Leading experts weigh in on current policy issues and challenges

The Power of Language: Rethinking How We Talk about Place

The way we talk about places can stigmatize whole communities. Researchers, community leaders, and academics have the power to shape how people think about, react to, and create policies for neighborhoods and cities. What unintended impacts do our words have and how can we change this? 

The Urban Institute is talking with...
John Klofas John Klofas
Margery Turner Margery Turner
Lovely A. Warren Lovely A. Warren
Lucretia P. Murphy Lucretia P. Murphy
Mary Pattillo Mary Pattillo
Nancy La Vigne
Moderated by:
Nancy La Vigne
Director, Justice Policy Center

A couple of months ago I penned a blog on the power of language and specifically the way in which we talk about people who become involved in the criminal justice system. In it I wrote: "As researchers, our work presents a responsibility and an opportunity to influence how the field—and the public—thinks and talks about the populations affected by the policies and programs we study." The blog reached a wide audience and was met with universal support, but perhaps the most constructive response came from Professor John Klofas, who challenged me to think about the importance of how we talk about not just people, but places. I won't steal his thunder, but do want to credit him for helping birth this policy debate, which I hope will elevate the conversation - and the research community's awareness - of this important issue.

So let's launch right into it. Panelists, please share: how has community-based research affected the way we label particular areas, and in what ways are these labels inaccurate and/or harmful?

This past weekend it was over 90 degrees in Chicago.  It was great weather for backyard barbecues, going to the local park, or just sitting out on the porch. I rode my bike to 31st Street Beach by my house and it was packed with people. Given Chicago’s notoriously racially segregated geography, it was mostly Black, but there were also a number of Latino and Asian families among the crowds. I watched kids make sandcastles, throw footballs, splash in the water, and eat hot dogs and potato chips. All along the grassy parkland families put up tents, laid out blankets, played cards, and told jokes. The air was thick with barbecue smoke. Teenagers flirted, checked their cell phones, played cool and got loud, sent video chats, and danced. Bikers and walkers tried to maneuver through toddlers and old people wandering onto the path. The couple in front of me took turns feeding their baby who couldn’t have been more than a few weeks’ olds. The family behind me who had brought a bottle of wine realized they had no corkscrew; they were saved by the family on the other side who offered theirs. It was a great day on the South Side of Chicago.

And then I got an email that a student who attended the charter school where I serve on the board had been shot and killed on his block.

The way we characterize the neighborhoods like the one where I live on Chicago’s South Side reverses the weight of the evidence I just recited. Even though the first paragraph has several sentences about play, friendship, love, food, and other everyday activities, the second one-sentence paragraph overshadows all of that with the painful (and unacceptable) reality of death. Our labels follow suit. We neglect all of the assets and emphasize the challenges. These neighborhoods are distressed, disadvantaged, marginalized, socially isolated, ghettos, at-risk, “racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty,” in HUD parlance.

(I find this term to be nonsensical and part of the problem. All neighborhoods are made up of people who have a race, so all neighborhoods are racially concentrated. What the phrase technically refers to is places that “have a non-white population of 50 percent or more.” In other words, it uses the word “race” as a supposed to stand-in for non-Whites who supposedly don’t have a race, or aren’t raced. Furthermore, the word “concentrated” suggests density, as in persons per square mile, but it really means something more like “homogeneous.” A clearer and more accurate term would be “majority non-White high poverty areas.”)

I’m just as guilty as everyone else in using such language in my scholarship on Black neighborhoods. But in the last five or so years I’ve grown weary of the unrelenting negative portrayals. I’ve lived in majority Black neighborhoods for most of my life and I know they are more than what gets highlighted in our research. I’ve started to try to change not just my language, but also what I study about Black neighborhoods. In a recent article, my co-authors and I put forth “a notion of black placemaking that privileges the creative, celebratory, playful, pleasurable, and poetic experiences of being black and being around other black people in the city.” 

