By John (J.D.) Roberts | with thanks to NewBlackMan
Wednesday, June 13, 2012.
On a recent trip back from a Hampton Roads vacation, I saw a black family setting up a barbeque on their rural front lawn in Snow Hill, Maryland. They seemed to have it all; a nice pleasant house, a green front lawn, an open porch, and a (seemingly) happy tight-knit family. I had not really given this scene much thought until a few weeks after I had gotten home from this vacation. I saw a few news stories discussing the plight of an “inner city” school somewhere in the U.S., which then made me question what the term “inner city” really meant. The term “inner city” is a relic of American history, transformed/remixed to denote two things: dysfunction and a place where people of color live. It is a loaded term, filled with bullsh*t, and we as thinking acting caring Americans should reject it every time we hear it.
I chose the term bullsh*t purposefully here to illustrate a point. In Harry G. Frankfurt’s philosophy text On Bullsh*t, the meaning of the word bullsh*t gets explored to its fullest extent. When Frankfurt discusses bullsh*t’s relation to humbug, he uses a scenario of the orator discussing the Founding Fathers at a July 4th celebration. In Frankfurt’s case study, the orator’s glowing prose about the Founding Fathers did not have basis in knowledge or factual accuracy, but rooted itself in what the orator wanted the crowd to think about him and his patriotism. The essence of the word “bullsh*t” boils down to using language and statements that “keep up appearances,” much like the term “inner city” does.
The “inner city” allows the listener/reader to imagine whatever/wherever they like, no matter how loaded and nebulous the term actually is. “Inner city” describes a place in seemingly precise geographic terms, but is also used to describe groups of people, certain aspects of culture, or activities as well. It means everything and nothing; it allows the purveyor and audience’s perceptions of the word to be vague, but it is never used to describe one place: poor and working class white urban spaces.
The “inner city’s” identity as “not white” is not the only concern. Barring stories of miraculous salvation and escape, when was the last time a newspaper printed a positive story about the “inner city” (“Inner city Philadelphia: What a Great Place To Raise a Family”)? They have not because there are supposedly no good stories coming out of the “inner city” without intervention from outside. When was the last time a poor white urban space was called the “inner city” (Bostonians who are familiar with Charlestown can hopefully give me an amen here)? The term “inner city” almost begs for a ridiculous Seinfeldian comedy routine asking something like, “Where does the inner city end and the outer city begin?”
This line of thinking eventually leads to the second reason why the term “inner city” should be considered bullsh*t: the term is incredibly concerned with sincerity. As Frankfurt states in his text, in our postmodern world, feigning sincerity has replaced the quest for correctness. Truth has been superseded by the intent or appearance of being sincere, polite, caring, and compassionate. Therefore, the term “inner city,” a catch all term for the alleged dysfunction of people of color living in a decaying urban setting functions both as a weapon for those in a position of power and authority and as a prison of sincerity and compassion for those living in these urban areas deemed “inner city.” Where do these ideas of urban spaces originate though?
White flight out of urban spaces after World War II is a well known phenomenon, (and I will not cover it too deeply here) but this flight is important to note as a product of older historical undercurrents and social thought. Automobility and America’s Interstate Highway System allowed (primarily) white Americans to flee America’s cities to live in newly created suburbs with their families and drive to work in the increasingly abandoned cities. The urge to flee these urban settings has always been a part of America’s history though. Early in its history, New York City symbolized the filth, depravity, decay, crime and sickening conditions early cities generally had to offer.
By the 1830s, New York City was a city that could not offer its citizens adequate water resources, sanitation, or health care, and did not believe it had a duty to as a city. By the 1850s and 1860s, people such as Charles Loring Brace started promoting the health benefits of rural living, sometimes nefariously/forcibly moving children out of cities and into the country through his Children’s Aid Society. These relocated children worked on the farms of rural (white) foster families in an effort to promote clean living, work, and a healthy lifestyle. According to Brace and the majority of his contemporaries, the city was a corrupting element, particularly to children.
Books such as Herbert Asbury’s retrospective book The Gangs of New York surveyed not only the crime-ridden streets of New York City in the 19th century, but also the disgusting, unhealthy and putrid conditions people lived in. Designers such as Frederick Law Olmsted not only designed Central Park, but planned suburbs as well to provide spaces for people to leave the unhealthy living of urban communities. They hoped that trees, greenscapes and rural air would revive the spirit and lives of (white) Americans.
Moving forward to the beginning of the post World War II flights out of cities by whites, authors like Mickey Spillane created characters such as Mike Hammer, a hard boiled private investigator that cleaned the urban streets of scum and vice with his Colt 45. American culture has continually inculcated in its citizenry from the very beginning that urban living is unhealthy, unnatural and creates pathology.
So with this historical background in place, we now return to the term “inner city.” People of color in America, particularly Black Americans, have become inextricably linked to the term, which also inherently links blackness in general to the so-called “inner city.” Since the city has also traditionally symbolized dysfunction and unhealthy living, blackness, by its connection with the term “inner city” has become intertwined with dysfunction in America. This subtle intertwining of racial identity with geography and living space can obviously be carried even further to examine the much used (often hated) term “ghetto,” which has and still could fill many tomes with its interrogation, investigation, and inquiry. Additionally, by extension, terms like “urban radio” have replaced the term “black radio” that prevailed in the 1960s through the 1980s, further essentializing blackness with urbanity.
This is not to say blackness or Latino identity are never connected to rural living, but often, those connections to rurality are also portrayed negatively, spelling rural poverty in the Deep South for Black Americans, or in the case of Latinos, agricultural work on the West Coast. Media depictions of rural blackness in America often follow these tropes, rarely straying to depict a well-rounded rural blackness (Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins), or the impressive ranch holdings of some Latinos in the Western U.S.
I am not saying that Black Americans should listen to Arrested Development and head down to Tennessee. I am not saying people of color should eschew their urban environs. What I am saying though is all Americans should recognize the power of terms like “inner city” because these terms are incredibly powerful forms of bullsh*t. They essentialize groups of people. They help create dominant narratives. They influence economic, political, social and security decisions regarding groups of people. At the “speed of stereotype,” groups of people are generalized, rationalized and have decisions made for them based on false assumptions derived from loaded words and terms. These terms help institute phony social contracts based on feigned sincerity and false compassion, which then lulls people into a sense of cooperation and participation in their own oppression and subjugation. This is why words matter.
We must reject bullsh*t at every turn because it breeds complacency and subtly encourages cooperation with oppressive state agendas and the status quo. I would argue there is no “inner city,” and we should allow no bullsh*t term to replace its role as a placeholder for geographically-oriented racism and oppression. Furthermore, the rural black family I saw in Snow Hill, Maryland deserves to represent the rich complex tapestry of blackness just as much as the black family from Brooklyn, Houston, Atlanta, or Chicago does in the minds, media, and cultural representations of America.
John (J.D.) Roberts is a PhD student in the History Dept at UMass-Amherst. He focuses on drug trafficking history in Latin America, but has researched and written on a wide array of issues globally, particularly globalization and illegality.
 Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullsh*t (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 17-19.
 Ibid., pg. 65.