If you ain’t ever been to the ghetto

Ivan Schneider

June 08, 2016

If you ain’t ever been to the ghetto
Don’t ever come to the ghetto
‘Cause you wouldn’t understand the ghetto
And stay the fuck out of the ghetto

"Everything’s Gonna Be Alright" (1991), Naughty by Nature

Mitchell Duneier’s Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea uses the stories of prominent sociologists to trace the etymology and usage of a single word: “ghetto.”

If you don’t understand the ghetto, Duneier’s book might not be your best starting point. Even though Ghetto is written for a general audience, the author nevertheless assumes a certain level of knowledge about zoning ordinances, redlining policies and federal public housing programs.

Duneier traces an intellectual history of attempts to answer the question of what should be done about the ghetto. In doing so, the narrative recaps the major battles of the culture wars as they were fought on the op-ed pages of major national newspapers, conservatives blaming welfare and liberals blaming discriminatory policies.

What’s missing is a detailed explanation of the specific mechanisms by which the ghettos were created. Since that’s reasonably out of scope for Duneier’s book, I’d recommend as prerequisites two classics of urban planning: The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961, anniversary edition: 2011) by Jane Jacobs, a general theory of the factors that go into making a neighborhood succeed or fail, and The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1975) by Robert A. Caro, an extended case study of systemic failures in governance.

The first part of Ghetto is essentially an extended version of an OED entry. In 1516, a new law instructed refugee Jews in Venice to live on a gated and guarded island, from which they were not permitted to leave at night. The island was known for its copper foundry, and in Italian, the verb for casting something in metal is “gettare,” making “il ghetto” a place where metal casting occurs. For Jewish wordsmiths, there’s also an embedded pun with the word “get,” as in a bill of divorce. Get it?

The story continues with the Jewish ghetto in Rome, formed in 1555 and abolished only in 1870 just prior to the Risorgimento, the founding of Italy as a nation the following year. In these ghettos, the minority was forcibly separated from the majority in a way that nevertheless allowed its inhabitants to survive and maintain their own traditions and customs.

Along came Hitler. The Nazis transformed the concept of "ghetto" into being a guarded urban prison and waystation to the death camps.

Duneier points to the first reference to the ghetto in an African-American context with a 1917 usage by W.E.B. DuBois. For the most part, the term prior to WWII referred to Jewish immigrant neighborhoods in cities in the U.S. and around the world. It was only after the war, with conditions worsening in African-American communities, when appropriation of the term “ghetto” connoted a sense of hopelessness, oppression and external containment.

Beyond the etymology, Duneier tells the stories of four people who dedicated their professional lives to understanding the problems of the African-American ghetto. And as far as I’m concerned, each mini-biography is ready for the full adulatory biopic treatment.

Black Metropolis

Horace Cayton Jr. was raised in Capitol Hill in a house near 19th and Madison. His parents were the founders ofThe Seattle Republican, an outspoken voice against discrimination. But then, in 1913, the paper shut down.

Cayton became Seattle's first black police officer. Then, he enrolled in a sociology doctorate program at University of Chicago in 1931. He conducted extensive research on the community life of Chicago's black neighborhoods. Racial restrictive covenants in white neighborhoods prevented homeowners from selling a home to a non-white buyer, and these covenants were enforced by law and with torches.

Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal is hired by the Carnegie Corporation to write an objective study of racial problems in the United States. Myrdal pressures Cayton to share his field notes and interview transcripts, but he won't offer Cayton a full-time staff position nor help him to get an advance for his own book. Cayton holds out for a better deal, but none is forthcoming.

Without Cayton’s help, Myrdal completes his widely-praised yet myopic "An American Dilemma" (1944), which portrays good-natured whites as being against economic discrimination in principle. As such, the enlightened populace should be primed to welcome black labor into the workforce.

Cayton and anthropologist co-author St. Clair Drake publish a form of response in "Black Metropolis" (1945). In their research, they observed a vast gulf between whites' lofty stated ideals and their visible behavior. They quote white people forcefully maintaining their privileges in the housing and labor markets, and they document the lived experience of black people struggling to find homes and jobs.

In the end, Myrdal and Cayton come to terms to co-write a fully documented and fully funded expose on race in America. Together, they puncture the myth of an American public ready for integration, leading to rapid racial reconciliation and the adoption of enlightened policies toward racial harmony in the postwar era. Their pioneering work ensures that 70 years later, racial harmony was fully achieved. (Yeah, I’m borrowing the “false happy ending” trick from The Big Short. This paragraph never happened.)

