Stuck in ‘Ghetto’

Stuck in ‘Ghetto’

In his new book, Mitchell Duneier explains why there is nothing natural about a ghetto.


Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” peaked at No. 3 on the American singles chart when it was released in 1969. The song tells the story of a Chicago family beset by poverty, crime, and violence. A verse halfway through portrays “a hungry little boy with a runny nose” who “plays in the street as the cold wind blows / In the ghetto / In the ghetto.” The music is a blend of folk, gospel, and dirge, with a haunting choir echoing the refrain—an unusual Top 10 hit.

The songwriter, Mac Davis, based his lyrics on the life of a boy he’d grown up with in Lubbock, Texas—“a black kid” whose home was in “a dirt-street ghetto.” Davis had originally called his song “The Vicious Circle”; not until the ’60s, he said, did the word “ghetto” cease to recall “Jewish ghettos in Poland.” During the civil-rights era, the word evolved “to describe the parts of urban areas where poor people were living and couldn’t get out,” Davis explained. “They were stuck there, and everybody took off to the suburbs.” His song makes no reference to the hungry little boy’s race, but arriving as it did in 1969—even refracted through Elvis—its allusions were clear. The ghetto was poor, black, urban, and difficult to escape. The ghetto was a problem, a riot waiting to happen, an object of pity and fear.

Nearly a half-century later, we use the word “ghetto” and its more palatable cousins—“the inner city,” “high-poverty neighborhoods,” “low-opportunity areas,” “underclass communities”—in much the same way. The races, and classes, mostly live apart in the United States, and the extremely poor still live in urban and suburban slums. It would be a mistake to believe that the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the growing Black Lives Matter movement, are responding solely to killings by police. The protests are also about economic exclusion: joblessness, debt, housing insecurity, food deserts, and mass incarceration.

The African-American (and increasingly Latino) ghetto seems a fixture of modern American life, yet, as Davis notes, it’s of recent vintage. The term is commonly thought to derive from getto, an archaic Venetian word for “foundry.” In the 16th century, it came to describe the quarantine of Jews in a Venetian district once used for metalwork—an early instance of environmental racism. Throughout the cities of medieval Europe, anti-Semitism fueled brutal policies of segregation. Yet for hundreds of years, Jewish communities found ways to thrive and preserve their culture. Not so under Nazi rule: Warsaw’s walled-off quarter was a ghetto in name only. It had nothing to do with living apart; it was a portal of death.

In his new book Ghetto, the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier begins by emending this “Nazi deception.” The Jewish ghetto, he writes, should be remembered not in connection with World War II, but on a historical spectrum from subjugation to flourishing. And we need a similar correction when it comes to the ghettos of 20th- and 21st-century America. “It has become harder and harder to recall the black ghettos of previous generations,” Duneier writes, “ghettos that were quite different from those we know now.”

* * *

In attempting to recover this lost notion, Duneier proceeds chronologically through the profiles of four black scholars—all men. Each of these chapters examines a slice of 20th- or 21st-century thought and focuses on Harlem or Chicago. The first is about Horace Cayton, coauthor of Black Metropolis (1945), a classic study of segregated Chicago. Next comes the psychologist Kenneth Clark, author of Dark Ghetto (1965), a grim assessment of midcentury Harlem. (Clark and his wife, Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark, also conducted the study in which black children were seen to prefer light-skinned dolls—a finding cited by the Supreme Court in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.) After Clark comes William Julius Wilson, who emphasized the prevalence of economic disenfranchisement in the post-civil-rights era in works like The Declining Significance of Race (1980) and The Truly Disadvantaged (1987). The last is Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone charter schools and the only nonacademic profiled in the book. What emerges in these chapters is a nonlinear, often cacophonous debate about the ghetto and what its residents want and need.

Duneier is an ethnographer, best known for his 1999 book Sidewalk, a portrait of black booksellers and panhandlers on the streets of New York City’s West Village. An earlier book, Slim’s Table (1992), depicts the social world of African-American regulars in a Chicago cafeteria. Both are based on immersive research: Duneier spent years living and working alongside his subjects. Ghetto, focused on the history of an idea, is quite unlike these works. It’s sprawling, not local; historical and synthetic rather than ethnographic. It has the feel of a course primer, and perhaps it will become one: The author has taught an undergraduate seminar called “The Ghetto” for many years, and he also coedited The Urban Ethnography Reader (2014).

Duneier, who is white, was raised in a secular Jewish family on Long Island. He received a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he absorbed the intellectual legacy of its famed sociology department. The Chicago School of sociology, developed by Robert E. Park, Clifford Shaw, and Louis Wirth, has been hugely influential in studies of the black inner city. As Duneier explains, “Park questioned the validity of abstractions about society made at a distance from the everyday activities of people and communities. For this reason, he sent his students out into neighborhoods…to observe everyday life firsthand” and “get to know these communities on their own terms.” This methodology is still with us, and so are the basic questions of the Chicago School: How have African Americans navigated the conditions of segregated life? Is it fair to compare poor black communities with those of white ethnics or other immigrants? Do poverty and crime reproduce themselves? Is geography destiny?

