Over the course of the presidential campaign, Donald Trump has repeatedly used “inner city” as a synonym for black Americans — most recently during Sunday night’s presidential town-hall debate. When James Carter, an undecided black voter, asked the Republican nominee and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, whether as president they could be devoted to all people in the United States, Trump immediately evoked the nation’s urban centers.
“I would be a president for all of the people — African Americans, the inner cities,” he said. “You go into the inner cities and you see it’s 45 percent poverty, African Americans now 45 percent poverty in the inner cities.”
Trump’s response is troubling for a couple of reasons. First, it contradicts federal data, which puts the poverty rate among black residents of metropolitan areas at 26 percent. Though that data includes suburban neighborhoods, Trump’s number exceeds the black poverty rate in even the poorest big city in the country. Fewer than 40 percent of black residents in Detroit live below the poverty line, according to census data.
Further, poverty is generally higher in rural areas, and that’s true for black Americans, too. About 37 percent of rural black residents live below the poverty line, according to the federal Economic Research Service.
Trump also conflates race and geography in a way that shows a complete misunderstanding of where black Americans live. When he equates “black” with “inner city,” he relies on a racial stereotype that ignores more than half of the country’s black residents.
For one, he neglects the country’s “Black Belt,” the swath of the rural South that is the heart of black America. Not only is that the region where the black population’s history begins; it remains home to the most concentrated populations of black Americans in the country.
The region was formed by the large cotton plantations that enslaved black Americans during the 19th century. After the Civil War, most stayed in the region, using their farming skills as sharecroppers. In total, more than 5 million black Americans — or about 14 percent — live in rural areas or small towns today, primarily in the Southeast.
Not until a few generations after emancipation did black Americans start leaving the rural South in droves, heading north to the urban centers for manufacturing jobs. It was the beginning of the six-decade Great Migration. By 1970, more than 80 percent of African Americans lived in cities.
But the population has again shifted significantly in recent decades. America’s large cities have experienced a major exodus of black residents to the suburbs. The black populations in cities long seen as the hubs of African American life have been gradually shrinking, including in Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and Oakland. Like white Americans in the decades before, as the black middle class expanded, they sought the better schools, safer neighborhoods and higher-quality resources of suburbia.
The shift has been called “black flight.” About 9 million African Americans moved to suburban areas between 1960 and 2000, Binghamton University geographer John W. Frazier wrote in his book “Race, Ethnicity and Place.” That’s millions more than participated in the Great Migration out of the South.
The exodus has accelerated with time. Now, black suburbanites outnumber those living in the city centers. According to the Brookings Institution, suburban black Americans made up 37 percent of those in metro areas in 1990. Today, they make up 51 percent.
Using “inner city” as a stand-in for “black” is even less accurate than using “suburban” as a stand-in for “white.” When Trump addresses black America by talking about urban centers, he overlooks the diversity of America’s black population and the unique issues that affect the millions who live in the rural South and the suburbs.