Trump’s New York displays all of the contradictions of 21st-century metropolitan America. It is starkly divided by income and wealth, an embodiment of the inequalities that define and distort American politics today. Decades after the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, metro New York ranks near the top of the most racially divided metropolitan areas in the United States. New York’s public schools, the most segregated in the nation, defy Brown v. Board of Education. The gaps in funding and student achievement are enormous.
Predatory real estate is the power center of Trumpism.
Princeton’s Matthew Desmond has written powerfully about the crisis in affordable housing in major metropolitan areas. Working-class and poor people, unable to afford mortgages and lacking options in increasingly expensive cities, are trapped in units that are usually overpriced, poorly located, and badly maintained. One of the most common sights on sidewalks in poor neighborhoods are piles of shabby furniture, toys, and clothes, the telltale signs that poor families have been evicted for missing a rent payment.
Trump’s urban vision accounts for none of these realities. On the campaign trail, he offered a Bonfire of the Vanities view of American cities. On one hand, he trumpeted his development acumen, his ability to spin dollars out of New York’s high-rise air. On the other hand, he painted a cartoonish picture of the urban apocalypse. “Our inner cities are a disaster,” Trump declared during his final debate against Hillary Clinton. “You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs.” Trump dusted off venerable “blame the victim” rhetoric, pointing his finger at gang members, new immigrants, and poor people themselves.
Again and again, the real estate tycoon invoked the “inner cities,” 1960s shorthand for impoverished nonwhite neighborhoods skirting decaying downtowns. And he turned blame away from failed reinvestment strategies, tax breaks, and predatory lending practices, instead lambasting his political enemies. “The Democrats have failed completely in the inner cities,” he told an audience in Akron, Ohio. “For those hurting the most, who have been failed and failed by their politicians, year after year, failure after failure, worse numbers after worse numbers, poverty, rejection, horrible education, no houses, no homes, no ownership, crime at levels that nobody has seen. You could go to war zones in countries that we’re fighting and it’s safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats.”
Trump’s use of the term “inner city” and his reflexive association of “urban” and “minority” do not capture the changed reality of metropolitan America. Today, more than half of African Americans live in suburbs, as do a majority of immigrants. Many of them are refugees from urban neighborhoods marred by rundown housing, decaying infrastructure, underfunded schools, and overpriced, often shabby rental units. In fact, poverty rates are growing the most rapidly in suburbs and rural areas, not in urban America.