Yet a book published last year, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, by Northwestern University professor Aldon D. Morris, has challenged the supremacy of the Chicago School. Morris draws on an extensive historical record to argue that Du Bois was the first great American sociologist. His “sociology of race”—developed in works like The Philadelphia Negro (1899)—predated Park’s by two decades and deserves much more attention than it ever received, Morris asserts. (And others agree: In his introduction to a 1995 edition of The Philadelphia Negro, sociologist Elijah Anderson wrote that Du Bois’s research anticipated the work of the Chicago School but was never “given proper recognition” due to “the racial relationships of the era in which the book was first published.”) Morris contends that Park, a white scholar who worked with Booker T. Washington, absorbed the Tuskegee Institute’s accommodationist, social-Darwinist thinking and came to believe that African Americans were “handicapped by a double heritage of biological and cultural inferiority.” Park and his Chicago colleagues therefore failed to study black communities on their own terms, whereas Du Bois stressed a scientific understanding of race and human behavior grounded in census data, maps, statistics, and in-depth interviews.

Morris’s book has been called a “case for scholarly reparations”—giving Du Bois his proper due—and, in a sense, Ghetto performs a similar function. Duneier redeems the ghetto as it was understood by Cayton, Clark, Wilson, and Canada, and discusses how their work has been interpreted, used, and sometimes cast aside by white elites. Cayton’s career is telling in this regard: In the 1930s, he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, consumed by ethnographic research on the city’s South Side. (Some of this was for the Works Progress Administration, which was funding his work in 1936 when a penniless writer named Richard Wright stumbled into his office.) During this period, the Carnegie Corporation hired an economist, Gunnar Myrdal, to conduct a wide-ranging study on US race relations, bankrolled by an unusually large foundation grant. Myrdal, a white Swede, seemed an unlikely choice; but his foreignness, in Carnegie’s view, would give him legitimacy with both whites and blacks. In 1939 and 1940, Myrdal tried to recruit Cayton, who desperately needed the money. But Cayton smelled trouble: Myrdal intended to pay him a pittance, he gathered, while taking full possession of his South Side research. So Cayton refused to participate.

As a result, Duneier contends, Myrdal almost completely gave up on scrutinizing race relations in the North. His 1944 book for Carnegie, An American Dilemma, focused on the South and drew primarily on interviews with whites. Myrdal’s conclusion: Even those most “violently prejudiced against the Negro” could be woken up to the “American Creed of liberty, equality, justice and fair opportunity for everybody.” It was an optimistic view, to say the least—a wartime salve for the American public and policy-makers. But had Myrdal ventured north, to Chicago and other destinations of the Great Migration, he might have drawn less rosy conclusions. As Cayton and his research partner, St. Clair Drake, would write in Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945), white beliefs about black inferiority shaped everyday life in Chicago, from restrictive covenants to basic social interactions. Yet even so, African Americans managed to find pleasure and forge community.

By the time Kenneth Clark wrote Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power in 1965, the inner city seemed much bleaker. Despite the gains of the civil-rights movement, Clark—who’d assisted Myrdal with his research—observed a worsening of conditions in the slums and believed that poor blacks had become a “subject people.” He thus “frequently got lumped” in with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose report “The Negro Family”—released the same year as Dark Ghetto—pathologized the black community. A similar thing happened to Wilson in 1980, when he published The Declining Significance of Race. His argument about the growing influence of class on black people’s prospects was “intersectional” avant la lettre, but it was seized on by white conservatives. Among them was Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground (1984), an antiwelfare polemic, and The Bell Curve (1994), which argues that some races are more intelligent than others. The outlandish ethno-fatalism that animates Murray’s work had real-world consequences: In 1996, President Clinton “reformed” welfare by dismantling an array of programs that served the poor.

But Clark and Wilson inspired liberal ideas as well. In the years following the publication of Dark Ghetto, Clark’s analysis of Harlem as an “economic, political, and social colony was clearly generating new ways of thinking” for the Black Power movement and radical scholars, Duneier writes. The colonial metaphor connected American intellectuals to Third Worldism and gave rise to “a badly needed conceptual apparatus for distinguishing between black ghettos and immigrant enclaves” (what is now called “white privilege”). As for Wilson, his pragmatic “focus on poverty concentration and the spatial fix of poor blacks’ lives gained huge attention in policy circles,” inspiring major investments in federal housing programs; and his definition of the ghetto—an area in which at least 40 percent of the population lives in poverty—remains in use.

