Monday, April 10, 2006

No more "inner city"

   In an otherwise fine essay that debunks the supposed crisis of academic achievement of boys, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett wrote in the Washington Post on Sunday that a gap between girls and boys is noticeable only in rural areas and the “inner city.”  I suggest that the term “inner city” should be given its walking papers.
   Of course, “inner city” connotes a community of mostly poor urban African Americans (or today, perhaps Latinos as well).  It is a racial and socioeconomic term and thus is clearly distinguishable from the “central city,” which is a geographic term referring to the entire city at the center of a metropolitan area.  Where did “inner city” come from?  I speculate that in the civil rights era of the 1950s and1960s, northern liberals conjured up the term as a way of avoiding referring specially to race.  It enabled one to be somewhat critical without giving insult – one could refer to the “problems of the inner city.”  A drawback of using surrogates and euphemisms, however, is that one loses clarity.  Referring to the problems of the “inner city” implies that geography is at least in part to blame, which may or may not be part of the author’s point.
   “Inner city” isn’t used as much as it once was.  One obvious reason is that it simply doesn’t make much sense anymore.  If we mean to refer to the black community, we should be aware that in metro areas such as Washington or Atlanta, more than half of African Americans now live in the suburbs.  And as urban redevelopment makes close-in city living more attractive for the affluent, many geographically inner city neighborhoods are more affluent than outer city ones.  Certainly this is the case with European cities such as Paris and London, where most poor members of racial minority groups live in inconvenient suburbs, while formerly poor inner districts such as Paris’s Marais are magnets for affluent young professionals.   
   The most important reason for eschewing “inner city” is, of course, that if one means to refer to race, once should not be skittish about referring to race.         

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