A more balanced empirical approach to neighborhoods that are currently described mainly by their challenges might make for more hopeful investments in them. It would alleviate some of the stigma that attaches to certain places and the people in them. In the end, it’s just more honest scholarship. The death of one high school student is one too many and we can’t stop looking for solutions to violence (and unemployment, and hunger, and homelessness). But thousands of other students (and parents and neighbors and relatives) were also alive on the same day and in the same neighborhoods in Chicago. Where are their stories in our research?  

I think this discussion already reflects the influence of new thinking on a topic that reflects the growing interest in procedural justice and a much greater interest in communities across the Country.  Nancy’s original blog cracked open the door on the significance of language and helped me think through some of my own experiences.

On various projects over the years I have indulged the habit of riding along with police and asking to do that in a city’s most troubled neighborhoods.  In Albuquerque I was immediately told that “the combat zone” was the place to go.  All of the police officers I met knew the term and the area.  As I have thought about that term, and others like it, I have been increasingly concerned that such shorthand not only oversimplifies things, it does that by indicting whole communities and it not-so-subtly suggests that few “good people” might be found there.  I can’t imagine that the label does not foster mistrust and even antagonism between the neighborhoods and the police.  And yet, the combat zone seemed much like any other city neighborhood I have seen- diverse in population with people engaged in a wide range of activity.

I am particularly sensitive to this because I share some responsibility for having unwittingly over-generalized in my own community.  Years ago, in a presentation on local homicide for a former Mayor, I provided a map and noted that the geographic distribution of murder formed a crescent shape around downtown.  I intended only a simple description of the space.  A few days later the Mayor spoke of violence in the Rochester crescent area in his State of the City Speech.  Shortly after that some police officers began to discuss the idea that they should receive extra pay for work in what was now being called the “Fatal Crescent.”  Now the term “Rochester Crescent” is used in media locally and across the nation as shorthand for a neighborhood that is, in seemingly every way, terrible- which, of course it is not. Here urban-suburban politics influences everything and, in my view, “the Crescent” provides a way of saying things about race and class that could not be said if the terms race and class were used.  As you can see, I have regrets about how I explained things to the Mayor but when I said it I had not anticipated the harsh lesson that I have come to appreciate. 

The irony is that the resources to work with these communities and individuals is predicated on evidence of "disadvantage" and need. Grant proposals are rated according to the  degree of greatest need, so those of us  who submit the proposals work to craft a narrative highlighting the challenges and the need for support.  This approach almost requires an over emphasis on the challenges and demonstrating the people living in the community are incapable of offering solutions for themselves.  As both John and Mary have pointed out, this narrative of challenge then becomes the all encompassing description for and shorthand of neighborhoods and the people who live there.


I have been reminded of this repeatedly with the growing attention to mass incarceration and reentry.  The terms "inmates", "prisoners", "ex-offenders", "reentry population" have been commonly used. I have used them myself in proposals, presentation power points, and reports. In a recent meeting, a panel member said "I hate being called an 'ex-offender'." When the moderator asked what term he would prefer, the panelist said "I'm an individual." 


I'll let that sit there . . . .


It should have been obvious that he is an individual and not a label, especially not a label that limits him to the worst act of his life and negates the decades of his  life and contribution since incarceration. Because he fit into a category of disadvantage, he was further burdened by language that stripped him of his humanity.

Now the challenge for me and all of us who listed to the speaker: Now that we know better, we need to do better.  When I want to use a short hand like "ex-offender" because it takes fewer words in my proposal, research, recommendation report,  I remember that panel member.  I am now conscious of the fact that shorthand, and how I use language, can really be a dehumanizing act regardless of intent. 

Lucretia makes a very important point in terms of our desires for shorthand words, often times for no better reason than to save space in a grant proposal or journal article. This issue of language is relevant in the field of African American History regarding the term "slave."  Historians are moving towards using the term "enslaved people" instead, since being enslaved is a forced status, not the essence of the person.  This is similar to what the panelist told Lucretia.  "Ex-offender" is a marked status, not the essence of the person.  In the neighborhoods realm, I think "disinvested neighborhoods" might be the closest analogy, since it puts the attention on the public and private sectors that have made strategic decisions not to cultivate the talent and potential in certain areas, rather than on some essence of the neighborhood.  This point about disinvestment could not be more relevant in Chicago right now where schools are facing a budget cut of up to 30%.