* * *

But when it comes to understanding—or curing?—the ghetto, no one has gotten it right. The problems of racism and poverty are too immense and intractable for any sociologist, activist, or technocrat to be designated an unqualified hero. Yet Duneier comes closest to anointing one in his profile of Geoffrey Canada. Since he took over the Harlem Children’s Zone in 1990, Canada has focused on improving life in a discrete section of New York City, and not just through charter schools. HCZ now runs after-school programs, a summer camp, housing and social-service centers, tax-preparation workshops, and even cooking classes. Not since Clark and his wife, Duneier says, “has anyone demonstrated such organizational capacities and vision for addressing the totality of a resident’s experience in his or her local ghetto from cradle to adulthood.” Duneier’s chapter on Canada, unlike those on Clark, Cayton, and Wilson, reads like hagiography, drawing on Canada’s memoir, news reports, and Paul Tough’s glowing book Whatever It Takes (2008). HCZ’s achievements are remarkable, but what should we think about the hedge-fund dollars behind them? Duneier admits that “Canada’s emphasis on public-corporate partnerships confer[s] legitimacy on neoliberal solutions to problems of the inner city,” but he credits his wisdom all the same. Like Wilson, Canada stands for the belief that an individual can “change at any age…that when restricted opportunities improve, so do aspirations and habits.”

For Duneier, urban sociology itself is a source of optimism. His reverence for its African-American practitioners—mostly men; women make few appearances in Ghetto—comes through on every page. Without saying so explicitly, Duneier locates himself on the privileged end of cross-race fieldwork, a familiar topic in his ethnographic writings. At various points in Slim’s Table and Sidewalk, he reflects on how his position as an upper-class white man affects how he’s perceived by his sources and treated by strangers in public.

Ethnographic ethics have been in the news recently, ever since the 2014 release of On the Run, by sociologist Alice Goffman (a former student of Duneier’s). Goffman’s book, which tracks six years in the lives of a group of friends in poor, majority-black Philadelphia, is a thrilling, intimate look at racism, policing, drugs, crime, masculinity, housing, and the labor market—all of them involved in the many problems of the contemporary ghetto. The book’s publication coincided with the emergence of Black Lives Matter, imbuing an academic text with rare popular relevance. But Goffman, who is young, white, and the daughter of famed sociologist Erving Goffman (though he died when she was a baby), has been accused of manipulating facts, promoting negative stereotypes, and even aiding and abetting crimes committed by her subjects. ( When interviewed about Goffman by New York magazine, Duneier said he trusted her account and had fact-checked her findings during many years of fieldwork.)

The storm around On the Run is nothing new. Ethnography as a mode of inquiry—in anthropology, sociology, and musicology—has been shaped by a ruthless colonial past. Its contemporary practitioners are trained to reflect on questions of privilege and cross-cultural knowledge, yet it remains true that the ethnographer is typically a lighter-skinned outsider, a foreign interlocutor and raconteur. Ethnographic sociology tends to court controversy, due both to its focus on vulnerable subjects and its “unscientific,” qualitative approach. Several years ago, in a case quite similar to Goffman’s, Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh was criticized for spinning a lurid, self-centered narrative in his 2008 book, Gang Leader for a Day. Before that, Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, faced a backlash against Heat Wave, his 2002 book about the hundreds of low-income black and Latino Chicagoans who died during one sweltering week in 1995. Duneier was Klinenberg’s chief detractor and accused him very publicly, in the journal Contemporary Sociology, of drawing racist conclusions about why so many more blacks than Latinos died. Klinenberg—who, like Duneier, is white—responded that Duneier had missed his point entirely, which was “to bust the ethnic myths that circulated throughout Chicago” and “to replace [them] with the counter-argument that social ecology and place—not race—determine vulnerability to the disaster.” But didn’t Duneier’s reaction ironically recall his own warning, in Slim’s Table, to avoid sociologists “who tend to function as politically correct stereotype guardians,” intent on reproving those who harbor “an unenlightened, negative image of blacks?”

The American ghetto is the full embodiment of this negative image—which is why, throughout his new book, Duneier urges us to look past the stereotypes of high-poverty urban neighborhoods. Any accurate conception of the ghetto, he says, must “highlight the variations in both control and human flourishing that can be found under conditions of forced segregation.” In Cayton’s time, this spectrum was on full display. De jure segregation produced black neighborhoods that were racially homogenous but socioeconomically diverse; their residents possessed some level of solidarity and developed rich intellectual and artistic traditions. Yet just a few decades later, as “the new middle class escaped the ghetto,” conditions deteriorated for those left behind.

Today, more than a quarter of poor African Americans and a sixth of poor Latinos are surrounded by extreme poverty, compared with one in 13 poor whites. Research has shown that, especially for young children, moving out of the ghetto into “higher-opportunity” neighborhoods can be transformative. But Duneier’s emphasis on the redemptive aspects of ghetto life points to the need for community investment, not just policies of “mobility.”

What might the inner city have become had it been made a public priority? There were early portents, Duneier writes, of the consequences of neglect. In 1974, long after writing Dark Ghetto and on the eve of retirement, Clark invited Myrdal to teach a final seminar with him the City University of New York. That very semester, Myrdal won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics. The men had known each other for over 30 years, since the younger Clark helped Myrdal with An American Dilemma. In the intervening decades, both had lost confidence in urban progress. “The constant theme of their discussions was the enormous change that had occurred in the South, while the North had been left behind,” Duneier recounts. The tone of their seminar was one of “disappointment…about the deterioration of Northern ghettos.”

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy