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.”