In post-war England, the ‘inner city’ has loomed large in urban discourse and policy. From anxieties regarding the ‘segregation’ of New Commonwealth ‘immigrants’ to the purported cultural dysfunction of a racialised, politically alienated ‘underclass’, it has served as an important site through which ‘race’ has been rendered socially and spatially meaningful. Drawing on insights from history, geography and sociology, this paper traces the material and symbolic processes through which the ‘inner city’ has been the subject and object of socio-political knowledge and action. The article examines what shifting understandings of the ‘inner city’ and related policy responses reveal about the racialisation of space and bodies, and the role of the state in rationalising and enacting specific urban imaginings and interventions. In historicising dominant conceptions of the ‘inner city’, we identify three distinct periods revealing key transformations within this formation: firstly, we consider how the idea operated as a looming spectre, in which the American ‘ghetto’ was seen as a predictor of ‘race relations’; secondly, we contend that during the 1970s and 1980s, the ‘inner city’ came to be ‘territorialised’ as a pathological, racialised space subject to particular modes of institutional regulation; finally, we examine the relative fragmentation of the ‘inner city’ in recent decades, through urban regeneration and changes in the spatialisation of ‘race’ and ethnicity.