cover image Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea

Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea

Mitchell Duneier. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-16180-4

In his timely history of the black American ghetto and the thinkers who theorized and defined it, Princeton sociologist Duneier (Sidewalk) resuscitates the “forgotten ghetto” and the various ways it was understood. Tracing decades of scholarship that is inextricable from its political context, Duneier focuses on the prescient African-American scholars who were too often overshadowed by more prominent white academics. Post-WWII, Horace Cayton drew on the history of Jewish ghettos from 16th-century Venice to Nazi Germany, forging a metaphorical link between the Jewish and black ghettos and assisting his crusade against the racial covenants he saw as instrumental in the creation of the black ghetto. Kenneth Clark’s civil rights–era criticisms of “social work colonialism” and understanding of ghetto dwellers as “subject people” echoed Black Power rhetoric. William Julius Wilson’s analysis, emphasizing an economic framework over a racial one, gained traction during the Reagan era, and the tactics of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone reflect a modern, corporate mind-set. Duneier’s main lesson is perhaps the most damning: the intractability of the black ghetto results from a moral failure of white Americans, who remain unwilling to make sacrifices for the benefit of racial minorities. It is not an easy conclusion to hear, but Duneier’s far-reaching and incisive study makes it a hard one to deny. (Apr.)