The Real Threats to America’s Cities

Both persistent inequality and President Trump’s hostility put extraordinary pressure on them.

A homeless woman surrounded by luxury stores on 5th Avenue in New York City.
A homeless woman on 5th Avenue, empty during the coronavirus pandemic, in New York City. (Nina Berman / NOOR / Redux)

After years of revival and resurgence, the nation’s largest metropolitan areas are now being squeezed by external threats and an internal eruption along their deepest fault line—one that could fracture their political influence in the years to come.

America’s cities have already faced almost four years of persistent hostility from President Donald Trump, who has reviled them as dirty, chaotic, and dangerous and pursued many policies contrary to their interests. Then this winter, the COVID-19 pandemic hit hardest within dense population centers, including not only central cities, but also their inner suburbs.

Now the nationwide protests and disorder following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have clearly exposed the crack in the foundation of cities’ new prosperity: the persistence of racial inequality and segregation amid that economic revival.

The past quarter century has brought “a steady hyper-concentration of business activity in a short list of big, dense, often coastal hubs,” says Mark Muro, the policy director at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. But those same economic forces, he adds, have “been widening the disparities within those same hubs—and now we’re seeing some of the impacts of that.”

These challenges to cities from without and within create inimical political pressures. The Trump threat has driven central cities and their inner suburbs closer together, solidifying a Democratic alliance that has reshaped the 21st-century political landscape. His unambiguous hostility to racial diversity and social tolerance helped drive the GOP’s big 2018 losses in the white-collar suburbs of major metropolitan areas. And polls have shown that both urban and suburban voters are much more critical of his handling of the coronavirus outbreak than Americans in rural parts of the country.

But the looting that has repeatedly accompanied the huge, peaceful protests over Floyd’s death could strain the bonds of the new Democratic coalition, which depends on strong performances among low-income minority voters mostly living in central cities and the largely white professionals in suburbs adjacent to those urban cores. While college-educated suburbanites, including white voters, express more concern about racial discrimination now than they did in earlier decades, fear of upheaval on the streets of major cities could begin to erode those sympathies, political observers in both parties agree. That’s certainly Trump’s hope as he has amplified his calls for a crackdown on demonstrators and declared himself “your president of law and order.”

After decades of decline, many of the nation’s largest cities have been rejuvenated in this century as the information economy has encouraged the geographic concentration of highly digital jobs that require deep pools of well-educated workers. As of 2018, the nation’s 100 largest counties (out of roughly 3,100 overall) generated 55 percent of America’s total economic output and 48 percent of its jobs, according to a new MPP analysis. The nation’s 25 largest counties alone account for nearly 30 percent of the output and 25 percent of the jobs. All of those numbers have increased since 2010.

This economic surge has produced familiar changes: the revival of cities’ downtown areas and widespread gentrification, with young professionals moving in to fill multiplying jobs in software, finance, medical services, higher education, and other Information Age industries.

But almost everywhere, these new opportunities have failed to break the entrenched generational poverty entrapping many minority communities. The flow of young professionals back into cities “is masking the underlying issues of poverty, deep poverty, [the] affordable-housing crisis, [the] health-care crisis—all of the things that are now being brought to light in every system,” former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told me.

In even the most prosperous major cities, the economic gaps between white and minority communities remain enormous—and are only becoming more so. The Oakland, California–based advocacy group PolicyLink tracks economic outcomes in the nation’s major metropolitan areas by race in an online tool called the National Equity Atlas. Its results paint a daunting picture.

I looked at the trends in a representative range of leading cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis. From 1980 to 2015, the gap between the median hourly wage earned by white workers and workers of color widened in all of them. In each of those cities (except Atlanta), the share of native-born African Americans holding a two-year college degree or more is at least 18 percentage points lower than the share of native-born white Americans. The poverty rate for people of color in each of those cities is at least double the rate of white residents. In Denver, Philadelphia, New York, Houston, and Dallas, it’s triple. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed by a police officer, it’s four times that of white people.

While big cities “have seen some progress on reducing racial gaps in employment, many of the service jobs they’ve created pay low wages and offer few benefits or pathways into the middle class,” says Sarah Treuhaft, who directs PolicyLink’s work on economic inequity. “So in large metros, income gaps by race are continuing to grow.” (Other studies have found even wider gaps in assets between white and black families in metro areas, she notes.)

Research offers conflicting answers on whether residential segregation in big cities between black and white Americans is increasing. But evidence suggests it clearly is rising between white and black families with children. School segregation along lines of race and class remains endemic, even as kids of color have become a majority of the nation’s K-12 public-school students. In a study last year commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that desegregation peaked for African-American schoolchildren in 1988 and has receded since.

“Black students are more segregated now than they were 50 years ago,” says Gary Orfield, the UCLA project’s co-director. “For Latinos, there has never been any effort to desegregate and they are, in some of our measures, more segregated than black students.”

Cities haven’t all been indifferent to these problems, especially as they have consistently elected liberal mayors in recent years. They’ve raised the minimum wage, improved benefits for hourly workers, and elected progressive prosecutors, among other reforms. The steady job growth that held from the 2008 crash until the coronavirus outbreak reduced unemployment rates for African Americans and Latinos to historic lows.

Yet none of these factors have overcome the underlying disparities or the tendency of the modern economy to compound income inequality. “Previously, [being] in a thriving metro area meant you were generating a lot of [middle-class] jobs,” says Manuel Pastor, the director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California. But now, “what you are seeing is a set of jobs that pay super-high wages [and] professional middle-class wages, then the jobs rising up around them, which are low-wage service jobs.

