I love cities. Inner cities. Outer cities. All kinds of cities. Cities are where people from different walks of life meet and where strangers become neighbors. Cities are parks, and sidewalks, and buses, and benches and the beautiful noise of humanity working it out together. Cities have their problems. They can boom with wealth and then slide into poverty. Some people get red lined to the edges, while others make money off gentrification or by preying on the poor. Most folks in cities are somewhere in the middle, learning to love their neighbors and living from paycheck to paycheck, just like the rest of the country.
I make my living teaching churches and seminarians how to transform their cities. I love it when people talk about the cities and how to make them better. And yet, when Trump says the word "inner city" my soul is unsettled.
From where I sit, Trump sounds as if he is speaking of a far-away place that he has never visited. It is not a real place but rather an amalgamation of our country's worst problems. When Trump says "inner city" it is code speak for "black." Trump's inner city is known only for crime, drugs, gangs, violence, and failing schools. He speaks as a white savior, proclaiming that he will turn the cities around. That black and brown people must vote for him because only he can fix things, despite the fact that he only holds only 1% of the black vote. When Trump speaks of the inner city, he's not speaking inspiring solutions, he's showing his racism and his privilege.
I imagine his view of the city from Trump Tower is not very clear. From way up there, how can he know the cities he lives in? How can he see the people or hear their conversations? How can he know their struggles or strengths?
There's a different way to see the city that Trump has not yet learned. Since he seems to be using Richard Nixon's 1968 "law and order" playbook, maybe he just needs to catch up to the present. You see, for years we've tried to fix neighborhoods by labeling their problems, jailing their inhabitants, and pouring money in from the outside. We've mapped out the issues so harshly that we might as well be spraying graffiti on grandma's house. We label "failing schools," we quote crime statistics, we talk about the foreclosure rate and how many people are jobless, and we go on and on about gangs and guns and drugs. But in the end, with all our problems labeled, we have fixed very little. We dump charity into neighborhoods without doing justice. And the kids in these neighborhood lose hope. They hear over and over again how bad their neighborhood is, so they make a plan to leave or just settle into fatalism and expect an early death. Last night, they heard their neighborhoods are a "disaster" from the GOP nominee for president.
There is a better way. The tired, weary inner city talk might appeal to Trump's base -- the folks who invented white flight -- but those of us who love the city need to change the conversation.
Not all black people live in the "inner city." And very few "inner cities" are the "disaster" that Trump conjures up when he speaks of them. Since I teach Asset-based Community Development and Ethics, I'll offer two lessons in case Mr. Trump is listening.
The first lesson for Mr. Trump is this -- know the ground on which you stand. You might have missed it from your penthouse, but the "inner city" neighborhoods of which you speak did not just appear overnight. They were built by white people with money and power. They were built by you and your father and so many in power before you. Their beginnings stretch back to slavery and Jim Crow. These marginalized places were crafted through redlining and discriminatory housing policies and mass incarceration. If we look at the ground on which we stand we will realize it was first taken from Indigenous peoples, its wealth was built on the backs of slaves, and it continues to be developed inequitably through the rapid growth of inequality in this country. Wealth doesn't trickle down. That's a myth, and city dwellers know this well.
The second lesson is this. Seeing the city differently is the first step in creating change. Regardless of his claims, Mr. Trump will be unable to create change in his imaginary inner city. It takes the wisdom of people on the ground to create real, sustainable change. That's why it is better not to start by naming problems, but rather by identifying assets. Instead of labeling failing schools, we can start by gathering our neighbors. We can identify the gatekeepers, the dreamers, and the storytellers. We can invite everyone into community because community changes everything. And then, when we've created community, we can begin to transform the ground on which we stand. We can stabilize our housing markets by fixing houses together to attract new neighbors. We can develop a land trust, build a community garden, or work together to bring a grocery store to a food desert. Together we can identify the structural violence - like racism, or predatory lending, or lack of living wages -- that keep the poor in poverty and together we can raise our voices to create the change we seek. Those who want to be part of this change are welcome, but they must abandon the racist, marginalizing speech that names the inner city a "disaster" and instead listen to the solutions those down on the sidewalks have to offer.
And maybe that is the lesson of this election. I know many people who want a third choice on the ballot -- someone they believe will change the world. But the Kingdom of God will never come through politics. There are choices we can make at the polls that better reflect the life and work of Jesus and I believe deeply that in this election that means voting against a person who repeatedly marginalizes and demeans people made in God's image. But even if voting in November is difficult for you, take comfort. Jesus didn't change the world by running for office. He spoke out for the poor and oppressed until it got him nailed to a cross. This is world changing work we're all called to do. We must love our neighbors so deeply that it gets us in trouble. And you can't love your neighbor until you spend time with your neighbor. Its revolutionary work -- grassroots style.