “inner city”–or, what Americans have been conditioned to associate with the phrase– has long been told in a way that intentionally distances its speaker from the people and places it describes: the inner city is never spoken as such within its confines, because those confines do not exist. The distance between the powerful and the marginalized, however, is real.
To abstract something is to consider it either theoretically, or as separate from something else: if I discuss “socks” in the abstract, I may make statements such as “socks are useful,” or “socks are necessary to keep one’s feet warm.” I am not referring to any particular pair of socks that exists in reality, but rather the idea of socks, and the associations I have formed with them. If my socks have holes in them, I will not make the statements, “Socks should be stitched,” or “Just look at how awful socks are.” Both logically and semantically, the phrases do not make sense. However, if I say, “This pair of socks should be stitched,” or “Just look at how awful these socks are,” I have taken socks out of the abstract and into the concrete, and have effectively addressed the problem I was aiming to.
Similarly, if I discuss “the inner city” in the abstract, and make such statements such as “the inner city is in poor condition,” “inner city children are not receiving an education,” or “just look at our inner cities,” I am assuming that “inner city” is a concrete, real place that consists of people, places, and things that have identical needs and attributes. When Trump uses the phrase as a generic, catch-all term, he takes our low-SES communities and communities of color, and strips them of all identity that makes them beautifully and uniquely human. Once stripped, they are replaced with the dominant “inner city” associations: poverty, crime, and violence. These associations are then used as identifying markers, rather than symptoms of deeper societal ills. The people of these communities then become the problem in the eye of Americans, rather than people facing the problem.
Once a story has been told, and a group of people have been positioned as in opposition to the ideal state, law and order rhetoric can be effectively sold as a solution. Drugs and violence are no longer seen as symptomatic but as defining qualities of a people that then must be surveilled and apprehended. Law and order logic begins to make sense because drugs, violence, and crime are not sold as symptoms, but root causes inherent to the communities they plague. Citing the issues of the “inner city” says nothing of the unique socioeconomic and political histories of our marginalized communities, which have created many of the underemployed and violent issues they face. The issues are symptomatic of communities who have been systematically denied resources over great lengths of time.
Take for example: If violence ravages a community on the South Side of Chicago, one must take a look at why there is violence. Perhaps there is violence because of rival drug territory. One must take a look as to why there is drug territory to begin with. Perhaps there is drug territory because there are minimal employment and education options in the area. One must then take a look as to why there are minimal employment and education options in the area. Perhaps there are minimal opportunities because pockets of generational minority poverty were created when minorities were legally denied home loans after the creation of the FHA, and so on and so forth. The point is that root cause of a problem is generations older and far deeper than many white individuals in power care too look for.
Abstraction threatens to maintain the power of the “inner city’s” story because it sells a single image of specific communities as cancers in need of eradication rather than in need of assistance. One cannot identify the areas where a community needs help when all black, brown, and poor communities have been marked as one in inherent flaw. Their problems are made less real when they are not recognized as culturally or geographically unique, or as problems facing people who want more and better for their families. By making the problems less real, it subsequently makes it less necessary for those in positions of power to address root issues, and easier to physically and psychologically control communities. Law and order is obtuse code for keeping symptoms out of sight and out of mind through specific social control practices: stop, question, and frisk, and heavy police presence among many others. We must ask ourselves: when asked to imagine an ideal state, is more and greater police presence really in the picture? Or does the picture rather involve a minimal need for policing by providing opportunity for all?
If all we see is the violence, if all that is reported and named is the violence, then the only solution we are going to respond with is something that will keep the violence at bay. Abstracting something that involves the integrity of human life is inherently dangerous because it fails to take human need into consideration, relying more on punishment of the injustice’s symptoms, than amelioration of the injustices themselves. But when we refuse to abstract the idea–refuse to rip it from its human roots and deny the light that accompanies the dark, we confront that which has been standing in front of us all along: other people.
Image courtesy of Ian James, Flickr Creative Commons