Contributor III


Did You Know?: The History of the Term "Inner City" and Its Discriminatory Origins


Although "Inner City" is often used interchangeably with "urban area" or in reference to low-income regions within cities, most Americans are unaware of its origins in organized segregation by the United States government. 


Today is the first post of the new "Did You Know?" series, where I will take deep dives into the histories, changing perceptions, and socio-cultural context of different things characterized by topics. The topic for this post and its succeeding posts is communication: Music, Culture, Words, Wording, and Slang. 


History: The Origins of the Term


Racial housing policies in the United States date back over 100 years and still exist today. 


In 1908, the Los Angeles City Council adopted the first official racial zoning code in the country which was followed by Baltimore in 1910 and New York City in 1916. 


In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled that a zoning ordinance in Louisville prohibited the sale of property to Black and White buyers in "each other's" neighborhoods was unconstitutional.


In the years following the ruling, however, many cities adopted zoning ordinances designed to have the same effect as the Louisville ordinance but without explicitly mentioning race, acting as a loophole around the new legislature. 


These ordinances, known as de facto segregation¹ ordinances, often prohibited multifamily housing or required substantial minimum lot sizes, making it difficult for low-income people and people of color to live in "White neighborhoods."


At this time, the federal government promoted single-family housing as an act against communism to White Americans as a fear-inducing tactic during the first Red Scare ². Migration out of big cities and into large homes in frequently suburban areas was a precursor for the more significant migration out of cities in the years to come. 


Almost ten years later, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of zoning ordinances in the landmark case "Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co." The lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of a zoning ordinance in Euclid, Ohio, which prohibited the construction of apartment buildings in single-family residential neighborhoods.


The 6-3 decision ruled that the Ambler Realty Co, claims were insufficient, paving the way for the widespread adoption of restrictive zoning ordinances across the United States.


Then, in the 1950s, ideological shifts caused by the Cold War ³ as well as the enactment of federal housing policies such as the National Interstate Defense Highways Act led to further segregation of cities caused by a “white flight” out of cities and into suburbs, and birthing the term Inner City, as it had begun to be used in White middle-class circles.


So, who used the term Inner City? Who did those people refer to in conversations about Inner Cities? What did the term mean in the context that people used it? When and where did conversations about Inner Cities take place? Why was the term used?


Historical Usage: What the Term Meant


Who: White, typically middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans. 


What: The term often referred to low-income, Black, urban neighborhoods.


When/ Where: This term was used across the board, from political propaganda to common conversation. 


Why: It was a way to otherize and dehumanize the people who lived in inner cities, and to justify the migration out of these communities.


Modern Usage: What the Term Means Now


Today, the term “Inner City” continues to be used to signify Black and low-income neighborhoods. 


In 2016, Donald Trump used the term Inner City to describe "ghettos," stating, "And we're going to work on our g-ghettos, are so–… you take a look at what's going on, whether you have pockets of, areas of land where you have the inner cities and you have so many things, so many problems."


He also stated, “They're a disaster education-wise, job-wise, safety-wise, in every way possible… You walk down the street, you get shot.”


Donald Trump, as well as many other politicians and influential figures, use the term to create a monolithic image of urban poverty and crime.


A 2016 New York Times article argued that this image is often based on the historical conditions of "Inner Cities" in the mid-20th century when these areas endured marginally high poverty rates, crime, and racial segregation. This is untrue and can be deemed as such when going over the demographics of poverty, crime, and racial diversity in these areas. 




Before I reflect on what I have learned about the term and its history, here’s a question for the reader: Do you think that the term Inner City should be used?


Based on its propagandized undertone and discriminatory history, I firmly believe that Inner City is a term that is archaic and inappropriate.


Nevertheless, we must have conversations about its history; we must understand the context of the term and others like it to have productive conversations as changemakers. In other words, we must understand the entire scope of problems before working toward their solutions. 


Let this article, and the ones subsequent to in this series, be a reminder of history– of the truth. Join me in rejecting the use of the term Inner City and raising awareness about its origins. We must continue to educate ourselves and others about history and its lingering effects in our society. Together, we can work towards a more equitable and just future for all.



¹: “Racial segregation, the splitting of communities into racial groups in housing, education, and other uses of community spaces and civic life, is legally understood to be either de jure - resulting from the actions of the state, or de facto - occurring through natural preference or happenstance” (Ivey).


²: “During the Red Scare of 1919-1920, many in the United States feared recent immigrants and dissidents, particularly those who embraced communist, socialist, or anarchist ideology” (MA SJC).


³: “[The Cold War was an] open yet restricted rivalry that developed after World War II between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies. The Cold War was waged on political, economic, and propaganda fronts and had only limited recourse to weapons” (Britannica 2023).


⁴: “[White flight is] the sudden or gradual large-scale migration of White people from areas becoming more racially or ethnoculturally diverse” (Wikipedia 2023). 

⁵: “Otherizing is thinking, talking, and treating other people as if they belong to a different class of humans different from ourselves” (Barkacs 2021).




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