During the March 6th Democratic primary debate in Flint, MI, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders remarked that white people “don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto.” The statement triggered an online backlash, and Hillary Clinton’s supporters had a field day razzing Sanders and his supporters over the candidate’s use of such a loaded term in such an indelicate (read: offensive) fashion, particularly in light of Sanders’s apparent inability to connect with black voters.
Sanders was trying to answer a question about his own racial blind spots by discussing the institutional racism, acts of police brutality, and other forms of violence that are used to subjugate neighborhoods predominantly made up of poor people of color. The phenomena he was describing are very real, but what mattered were the “optics” of using the term. Where Sanders erred was in failing to acknowledge the impact of institutional racism on the many black Americans who don’t live in historically defined ghettos.
The implication, of course, was that black people live in the ghetto and white people don’t, which is largely true depending on who is defining “the ghetto” and for what ends. Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, publicly expressed her anger and disapproval at Sanders’s error—while stumping for Clinton—by reminding the American public that not all black people are poor or live in ghettos. This is both indisputably true and sad, in that anyone had to be reminded at all.
But in that press release, Fulton also said, “Senator Sanders is wrong to suggest that the concept of the ghetto is inextricably connected to black America.” As it happens—and I recognize that I’m probably whitesplaining here—the ghetto as it is understood in America is inextricably connected to black America. In the 1940s it was black scholars who appropriated the term as a way to describe the conditions of de facto segregation faced by largely northern, urban blacks in the wake of the first Great Migration and at the beginning of the second (during WWII).
If only that Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier’s Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea had been released two months earlier. Because it is here that he shows precisely how St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s monumental 1945 study of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, Black Metropolis, “played a key role in introducing the ghetto into the discussion of racial inequality at midcentury.” Similarly, W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1949 on his third trip to Poland, visited the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, which resulted in his essay “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto.” Observing the nature of European racism changed Du Bois’s understanding of what racism was and could be, as well as how it operated.
Duneier’s book is more than the history of the ghetto and how it came to be recognized, it’s also a history of how the study of what came to be known as “the ghetto” in large part created the phenomenon itself and developed in parallel with it—the two feeding back on each other as they morphed through social, political, and economic change. In addition to Drake, Cayton, and Du Bois, Duneier revisits and synthesizes the works of Gunnar Myrdal, Kenneth Clark, William Julius Wilson, and Geoffrey Canada. Collectively, their work shows the black American ghetto moving “from an initial state of flourishing and autonomy to one of pathology and control.” Furthermore, that process was not natural, but “promoted by both private and state actions that were often discriminatory and even coercive.”
Today, the term “ghetto” carries a lot of symbolic baggage. Instead of referring to the conditions of oppression imposed upon flourishing urban black communities of the 1930s and 1940s, the word since the 1960s has become shorthand for poverty, criminality, dysfunction, and whatever other ills racists, classists, and their fellow-travelers can conveniently attach to it. The use of “ghetto” as a pejorative hasn’t been around nearly as long as its use as a socio-politico-spatial designation, but it’s probably the more common and definitely the more powerful one now. It’s also understandable why the term causes so many people to instinctively recoil at being associated with it.
Duneier’s excellent book—a history of the work of predominantly black scholars (Myrdal was Swedish) written by a white scholar—serves as a timely reminder that the history of the ghetto is not necessarily well known across swaths of the black community, never mind the white communities that desperately need to understand their role in that history. As Duneier notes: “The specter of the ghetto can blot out the success of the people who have exited, just as those successes can blot out the ghetto itself.” The book also indirectly, and ironically, shows how much black scholars have been marginalized and relegated to obscure quarters of academia—a place where thought can flourish even while it’s being institutionally controlled (once again by whites).
William Julius Wilson believed that by taking race out of the equation, whites would be more willing to support aid programs for the poor (which would then have the effect of helping out poor blacks as well as poor whites). That never really came to pass, the same way that Gunnar Myrdal’s earlier insistence that white morality would, in the face of knowledge of the realities of black life, change whites’ racist behavior never materialized. To expect that Duneier’s book will finally change white thought and behavior is equally absurd, but one must still have some hope. America is becoming less white and the way we discuss our collective American history must inevitably reflect that.