“Baked into the very nature of these thriving metro economies is an underlying economic inequality in the employment that is being generated,” Pastor adds.

In that sense, cities are like islands facing currents of discontent from two directions. On one side, the convergence of economic opportunity has heightened frustration in exurban, small-town, and rural places largely excluded from the boom. That alienation contributed to Trump’s strong showing in those places (though studies have consistently shown that resistance to racial and cultural change was more decisive). But the protests erupting after Floyd’s death underscore how much discontent also remains among minority urban communities who are also largely excluded from the benefits of this growth. Richard Florida, an urban-studies expert at the University of Toronto, says this exclusion “is a recipe for further unrest.”

“I think our cities’ economies are unsustainable with this level of inequality and unaffordability,” says Florida, who wrote the 2017 book The New Urban Crisis. “How can cities’ economies work if the service workers upon whom they depend can’t live there?”

Politically, these economically vibrant but deeply unequal metropolitan areas have become the foundation of the Democratic electoral coalition in every state. That’s a big change from the late 20th century. From the 1960s through the 1980s, white flight to the suburbs created a confrontational politics in which suburban voters largely defined themselves in opposition to heavily minority central cities.

But more recently, urban and suburban voters have found common cause politically against nonmetro areas resistant to the demographic, cultural, and economic changes that the metros embody. The divide between town and country in the 2016 presidential race was the widest in modern memory. Hillary Clinton won 87 of the nation’s 100 largest counties by a combined 15 million votes; Trump, meanwhile, won 2,600 of the remaining 3,000 counties, the most for any candidate in either party since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Rather than courting skeptical metro centers, Trump in office has used them more as a foil to energize his preponderantly nonurban base. He has regularly demonized cities as “a disgusting rodent and rat infested mess” overrun by crime and homelessness.

His agenda has also regularly targeted cities, including his 2017 tax bill, which limited the deductions for state and local taxes; his threats to cut funding for so-called sanctuary cities that don’t fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities; and his abandonment of efforts under former President Barack Obama to reform local police departments. His failure to act more decisively against the coronavirus outbreak imposed its heaviest cost on cities. Trump “has acted strategically against the interest of large cities and metropolitan areas,” says Florida, in a view widely shared by urban experts.

With his self-designation as a law-and-order president, Trump this week doubled down on using cities as a foil. Many urban leaders quickly condemned his threats to deploy the military across the country. “I would ask that the White House really trust local leaders in this area,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego told me shortly after the president spoke about the protests on Monday night. “I’m very concerned about the tone and content of President Trump’s remarks today.”

“The generations of injustice people of color in our community have endured will not be cured by forcibly deploying the military to our streets,” wrote Lina Hidalgo, who runs Harris County in Texas, in an emailed statement. Trump’s threats “place obstacles in the way of our work at the local level to build bridges between minority communities and law enforcement agencies.”

Trump may be trying not only to signal strength to his small-town base, but also to split the Democrats’ metropolitan coalition by separating more affluent suburbanites from lower-income minorities in central cities. Depending on how long the disorder and violence continues, few political professionals I’ve spoken with doubt he could have some success. In a Monmouth University poll released Tuesday, three-fifths of college-educated white voters agreed that police were more likely to use force against African Americans, but only one-fifth said the actions of the protesters were completely justified. Initial polls have found widespread discontent with Trump’s response to the crisis, but those qualified reactions about the protests themselves suggest it’s too early to say he can’t find an audience for his hard-line rhetoric.

Still, driving a substantial wedge in the Democratic coalition around racial issues may be much tougher for Trump today than it was for Richard Nixon a half century ago, when he tried to capitalize on the urban unrest that followed the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. College-educated white Democrats today express much more liberal views on race than the blue-collar whites Nixon targeted. For instance, in the Monmouth poll, three-fourths of white voters with at least a four-year college degree described racial discrimination as a big problem. And those well-educated white voters remain deeply skeptical of Trump as a messenger: In a Quinnipiac University national poll last year, a majority of them flatly described him as a racist. “I think the white suburbanites will be torn between their desire for order and their understanding of the anger and their frustration with the mess that’s been made,” Pastor says.

Another reason Trump may find it difficult to re-create the suburban versus urban politics of earlier eras is that the suburbs today are much more racially diverse than they were before. Cities look different too. “The white folks in the suburbs know their kids are [living] in the cities,” said Nutter, now a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “Their kids are marching with the black young people. Why? Because they know it’s fucked up. And those white suburban parents are going to be affected by what their kids are talking to them about right now. The kids are going to be saying, ‘OK Boomer.’”

Yet even if the white-collar professionals and minority communities inside metropolitan areas remain united against Trump in November, that hardly guarantees genuine progress against the racial inequities persisting in the major cities. As Treuhaft notes, “cities alone cannot solve these issues of entrenched racial economic inequality.” Trump could win a second term behind an agenda hostile to cities by again consolidating smaller places against the major metro areas. And even if a metropolitan-based Democratic Party achieved unified control of the White House, House, and Senate in November, it’s unclear if the congressional Democrats reliant on white-collar suburbanites will support spending programs of the magnitude that advocates believe are required to mitigate these enduring disparities.

The one thing that does seem certain is that if these inequities are unaddressed, even the most rejuvenated cities will remain exposed to the discontent and disorder that surged this week through their most volatile fault line.