Sociology Urban Inequality in the United States
Christina Jackson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0230


Urban inequality is a multidisciplinary field that incorporates political economists, geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians, who describe the existence of unequal opportunities in urban spaces. Inequality manifests in a growing gap between the rich and poor and the dominance of unequal opportunities and access across the urban landscape. Vulnerable communities, including the poor and racial and ethnic groups, can be the most impacted by inequality. While inequality exists everywhere, American urban inequality is traditionally understood as being more concentrated in spaces in proximity to a city’s central business district. Efforts toward privatization, increasing global investment, and urban redevelopment reflect trends in replacing social welfare with private capital, increasing the vulnerability of urban inhabitants, but also providing a glaring illustration of who is most effected. Given this, what has developed in urban spaces with cumulative racial, economic, and gendered disadvantages is a mix of cultural norms, but also survival strategies, networks, and resistance. Political economists and geographers are useful at describing how economic engines of cities influence urban policy, and in turn disproportionately negatively affect neighborhoods with less social capital. Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians are useful in recounting the specific historical processes by which segregation and deindustrialization, to name a few factors, led to the stigmatization of urban spaces. What develops are specific frames and connections to unequal spaces that result in new cultural norms and new relationships in city neighborhoods as they face transitions with increasing private development.


Anthologies on urban inequality tend to focus either on specific regions or include a mix of urban cities so as to compare similarities and differences in history and trends. McDonald 2016, Angotti 2017, and Lin and Mele 2005 provide a more global focus on the existence of unequal opportunities and the effect that urbanization has had on the social organization of spaces. O’Connor, et al. 2001; Gooding-Williams 1993; and LeGates and Stout 2000 focus more on the manifestation of place-specific inequalities.

  • Angotti, Tom, ed. 2017. Urban Latin America: Inequalities and neoliberal reforms. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Angotti’s volume on Latin America provides a different understanding of urban processes and organization than the Global North. It describes the effect of a global political economy on Latin America, highlighting the relationship between it and the United States, with particular attention paid to migration; urbanization; the creation of slums, favelas, and barrios; and the urban struggles over space.

  • Gooding-Williams, Robert, ed. 1993. Reading Rodney King/Reading urban uprising. New York: Routledge.

    With selections by Cedric Robinson, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Melvin Oliver, and Cornel West, this anthology unpacks the urban rebellion of the 1992 Rodney King beating in Los Angles, California. It frames the rebellions after the beating as a kind of powder keg of inequalities that black and poor people faced in Los Angles.

  • LeGates, Richard, and Frederic Stout, eds. 2000. The city reader. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

    This anthology specializes in readings about the city and the connections between the built environment, the political economic system, and the natural environment. While there is not an explicit focus on inequality, the contributions by many authors, including Harvey Molotch, W. E. B. DuBois, William Julius Wilson, Jane Jacobs, David Harvey and Mike Davis, and Saskia Sassen, point to how our economic system increases inequality and affects the way we live in and use the city.

  • Lin, Jan, and Christopher Mele. 2005. The urban sociology reader. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

    This volume teaches about many aspects of the creation, persistence, and inequality of urban spaces, including sections specifically on urbanization, urban growth, racial and social inequality, gender and sexuality, globalization, and culture.

  • McDonald, David, ed. 2016. Making public in a privatized world: The Struggle for Essential Services. London: Zed Books.

    McDonald’s Making Public in a Privatized World includes several case studies about global struggles in reinventing the public sector after failed privatized attempts that have increased urban inequality. In particular, Farhana, Mohanty, and Miraglia’s chapter describes water privatization struggles in densely populated Bangladesh, focusing specifically on the effect of privatization on urban women. These women promote a gender-equitable water system, and advocate for a public system that decreases intersectional and ecological vulnerability.

  • O’Connor, Alice, Chris Tilly, and Lawrence Bobo, eds. 2001. Urban inequality: Evidence from four cities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    Primarily focused on four sites (Atlanta, Los Angeles, Boston, and Detroit), this volume provides an overview of how urban inequality works in particular cities. It describes different forms of inequality, including racial attitudes, segregation, and unequal opportunities in the labor market.

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