4 Reasons to Retire the Phrase “Inner City”

On a recent trip to Seattle, I picked up a copy of the weekly paper The Stranger. As I was browsing the news briefs, one sentence in an item on drinking water violations jumped out at me: “When you think of problems with safe drinking water, you might think of an inner-city environment like Flint, Michigan, before identifying Seattle, King County, or Washington State’s many rural communities.”

I was, at that moment, like most of The Stranger‘s regular readers: sitting smack in the middle of an unquestionably urban Seattle, surrounded by high-rises, rapid transit, and the third-worst homeless problem in the country. It’s clearly the core part of its larger region. And so I found it striking that the writer (and editors) considered “inner city” an appropriate adjective with which to describe Flint, but one that they figured everyone would agree did not apply to their own city.

What actually sets Flint apart from Seattle? Well, I think we can all answer that question: its economy is weaker, and it has a lot more Black people.

I’ve long been uncomfortable with the term “inner city,” though when I took a look, I saw that it has still come up in Shelterforce more often than I would have expected. Many people in the field have stopped using it—choosing “center city” or “core neighborhoods” when they are actually talking about proximity to a major downtown, or a certain threshold of urban density and connectivity. But it still floats around, and not only as an intentionally racist dog whistle. I’m thinking it might be time to more officially swear off it.

To start with, what it says and what it’s taken to mean don’t align. If you take “inner” to mean “closer to the downtown,” many (though not all) of those neighborhoods are becoming increasingly wealthy in many (though not all) of our cities, causing displacement of longtime residents to more far-flung locales (or the streets). While poverty is still distressingly concentrated (as is, we should always mention in the same breath, affluence), the places where poverty is concentrated are spreading out, as people with means head back into the downtowns.

So what does it mean? “Inner city” has always been a racially loaded term. When the current president used the “inner cities” repeatedly in debates (and really, isn’t that enough of a reason to retire the phrase?) he linked it explicitly to African Americans (and lies about poverty and crime rates), even though African Americans no longer primarily live in cities, and their populations are going down in many parts.

“Inner city” is a euphemism that lets us ignore history by making the results of long-term racist policies sound like an accident of geography (“you know those Americans just like their suburbs”) at best, and by blaming the victim at worst (“the people left behind must have been the ones causing the problems that made everyone else leave”).

“Inner city,” in effect, has meant the areas to which Black Americans were—and in many ways still are—long confined by redlining and other forms of legal and illegal housing discrimination, and then subjected to substandard services, isolationist planning moves, and aggressive containment policing. So in New York City, the Bronx was the quintessential “inner-city neighborhood,” despite it being, literally, in an “outer” borough, with much wealthier neighborhoods between it and the center of the city. (There’s a reason we don’t hear about “inner-city Portland” very much, and it’s not their urban growth boundary.)

“Inner city” means, I’d argue, places where Black people have been kept “in.”

The very fact that the term has become less common as white people with means “rediscover” core urban neighborhoods speaks volumes about what it actually meant to begin with.

It’s true that at least a few community development organizations have reclaimed the term with pride, even putting it in their names, as a way to signal that the places that once got that label can actually be thriving, healthy neighborhoods, worth of respect and investment. I respect that sort of reclaiming. 

But I do think that outside of that context, the euphemistic nature of “inner city” could be specifically dangerous to the community development field—its imprecision could both let us overlook how much our work is needed in areas that have not traditionally gotten that label, and sidestep the root causes of the distress the field tries to alleviate. In other words, if we imagine we’re working on merely fixing an accident of geography and migration patterns, we could find ourselves picking tactics and strategies that don’t sufficiently challenge the long-term structural causes of spatial inequality.

And in any case, the association with a racist dog whistle is getting too strong.

What are other racially loaded terms that you wish we’d stop using? “Minority”? “Transient”?

(Image: By Support PDX, via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

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Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


  1. Thank you for addressing the term “inner city.”

    I happened upon your article after reading a school superintendent’s bio. She used that terminology to suggest her experience and empathy in working with minority students. It was like a badge of honor and was utilized to validate her status within the school district as being someone who worked in the worst environment.

    Though familiar with the term, its usage and what it suggests, I searched for the term as I did not like reading it in her bio. I felt it demeaning. It suggested the students were from an impoverished, primitive and dangerous subculture. I would have preferred her to simple state she worked with a primarily minority school and oversaw the implementation of their technology curriculum.

    Using the term to reference her work in the “inner city” is akin to saying I survived the jungle, hood, projects, zoo, the war zone.

    Inner city is the equivalent of the term redneck. Both need to be viewed from the perspective of marginalizing people and a negative stereotype about where they reside, their racial identification and their assumed cultural activities.

    These terms project the subjects are ignorant, less intelligent, uncivilized, needy, incapable of advancement without intervention from the outside world and destined to be part of the underclass and underachievers.

    Labels and grouping rarely elevates. We need to be more conscious of conveniently using terminology that appears acceptable to those not affected and considered the affected.

    I am from the “inner city” in New York. My success in numerous fields and in my entrepreneurial endeavors is in great part to my having been reared in that environment. I learned how to adapt to society and see things from various perspectives so I could innovate and cultivate. Knowing my address was on my job applications and it clearly indicated I was a product of the “inner city” I found myself having to defend my worth and my character.

    This is what happens, as you stated, when labels like “inner city” are use as dog whistles. With it comes a myriad of insinuations and false beliefs about the people and the environment.

  2. Someone posted this to a neighborhood website when someone was asking about volunteering in Baltimore city. There is no factual basis or even a discussion point in this article. You used a very broad stroke to generalize a terminology that you believe is racist. You don’t see that you are part of the problem. I now have a neighbor who thinks that saying inner city is racist and then referenced an article that is complete hersay. You are making the terminology racist by saying its racist based off of nothing but your own belief. Not from any origin or history of that terminology. You don’t get it, this is the reason why people believe the crap that comes out of the president’s mouth. WOW! I have never commented on anything so this is a first for me.

    • As a professor in the humanities, we have stopped using the term “inner cities” many tests ago. The author’s argument and analysis is correct.

  3. Classic 1971 song of that name by Marvin Gaye whose words are unfortunately still relevant. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_PxgSQ9Vf4.
    I believe the term developed as an alternative to other terms for places where black people lived and poverty prevailed. It was a reminder that these neighborhoods were part of the city too. Language on this subject changes in an effort to change thinking and hopefully thereby do something to remedy America’s continuing history of racial injustice. Hope it’s not just superficial.

  4. I see several comments addressing the negative connotation behind the term “inner-city”, but I don’t see anyone suggesting a better term to describe people within the inner downtown city limits living in poverty or border-line poverty. So what is the correct phrase or term to use? Describing it as it is sounds worse than inner city in my opinion.

  5. These are exceptional and correct thoughts. However, as happens all too often in this day and age, people are quick to point out the flaw but very reluctant to offer and alternative.

    There are places with high concentrations of Black/African Americans that have been left behind economically, have schools that are falling apart, has high rates of crime and drugs and a cycle of poverty that is generational. In order to talk about it we need to be able to point to it.
    Suggest a new term!

  6. You’re right we need one, and one that is accurate, which inner city is not, leaving aside any bad intent around how it has been used. Formerly redlined neighborhoods, disinvested neighborhoods, economically marginalized neighborhoods, areas of structural disinvestment… there are many options. I’d like to defer to residents of those areas if possible.


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