But I also worry that we are then left with no descriptive language.  For example, I do not have a problem with the terms "Black neighborhood" or "low-income neighborhood" because there is nothing wrong with the fact that a majority or plurality of the residents in a place are Black and/or low-income. 


So what are the options out there?  It's encouraging that federal policy actually does not often use stigmatizing labels.  Think about it: Enterprise and Empowerment Zones, Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods, etc.  There is also the long tradition of asset-based community development.  So, perhaps it's not all bad. 

Thanks for the opportunity to join this important conversation. For almost four decades, I’ve focused my research and policy analysis on questions of residential segregation: what causes and perpetuates it; why it matters; and what to do about it.  Labels and language clearly matter.  And that includes the language of history.

Too often, research documenting the challenges facing neighborhoods whose residents are mostly people of color ignores their history.  The evidence on poverty, violence, joblessness, poor education, is all up-to-the-moment.  As Mary Pattillo points out, these data fail to report important assets, achievements, and strengths of these neighborhoods and their residents.  But they also fail to recount the history of discriminatory public policies and private actions that built separate and unequal neighborhoods in metro areas across the country, excluding people of color from neighborhoods rich in resources and opportunities, while simultaneously starving the neighborhoods where they necessarily clustered of resources and investments.

I learned this history from Massey and Denton’s American Apartheid, published in 1993, and still think it should be required reading for anyone tackling questions of race and place in the US today.

When we excise this history from our language about today’s neighborhoods, it’s all too easy to conclude that segregation is sustained by the choices of people of color (“birds of a feather flock together”) and that their behavior is to blame for neighborhood distress. And these conclusions divert attention away from the policies of inclusion and equitable reinvestment that are needed to make every neighborhood – regardless of its racial mix – a neighborhood of real choice and opportunity.

Great insights, all! John's point about labeling places, echoed by others, reminds me  of our early efforts to map the residences of people recently released from prison. Based on my prior experience mapping hot spots of crime, by habit, I made the concentrations of formerly incarcerated persons' residences in the density maps I produced appear as red. It was only after I took a step back that I realized that I was equating residences of the formerly incarcerated with a negative, “danger” color. We quickly changed the color to something more neutral (blue or green, if memory serves) but I could see how we might have sent a very harmful message had we not. It also bears noting that during the same set of analyses, we mapped residences of the recently incarcerated with concentrations of Part 1 (most serious felony-level) crimes. And guess what? There was very little spatial correlation. That reinforced for me how misleading – and damaging – it would have been to map those residence concentrations in red,

Which leads me to my next question: how can we change the way we present and visualize place-based data  that is accurate and constructive without imposing unintended consequences on communities and the people who live there?

My friends are making some excellent points and it is good to find myself among people with such diverse backgrounds and interests.  We have now, together, recognized the ways in which the idea of disadvantage has permeated public policy to the near exclusion of attention to assets.  But as Mary has listed a wider range of alternative programs, like Enterprise and Empowerment zones, it seems clear to me that criminal justice policies have most often taken a different approach.  There, key program monikers have included “hotspot” policing, SWAT and Weed and Seed. 

How can residents and police, for that matter, react to living or working in a crime “hotspot?”   Sure SWAT describes something useful on the police organizational chart but it also characterizes part of a relationship with the community.  Years ago a High Intensity Trafficking enforcement unit was formed in Rochester.  In short order the HIT Squad hit people and wound up in Federal Court where they won with a defense of “this is what happens in a war on drugs.”  Or consider the long term DOJ Weed and Seed Program.  That name would seem to portray the opposite of what the program wanted to accomplish: the name suggests a cleansing of local neighborhoods rather than building community to address crime.

In criminal justice, concepts such as intent and culpability reverberate across program names and practices. They are applied to individuals but seem to find wider use as crime data are aggregated to neighborhood and community levels.  It is clear to me from the preceding posts that the language of social intervention is an insider language, spoken by the professionals.  But, I think the language of criminal justice goes beyond that of most other areas. There, the insider language almost inevitably invokes the insider’s conception of good and evil.

