Recognizing that words have the power to harm, we commit to using more just language to describe places

Chicago Illinois

In 1946, George Orwell wrote, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” These words convey a fundamental truth about the relationship between what we say, the perceptions we hold, and the imagery we evoke through our linguistic choices. Some words or phrases are widely understood to intentionally hurt or provoke, but plenty of others have less obvious insidious and corrupting effects.

The events of the past several weeks have spurred a renewed call to recognize that words matter, particularly in the struggle for racial justice. This has led major media outlets—including the Associated Press and The New York Times—to capitalize Black, a simple and long overdue signal of respect for the shared identity, history, and experiences of people who identify as Black. For years, other organizations and writers have been advocating for the use of more humanizing language that acknowledges peoples’ circumstances without defining them by the same.

This awareness has implications for not only how we talk about people, but also the places where they live. Journalists, practitioners, and researchers—including those of us at Brookings—often employ short-hand labels such as “distressed places,” “struggling neighborhoods,” “high-crime areas,” or any such  combination of “deficit” plus ”geography” to describe communities impacted by racism, disinvestment, physical destruction, and economic exclusion. But just like the labels we attach to people, such language reduces these communities to only their challenges, while concealing the systemic forces that caused those challenges and the systemic solutions needed to combat them.

At the Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking—a center focused on the economic, social, physical, and civic well-being of communities—we are committing to avoid such labels in our work and employing intentional, systems-informed, and specific language about place. This commitment is not intended to be symbolic, but instead to be more consistent with—and true to—our efforts to effectively co-design and communicate research and strategies aimed at eradicating systemic inequities and creating more connected, vibrant, and inclusive communities. Our commitment stems from three fundamental truths about how language impacts how we think, and what we do:

Language about place matters, because it can be used to justify actions taken toward people. The United States has a long history of using coded language about place to justify policy and practice decisions that impact people. Take the term “blight” for example, which transposed the language of disease onto places, with devastating consequences for the people of color living within them. The designation of an area as “blighted” was used to justify numerous racial injustices throughout the 20th century, including urban renewal, eminent domain, and the displacement of thousands of Black families. Some in power (including our current president) continue to use it—often in combination with terms such as “high-crime,” “inner cities,” and other racially coded language as a way to rationalize over-policing in Black neighborhoods, provoke anti-immigrant sentiment, and advocate for policies favoring wealthy investors over long-time residents.

While “blighted” is at the far end of a continuum of thinly veiled yet harmful language, place language can also produce negative consequences even when it’s not explicitly infused with racist tropes. Terms such as “distressed” or “disadvantaged” further a narrative in which certain places—mostly neighborhoods of color—are seen as “un-investable” due to their perceived inability to generate profit or political support. These terms paint an image of places beyond repair, where residents ought to move away from or that need to be “fixed” by outsiders. Such terminology disregards a community’s strengths and assets, as well as the dedicated community leaders that have long been leading strategies to improve neighborhood conditions.

When language about place obscures systemic causes, it impedes systemic solutions. As Urban Institute researchers recently argued, ahistorical and decontextualized language (whether it be about racial disparities, crime, or poverty) focuses on a community’s challenges and minimizes its long-standing injustices. This can lead to ineffective policy solutions that target the symptoms, rather than the root causes, of those injustices.

A robust body of research shows that most contemporary conditions of community distress and disadvantage are not natural conditions or produced by the actions of residents. They are the result of intentional public policies and private actions sustained over generations (including slavery, Jim Crow, discriminatory housing ordinances, federal highway programs, predatory lending, inequitable public education systems, over-policing, and mass incarceration, to name just a few). When we fail to draw the explicit connection between historical and contemporary practices of discrimination shaping the conditions of places, we leave it up to the reader to determine who is to blame for “distress,” furthering stigma and racism while making it harder to advance structural solutions.

Vague language about place can prevent unique, tailored strategies. Simply naming systemic inequities isn’t enough. The term “historically disinvested,” for instance, accurately calls out a root cause of distress. But it is often used as a catch-all term to describe places grappling with socioeconomic injustices, when in reality, historical disinvestment is just one tool of structural racism that has been implemented in conjunction with an interconnected set of policies and practices aimed at chipping away places’ economic, social, physical, and civic foundations. Moreover, the challenges wrought by disinvestment cannot be remedied by an infusion of capital alone—a strategy often employed with mixed results in communities across the country.

To generate effective solutions, language about place must be specific about the inequities shaping conditions in places, as well as those places’ unique histories, contemporary circumstances, assets, and strengths. This means resisting the tendency to lump remarkably unique places under a single label. No place is simply just “high-poverty”—that may be a challenge the community is facing, but communities shouldn’t be vaguely categorized as poor without meaningfully considering the whole place, the wholeness of the people who live there, and the holistic set of solutions needed to support them.

Committing to intentional, systems-informed, and specific ‘place’ language 

Shifting language will not repair the decades of harm and stigmatization inflicted on communities, but it should prompt us to be explicit about the systemic sources of their conditions, precise about the systemic solutions needed to combat them, and understanding about how language influence peoples’ lives. The breadth of a community’s qualities and characteristics can’t be captured by one term or stylistic change. But throughout our work, the Bass Center will strive to employ language that embodies the following principles:

  • Be intentional about the implications “place” language has for people: Our language choices will recognize the power of words to influence the lives of people within places, and will be intentional about minimizing stigma, acknowledging harm, and recognizing the agency of people within places.
  • Explicitly name the systemic root causes behind conditions, inequities, and challenges within places: Our language will name the historical and contemporary roots of current conditions in places and will acknowledge the breadth of these roots to inform systemic policy solutions.
  • Be specific, strengths-based, and solution-oriented: Our language will be as specific as possible, referring to places by their unique histories, strengths, and contemporary context to inform strategies tailored to those conditions.

We hope other researchers and writers also embrace these principles, so that we can collectively stamp out George Orwell’s “corrupt thought” and envision transformative policies, practices, and interventions that holistically support places and the people within them.