Is There Such a Thing as the American Ghetto?

Is There Such a Thing as the American Ghetto?

Today, the term “ghetto” comes across as at best anachronistic, at worst offensive. Does it still have any value?

"Chicago Ghetto on the South Side," 1974 (John H. White / National Archives)

Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea
by Mitchell Duneier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, 320 pp.

The word “ghetto” landed Bernie Sanders in trouble. During a Democratic primary debate last March he claimed, “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto.” Sanders’s choice of words was at best anachronistic, at worst offensive. When he further asserted that whites didn’t “know what it’s like to be poor,” Sanders implied that only blacks were impoverished. In so doing, Sanders not only underlined his difficulties attracting African-American voters but also undercut his campaign strategy to unite working-class and middle-class Americans of all backgrounds against the “billionaire class.”

The controversy over Sanders’s usage of “ghetto” suggests how the term’s meaning has shifted. As Mitchell Duneier shows in Ghetto, for most of the word’s half-millennium history, it invoked Jewish areas in European cities. Only after the Second World War did “ghetto” come to mean segregated African-American communities. The civil rights activists who imported the term believed urban African Americans suffered from a systemic racism similar in kind if not in degree to that faced by Jews under fascism. The term continued to have this connotation for many into the 1960s. But today the term has come to have more negative overtones, suggesting poor conditions in African-American neighborhoods without necessarily recognizing society’s responsibility for them.

However, Duneier argues that the concept of “ghetto” remains indispensable for describing the lives of lower-class African Americans. Best known for his 1992 ethnography Slim’s Table, which profiled black men living on Chicago’s South Side and challenged the stereotypes they faced, Duneier is a distinguished sociologist in his own right. Ghetto, though, is an intellectual history showing the productive uses to which “ghetto” has been put by prior generations of social scientists. Duneier focuses on three African-American scholars: Horace Cayton, Kenneth Clark, and William Julius Wilson. They offer us a window onto how discourse about the ghetto developed at different historical moments and how ghettoes themselves have changed for the worse since the mid–twentieth century.


In 1516, Venice segregated its Jewish residents in a gated area near a copper foundry or geto. Other European cities followed suit. Predictably, ghetto residents suffered from poverty, overpopulation, squalor, and disease. Perversely, these conditions were used to portray Jews as inferior and to justify their forced segregation “not as the direct consequence of discrimination . . . but as the natural state and deserved fate of those who had betrayed Christ.” Nevertheless, Duneier argues, a relative lack of external regulation allowed a “certain flourishing” of Jewish culture.

In his analysis of medieval Jewish ghettos, Duneier introduces two opposing perspectives. On the one hand, ghettos result from the oppression of a minority group that is bound to negatively affect its quality of life. As W.E.B. Du Bois once put it, “If you degrade people the result is degradation, and you have no right to be surprised at it.” On the other hand, to stress only the pathologies of the ghetto dehumanizes its residents and thereby helps justify and perpetuate its existence. Conversely, solely celebrating the cultural vitality of the ghetto implies that no real harm is done to its residents. Obviously both social pathology and cultural flourishing must be recognized. But Duneier also argues that the balance between the two varies considerably from time and place. Considering how much pathology and how much flourishing enables us to crucially distinguish among different kinds of ghettos.

During the Second World War, activists and scholars began to apply “ghetto” to African-American neighborhoods in northern cities then expanding because of the boom in wartime production. The term was now salient because it was associated with fascism. In fact, the Nazi “ghetto,” designed to totally segregate Jews and exclude them from the economy, differed qualitatively from earlier Jewish ghettos and their African-American analogues. But proponents of racial equality eagerly drew the analogy to fascism, which had helped discredit white supremacy. They were making not a “literal comparison” but rather “a claim that their experience was of comparable importance for Americans to that of Jews in Europe . . . [and] were entitled to a place of priority in America’s conscience.”

Using the term “ghetto” highlighted systemic racism invisible to most white Americans. While European Jewish ghettoes manifestly resulted from government policy, the conditions that produced the racial segregation in the urban North were hidden in plain sight. Residential segregation was enforced by methods such as restrictive covenants written into housing deeds that prevented sale of property to non-whites. The National Association of Real Estate Boards code of ethics stated, “a realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.” Such practices were, as Duneier remarks, “invisible to the eye and created the illusory impression that the segregation it created was based on happenstance, market forces, or individual preferences.” Nevertheless, they predictably produced overcrowding, disproportionately higher housing prices, and related problems in black neighborhoods.