There can, of course be different, more practical, approaches. For example, in what might seem to come right out of a script for Portlandia, in Portland, Oregon police don’t use the term “hotspot.”  What would be designated hotspots in other cities are called Neighborhood Involvement Locations.  But there is more to it than a name, out of concern that hotspot strategies could erode community trust, the Portland police use the same data that hotspot strategist use but use it to engage with residents and businesses in positive interactions.  In Portland saying language is powerful means something different. 

Nancy makes an important point when she describes how her crime map defaulted to the danger color and that this could deliver what might be seen as a harmful message.  I think there are some important questions behind that story. For example, is there a relationship between the methods used in our research and the problems of characterizing or stereotyping neighborhoods? And, if there is a connection, does it follow that the approach to understanding those neighborhoods, and the way it has shaped crime strategy, may also have implications for the often poor state of relationships between the community and the police?  And finally, as a movement for reform in policing gathers strength does it also carry implications for how we do research on these vital topics.

Crime mapping provides a good context to consider these questions.  Naturally, most mapping in CJ has focused on crime, and usually crime alone.  As Nancy noted, different crime rates literally and figuratively paint neighborhoods with different colors.  My single map of local murders changed the conversation about neighborhoods- for the worse, I think.  Variety and richness in neighborhoods are overwhelmed by attention to this single variable alone, or sometimes in conjunction with other variables correlated with it- unemployment, vacant housing etc.   So to what extent is the way these neighborhoods are portrayed an artifact of our methods yet still a strong driver of policy? 

But crime mapping may just be the leading edge of this dilemma.  There may be similar risks with “big data” and increasingly complex analyses.  For example, Social Network Analysis is growing in popularity.  It draws out complex webs of links between potential offenders and victims.  But the core data structure is distressingly simple.  The file can be only two columns of names of people who have some association, usually identified by being arrested together or interviewed by police together on the street.  This data does not depend on guilt for criminal conduct and both arrest and field interview data are notoriously unreliable.  Even now there are protests in Chicago over the use of similar methods to generate lists of people likely to be involved in violence.

The point is not to suggest that new and complex methods will not be of value.  It is, instead to argue that in an era of criminal justice reform, researchers must struggle to understand the quality of data various methods use, how those methods produce outcomes, how they display results, and how those displays can be understood.  If researchers fail to do that, the use of these powerful research tools could be seen as reflecting and reinforcing a general bias against poor neighborhoods.

John asks the important question: "Is there a relationship between the methods used in our research and the problems of characterizing or stereotyping neighborhoods?"  Our methods -- our objects of study, our dependent variables and our research questions -- surely follow a social problems approach, and then it's no surprise that we find a lot of, well, social problems in the neighborhoods where we look for them.  Elsewhere, I have argued that maligning Black and poor neighborhoods with our voluminous data about how bad life is in them definitely doesn't help the cause of racial or class integration.  Who would want to live in neighborhoods as full of social pathologies as the ones described in our research?  And who would want the people from those neighborhoods to move out of them and into their own neighborhood? 

While the research we do is well-intentioned to create a moral outcry about the conditions in some neighborhoods within this rich country of ours, and hopefully to spur policymakers into action, it can also have the reverse effect of further painting such areas as lost causes.  That's why Marge's point about documenting the historical and contemporary practices of discrimination, exclusion, racism, and disinvestment is so important.  Our moral indignation and attendant action might be more effectively directed at the predatory practices of banks, the stereotyping done by employers, unfair school funding formulas, and the crazy fact that some White men are profiting wildly off of marijuana in some states while some Black men are languishing in jails in prisons in others (and sometimes in the same state).

I’d like to expand on a couple of themes that have emerged from our conversation so far. 

