Read the full keyword essay on “City”

Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the presidential election, along with the unprecedented January 6th Capitol insurrection and the COVID crisis, have even further shifted the meaning of “city” in a US context since I last updated the essay on that keyword. Trump’s repeated racist dog whistle attacks against majority-minority “Democrat cities” – first meaning those declaring themselves refugee sanctuaries, but later as a condemnation of Black Lives Matter protestors – were amplified by rightist media claims that “Antifa” was torching cities and attacking police while protesting police violence against people of color. Thus we saw a Trumpian reboot of underclass ideology, focused in particular on “Black and brown urban mobs” – that were assumed to be central to the “stolen” election. But as the Capitol insurrection and scholarly studies show, actual domestic terrorist threats have long arisen largely from the white supremacist right. It is not only progressive groups who now contest the “right to the city” that I discussed in my keyword essay, but also misogynists, violent racists, Nazis, and anti-mask and anti-vaccine protestors – such as those who disrupted the Dodger Stadium vaccination effort – all of whom may overlap. The centrality of whiteness to this movement is only partly disguised by the small numbers of nonwhite Trump supporters who allow it to register as a paradoxically “multiracial whiteness.”

The capital city of Washington DC became ground zero for these shifting urban imaginaries with Trump’s outrageous June 1st “Bible photo-op” preceded by military violence and mass arrests against peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors near the White House. The unnecessary militarization of the area around the White House was then, of necessity, built up into a Baghdadian defensive Green Zone after January 6th. While gentrifying DC is no longer the “Chocolate City” it was only a decade ago, it is still majority-minority, with a Black woman mayor who, in a clever rebuke, painted Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House with the BLM slogan. And the cause of DC statehood gained new traction as U.S. Americans learned that the rioters succeeded as much as they did because the politically weak city was hamstrung in its efforts to combat the insurrection. Finally, the Trump White House treated DC as a conquered city, making no effort to engage with its cultural riches, unlike most Administrations in presidential history, further highlighting its colonized status.

Trump’s delusional attempt to court the “white women’s vote” by painting the Biden/Harris ticket as a threat to the well-being of U.S. suburbs is one of many ways that the city/country distinction that Raymond Williams argues for (and that opens my keyword essay) has been blurred and complicated. For at least three decades cities and suburbs have melded racial populations. Black women, long associated in the mass media with city squalor and underclass behavior, emerged from the 2020/2021 elections newly represented as clever community activists working across the cities/suburbs divide. Stacey Abrams’ extraordinarily intelligent Fair Fight campaign led to the two Georgia Democratic Senate wins, ensuring Democratic control of Congress. Scholars know how crucial and underrecognized “Movement women” were to the entire history of Civil Rights activism, but Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, and other Black women organizers are now represented as leaders in mainstream media. Along with the consistent coverage of the heroic work of largely minority female health, food, and care workers, these material shifts have reoriented the popular sense of “Black and brown women in the city” in a positive direction. In these contexts, the increasing public recognition of climate change, along with the gentrification of U.S. cities and integration of U.S. suburbs, is giving rise to new inclusive visions of how we inhabit and can work to save Williams’ interconnected country/city environments.

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