America and Urbanization

There is a unique pattern of urbanization in the history of the US. Unlike in Europe, the inner part of the city, often referred to as the “inner city”, is associated with high levels of crime, poverty, and health problems. Often the term “inner city” is a pejorative one, with the connotation of urban decay, organized crime, and largely poor African-American populations. What the hell, USA?

The inner city comes by many nicknames, which are often telling about the attitudes about these regions. The “hood”, which is similar to barrio and favela, terms used to describe similar slums in Latin America, indicates the racialized features of the community. The “projects” is similar to the French term banlieue, given its association with the public housing (in the UK: council housing) of communities of color. However, while these both describe poor communities of color, both are outside of the city center, in contrast to the American example. In the French example, there is also an association with migrants, which does not exist for American African-Americans in the slums, a large majority of whom are descended former slaves, and who came during the Great Migration during the early twentieth century. There is also the inclusion of lighter-skinned North Africans, including refugees from war-torn countries, that is not often associated with American cities. This is also true in the Latin American example, the slums are not exclusive to Africans, as there are also mestizos (mixed European and indigenous race) who live in the area.

Despite the prevalence of inner cities, the concept of a slum is nothing new in America. The infamous tenements in New York for poor European migrants, and the later shantytowns during the Great Depression (“Hoovervilles”) are two examples. However, the slum in the American mind has evolved specific racial features, and often the “inner cities” are used to criticize African-American culture in general, despite the large number of African-Americans in the more rural Deep South. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, many of the modern inner cities were once integrated. Langston Hughes had dated a Polish girl and had a Polish best friend in his hometown of Cleveland. However, once the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) began moving people to suburbs, it restricted suburbanization to Whites only, leaving many Blacks to rot in the city. The process, known as redlining, was simple: grade neighborhoods by a letter (A-D), then use the grade to determine eligibility for mortgage lending, a critical part of buying a suburban home for the working class in the city. While the mortgage lending should have been equally distributed, it was instead used to discriminate against African Americans. White flight, while somewhat motivated by racism, was more a federal policy than individual choices by European Americans. This has continued to this day, since homes are critical economic assets that allowed European Americans to move up to the middle and upper class.

The million-dollar question of course is: how do we deal with this? A key suggestion from many sociologists and members of the inner-city African American community is to issue reparations for the damages done historically. This is not a new idea, as the US has already given reparations to slaveowners in the District of Columbia Emancipation Act. Every year, John Conyers Jr, a Democratic representative from Michigan, has proposed House Resolution 40, a resolution which would research a solution for slavery reparations. Though HR 40 has never been passed, it could if enough pressure is applied to the House and Senate.

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