As Mary points out, labels and language are important, but a bigger issue may be how we define the “problems” we investigate in our research.  Do we simply document the incidence of violence, poverty, or hunger in a neighborhood? And quantify disparities in these indicators between neighborhoods where whites predominate and those occupied by people of color?  Or do we focus on the public policies, institutional practices, and market forces that perpetuate disparities?  Investigating these structural forces is a lot harder, but it’s less likely to result in counter-productive labeling and more likely to lead us toward effective remedies.  At Urban, we’re encouraging researchers to apply this kind of structural lens as they bring research evidence to bear on issues of racial and ethnic inequality.

Lucretia introduced the importance of language that recognizes people as individuals, rather than using labels like “ex-offender” to lump them into categories that may not reflect their contributions and potential.  Similarly, the labels we apply to describe and classify neighborhoods – high-poverty, predominantly minority – may not reflect the functions they perform for their residents.  For example, I’ve written about the possibility that some neighborhoods with high poverty rates may function as “launch pads” for their residents, connecting them to services and supports that enable them to begin climbing the economic ladder – and to move away.  But assembling the data to distinguish these launch-pad neighborhoods from neighborhoods that may function more like poverty traps poses a real challenge.  Maybe the imaginative use of big data could overcome this challenge and help us move beyond simplistic categories to more dynamic indicators of neighborhoods’ contribution and potential.



This is such a great conversation. I have really enjoyed reading and learning from all of the comments that have been posted!

The point you made, Margery, about the focus on the "challenges" in terms of people and place, really does lend itself to the labelling that overemphasizes negatives and leads us to reinforce and not break down the negative associations that become attached to the people and neighborhoods. It also reinforces the power and privilege dynamics in our work - where the researcher or technical assistance provider has the knowledge to "fix" the people; but is not part of the problem.  I think when we step back and focus on the structural, social, economic, and political forces that create the problems, we have to acknowledge that we are, in fact, part of the "problem" group and examine how are language can perpetuate the status quo.   


Another benefit that may come from acknowledging that the systems are the problem is to observe the many assets that exist in neighborhoods and individuals to nonetheless thrive despite the year of discrimination, disenfranchisement, trauma and abuse.  Flipping this paradigm seems so obvious, but really should be front and center in place-based work.



Taking a cue from Marge (and earlier from Mary), let's shift focus and consider ways in which places can be redefined through positive investments. While our focus has primarily been through the lens of social scientists, it bears noting that  art and artists have helped to redefine the way that we perceive and talk about place.
A number of practitioners of creative placemaking, a field that combines planning, art, and community participation, have done notable work to advance the way that both residents and outsiders perceive, talk about, and experience place. Accustomed to innovation and looking at things in a new way, artists can be a powerful force  for changing narratives - and perceptions - around places and the people who live there. These perceptions, in turn, shape identity and stigma, and impact not only the way that we talk about place but the way we act in relationship to place: who decides to go where, and why.
A few years ago I was fortunate to observe one example of such work, taking a guided tour of  Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program.  The program collaborates with residents in a number of historically marginalized neighborhoods to design and paint murals. The murals are a physical manifestation of a larger collaborative process that builds bridges between people and institutions that do not normally work together. The products and processes of the Mural Arts program encourage people to see beauty in neighborhoods outside of their own, creating positive associations with marginalized places, and affords residents a tangible way to participate and take pride in their own community.  After creating and seeing these murals, people talk about place in a new way. Caroline Ross, a research associate in the Justice Policy Center,  discusses the ways in which art and culture play a role in shaping the perceptions and language of place, and its relationship to public safety in her recent report, Exploring the Ways Arts and Culture Intersect  with Public Safety.

What are other ways - either current or envisioned - that we can transform the way we think about, research, and represent places?

Nancy’s post illustrates the richness of neighborhoods that may be hard to appreciate through the tunnel vision that is often characteristic of research that follows “a social problems approach.”  Margery makes a valuable addition by noting research should also include the study of policies, institutional practices, and market forces that impact neighborhoods.  I think we have come somewhere in understanding how a problems-only focus can be harmful by de-contextualizing community life.  So perhaps a couple of general statements are in order:  It makes sense to resist the tendency to de-contextualize neighborhood circumstances and, it makes sense to support efforts to appreciate the contexts of community life.

Through these posts we have identified some processes that contribute to de-contextualization: the narrow focus that may be expected in some grant applications, the adoption of a problems-only approach in research, and the limited extent to which we examine the impact of external factors including policies, institutional practices, and market forces on neighborhoods.  I am sure we could name more.  And, we can also think of ways that would encourage greater appreciation of context in neighborhoods: greater diversity in the research and policy community, using research methods that are capable of addressing the complexity of place, and assuring that community members’ interests and expertise are key components of reform.

As I think about criminal justice, the issues of context are at the heart of the profound change that is promised by the focus on procedural justice, the work of the President’s Task for on 21st Century Policing and community driven demands for reform in policing, sentencing and prison practices.

Great input by all!  I've enjoyed getting caught up on this conversation.  In particular, I've appreciated the insight of Dr. Klofas because his examples hit so close to home.

Because he works at RIT, I'll use an example from that university.  In Rochester, RIT has been running a community-based research program called University/Community Partnership in the neighborhood of Marketview Heights. The neighborhood’s civic action group, Marketview Heights Collective Action Project (MV CAP) work on a variety of revitalization projects in their neighborhood including vacant lot improvements, beautification, and community gardens. They even created a volunteer-run resource center that helps unemployed neighbors find employment. We learn that groups like MV CAP are put off when their neighborhood is labeled by its deficits. Labels like ‘high-crime’, ‘distressed,’ or ‘poor’ overlook MV CAP’s important work and the richness provided by the neighborhood’s strong social network. These labels do not reflect their views of their own neighborhood.

We need to rethink the language and approaches we use to address issues in our City neighborhoods. CBR has taught us the importance of strength-based or asset-based approaches.  We try to instill these approaches in our work and interactions with the public.

It's clear that a paradigm shift is necessary.  Too often, research and policy is done from the perspective of an "outsider looking in" rather than that of an "insider looking out".  What do I mean by that?  An outsider with no history or emotional investment in an area may see a "distressed neighborhood" or a "high crime area" or a "ghetto".  But if we take an insider approach, I think we'll find that they seldom use those terms.  Instead, they  use terms that convey more positive emotions.  Terms like "community", "family", "love" and "home".

Sadly, when we use labels that focus on deficits, we run the risk of creating self-fulfilling prophesies.  Labels lead us to jump to negative and over-simplified conclusions about particular communities and places which can work to reinforce socioeconomic segregation. If you hear ‘high-crime’ or ‘concentrated poverty’ it can lead you assume a certain set of (negative) characteristics. This can be misleading and damaging.  For example, we’ve recently conducted a door-to-door survey in an area that has been labeled in a negative way. Our surveyors were surprised and impressed with the residents they met and the diversity of the area. They were not expecting to encounter something positive. Labeling can reduce a whole community to its challenges and can be isolating for the people in that neighborhood.

The City of Rochester is highly engaged with our residents, neighborhoods, and local media. We need to be cognizant of how we address certain issues- especially in our presentation of statistics and facts around serious challenges like educational attainment, concentrated poverty, and crime. Educating ourselves and the community about these issues is necessary, but we need to do this in a way that is inclusive and highlights assets and progress. In practice, we look to neighborhood groups and residents for input on our interpretation of data and ask them to participate in planning as much as possible. We try to increase our understanding of the positive forces within neighborhoods by engaging neighborhood leaders and working closely with community based organizations. We can change by shifting our strategy from top-down problem solving to community driven solutions and asset based approaches.

What a rich, insightful, and informative discussion! I've enjoyed learning from the diverse perspectives of our policy debate participants.  This discussion led us to some key principles (many summarized by John - thanks for doing my job for me, professor!) that should be shared with the larger field in the interests of ensuring our research, regardless of the noble intentions underlying it, does no harm.  Much relies upon acknowledging communities' assets in the language we use and the data we present, while removing the "otherness" of our scholarly pursuits -- engaging community members as partners in the production of knowledge and its implications for policies and practices that support communities and the people who live there.

Thank you all for being a part of this important discussion.  I hope you’ll continue the discussion on Twitter.