To Duneier, Horace Cayton played a crucial role in applying “ghetto” to African-American neighborhoods. In fact, Duneier offers little evidence that Cayton’s use of “ghetto” was especially influential or even essential to Cayton’s work. But there is hardly any doubt as to the pioneering nature of Cayton’s analysis of urban African-American life. Cayton was the grandson of the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate and the son of a wealthy Seattle newspaper publisher. In the 1930s, Cayton enrolled as a graduate student in the famous “Chicago School” of sociology at the University of Chicago. While there, he directed a massive study of the Chicago Black Belt that became the classic study Black Metropolis (1945).

Cayton’s coauthor, African-American anthropologist St. Clair Drake, gets too little attention here given that he wrote two-thirds of the book. But Duneier offers a fascinating account of how Cayton kept his project going that highlights the challenges of conducting sociological research on black ghettoes at the time. When initial funds from the Works Progress Administration ran dry, Cayton secured money from the Jones Brothers, Black Belt racketeers who in turn received praise in Black Metropolis. Cayton lacked the lavish funding the Carnegie Foundation showered on Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who wrote the famous An American Dilemma (1944). As Duneier reveals, Myrdal knew of Cayton’s research and sought to use it in his own book. But Cayton would not share his work with Myrdal without adequate compensation and Carnegie funds to complete his own project. Myrdal refused Cayton’s requests, with the result that his landmark study of racism and African-American life emphasized the Jim Crow South at the expense of the urban North.

Though Cayton and Drake were heavily influenced by Chicago School methods and ideas, they rejected the notion that Chicago’s black neighborhoods were voluntary enclaves like the European-American immigrant communities described by other Chicago sociologists. As Duneier argues, “The Chicago School model, in which immigrants assimilated freely if they wanted to—that for each group, their time would come—had no meaningful conception of racism.” African Americans, unlike European immigrants, could not use the ghetto as a waystation to move to better areas because they typically could not leave Chicago’s Black Belt no matter how much they prospered. Though Cayton and Drake tactfully omitted the University of Chicago’s role in backing restrictive covenants to keep blacks out of Hyde Park, they showed that the South Side ghetto was a deliberate product of racial exclusion.

Black Metropolis portrayed black ghettoes as part of a “vicious cycle of outside repression and urban decay.” Given that African Americans were restricted to certain areas of the city, their neighborhoods had a population density more than four times greater than white areas. It was environmental conditions, not moral inferiority, that explained the prevalence of social pathology in the Black Belt. In his introduction to Black Metropolis, Richard Wright praised it as offering sociological confirmation of his celebrated novel Native Son: “It pictures the environment out of which the Bigger Thomases of our nation come.”

At the same time, Duneier emphasizes, Black Metropolis stressed the “rich manifestation of black life and culture” in the black neighborhood it termed “Bronzeville.” Precisely because middle-class African Americans had few opportunities to move elsewhere, Bronzeville had considerable class diversity. There was far more to Bronzeville than just the negative consequences of oppression. Black Metropolis merged its sociological dissection of the effects of oppression with an anthropological account of everyday life. To recognize a group’s culture in this way is to acknowledge its humanity. To this day, Black Metropolis remains a model for how to analyse the social ills of an oppressed community without losing sight of its vibrant culture.

Duneier’s next subject, Kenneth Clark, illuminates a different phase of discourse about the ghetto: the civil rights era. Clark, the first black tenured professor at CUNY, wrote the influential 1965 study of Harlem Dark Ghetto. Previously, he had testified for the NAACP in cases that led to the 1954 Brown decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, drawing on psychological research on the effects of racism on schoolchildren conducted with his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark. Dark Ghetto appeared just as national media attention shifted from the Jim Crow South to the urban North. It was published just one year after the Harlem riots, which presaged the Watts uprising of 1965 and the “long, hot summer” of 1967. Not coincidentally, it was in 1965 that print references to African-American ghettoes outpaced those to Jewish ones (according to an analysis of books in the Google database conducted by Duneier).

Duneier demonstrates that Clark’s multifaceted analysis of Harlem was vastly superior to simplistic explanations for ghetto poverty circulating during the 1960s. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for example, reduced the problems of urban African Americans to their “matriarchal” family structure. Ironically, Moynihan borrowed the term “tangle of pathology” from Clark, who had intended it to apply to a wide range of interconnected problems—unemployment, crime, drug abuse, and inadequate housing and education—of which family instability was just one part of a broader web.

Although Clark’s bleak portrait of Harlem stressed social pathology, it did not dehumanize its subjects. Clark had lived most his life in Harlem, and he presented Dark Ghetto as the “anguished cry of its author.” He quoted Harlem residents describing their community’s problems. Clark left no doubt that the problems of the ghetto could be traced to the overall pathology of a racist society that rendered black society an internal “colony” exploited by powerful whites.

Duneier uses Clark to suggest how the black ghetto had changed for the worse since the 1940s despite progress toward obtaining equal civil rights. Indeed, postwar suburbanization left urban black Americans more spatially isolated and further removed from jobs as factories fled central cities. Duneier suggests that Harlemites in the 1960s were worse off in terms of cultural flourishing than residents of Chicago’s Black Belt a generation prior. But as Daniel Matlin shows in his excellent recent book On the Corner, Clark’s portrait of Harlem was vigorously challenged by other African-American intellectuals including Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and Amiri Baraka. The emergence of Black Power as both a political and cultural movement indicates a considerable amount of vitality in African-American neighborhoods during the 1960s that Duneier overlooks.

While Clark’s analysis emerged from the civil rights era, sociologist William Julius Wilson’s work reflected an era of conservative reaction. During the 1980s conditions in lower-class urban African-American communities incontestably worsened due to the acceleration of deindustrialization, the counterattack against the welfare state, and the halting of civil rights momentum. Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) were influential pivots in scholarly and public debate.

Wilson argued for the significance of class over race. He claimed that the problems of the black “underclass” derived not from racial discrimination but from a postindustrial economy that left unskilled and uneducated workers with few good jobs. As a black middle class benefited from new opportunities and fled the ghetto, poorer blacks were left even more isolated. Middle-class African Americans were no long around to “serve as role models for the poor . . . [and] sustain the churches, recreational facilities, stores, and schools in these communities.” Concentrated poverty, Wilson argued, was worse than poverty dispersed within a class-diverse area.

Conservative intellectuals opportunistically seized on Wilson’s argument as proof that racism was in decline, but Wilson consistently rejected conservative uses of his work. “Take me off that list,” he responded when invited to a 1981 meeting of black conservatives at the White House. A social democrat, Wilson argued for universal measures such as public works programs. He called such policies a “hidden agenda” that would best cure the underlying economic ills of the ghetto while nevertheless winning cross-racial support.

As Duneier recognizes, Wilson’s hidden agenda was self-defeating. In fact, Wilson’s very use of the term “ghetto” belied his effort to deemphasize race. As Duneier recounts, Wilson defined the “ghetto” in race-neutral terms as any area with 40 percent of its residents in poverty. Yet everyone knew that “ghetto” meant “black,” and Wilson barely mentioned poor white or Hispanic neighborhoods.

Wilson was at his best when explaining how race and class interacted in new ways in the post–civil rights United States. But he erred when he couched his argument as emphasizing class instead of race. In so doing, Wilson overlooked specific effects of racism: as Duneier points out, for example, “the persistence of racial segregation in housing markets made poverty concentration and black social isolation inevitable.” At his worst, Wilson impoverished the concepts of “racism” and “class.” He fueled a fruitless and unnecessarily divisive “race vs. class” debate that has persistently plagued the American left.

Duneier concludes by arguing for the continued value of the term “ghetto.” Certainly it is superior to the obvious alternatives. “Inner city” is not only too euphemistic; it is now geographically inaccurate. Phrases such as “lower-class African-American neighborhood” are anything but pithy. Duneier compellingly argues throughout his book that “ghetto” allowed analysts to pinpoint how institutional racism shapes black neighborhoods. But Duneier neglects the term’s pejorative connotations, which are especially evident when it refers not to a place but to a people (as in “ghetto blacks,” a phrase Duneier occasionally uses).

Ethnographic study of the kind Duneier champions is indispensable, but it can only take us so far. Sanders misstepped when he spoke of the “ghetto,” but he offered the kind of critique we need when he attacked the “institutional racism” embodied by the “criminal justice system.” Best of all, Sanders’s campaign efforts linked the problems of lower-class urban African Americans to the broader problems of inequality, unrestrained capitalism, and political dominance of the 1 percent. Perhaps the biggest problem with the “ghetto” concept is that it focuses attention to the neighborhood level when our most pressing need is to analyze the broader system that perpetuates oppression and poverty.

Daniel Geary is the Mark Pigott Associate Professor of U.S. History at Trinity College Dublin. His most recent book is Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy.

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