Benedict Cumberbatch will play the parts of both Myrdal and Cayton.

Dark Ghetto

Kenneth Clark, a Howard University senior, leads a protest against segregation at the U.S. Capitol in 1934. The protest makes the papers. There's a disciplinary hearing. The university president wants him suspended. Ardent speeches are made. Hotshot poly-sci professor Ralph Bunche stands up for Clark and his friends: "If they go, I go." The gambit works.

Kenneth and his brilliant love interest, Mamie Phipps, graduate together and go to Columbia to get doctorates in psychology. Kenneth lands a teaching job at CCNY, but nobody's hiring black women to teach. And so Mamie starts her own thing, a mental health facility for troubled youth in Harlem. They also hope to advocate for better schools and housing, but this broader approach soon causes conflict with their wealthy donors.

Kenneth thrives at CCNY, ending up as the school's first African-American full professor. His research is cited by Brown v. Board (1954). This elevates his social standing into new social circles, and he gets a TV gig on a PBS affiliate conducting extended interviews with James Baldwin, Malcom X and Martin Luther King.

Then, the big boss battle: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a professional politician and amateur social scientist, comes to prominence. In “The Negro Family” (1965), Moynihan argues that broken families have caused such lasting structural damage to the black community that nothing else would help until that is addressed first.

Professor Clark counters with "Dark Ghetto" (1965), a summation of his studies of the psychological effects of segregation along with his hands-on work with Harlem youth. He describes Harlem as a powerless colony of New York City. He sees the city as being subject to external control, only nominally led by incompetent politicians unable to get a significant piece of the action on any of the big construction projects. Based on his understanding of the psychological interactions between drug addiction, crime and lack of jobs, Clark prescribes as a first step greater investment in public schools.

Later, in 1975, Clark gets a teaching job at Stanford. Moynihan is to speak at the commencement ceremony. Protests ensue, and Clark makes an impassioned statement criticizing Moynihan's scholarship. The commencement goes ahead as planned.

Roll credits over footage of the wanton destruction of affordable New York City housing taken by eminent domain in the Robert Moses era (1924-1968).

Gas Panic

We’ll get back to Robert Moses. But first, we still have two more sociologists left in Duneier’s Ghetto. Quickly, the loglines:

The Truly Disadvantaged: In a world of suburban jobs and out-of-state company poachers, one man has a plan to promote full employment. Because for William Julius Wilson, the economic and technological trends that affect black workers also affect everyone else. Yet the new conservative champion Charles Murray says that it was welfare itself that destroyed the incentive to work. Will the majority go along with race-blind job assistance? Will they shoot down programs just because black people will benefit? Find out in this holiday blockbuster that will play over and over and over again.

O, Canada: Growing up in the projects, Geoffrey Canada knows violence and fear. He also understands the dreams and potential of youth. That’s why he founds Harlem Children's Zone to put kids on the right path. Wacky misadventures ensue. False happy ending: President Obama says, “Let’s open Children’s Zones across the entire United States!” Cliffhanger ending: A financial crisis distracts Obama, and his Secretary of Education is frozen in carbonite by a bounty hunter working for crime boss “Congress,” a corpulent and immobile ball of snot.

Now we have everything we need to put a franchise together. Meet your new favorite superhero team from “Marable Comics”.

The Ghetto All-Stars: Special guest star W.E.B. DuBois assembles a mighty team of superstar sociologists to fight poverty and oppression. When faulty circular arguments appear, mild-mannered sociologists Horace Cayton, Jr., Kenneth Clark, William Julius Wilson and Geoffrey Canada transform themselves into…well, actually, they retain their impeccable manners throughout, very politely but firmly refuting faulty arguments while describing practical courses of action based on a rational, evidence-based models drawing from interdisciplinary research and well-documented fieldwork.

And with a team of superstars like that, who’s a villain big enough to put up a fight?

It has to be Robert Moses and the Triborough Authority. In case you’re not familiar with Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, here are some of Moses’s greatest hits:

  • Highways plowed through vibrant New York City neighborhoods without regard for the inhabitants.
  • Blacks actively discouraged from using public facilities intended for whites.
  • New parks and public pools built for white neighborhoods; utilitarian barriers and unbroken concrete for the black neighborhoods.
  • Slum clearances run by politically connected crony companies that give little notice and even less money to the economically marginalized people being displaced.
  • Families moved from one condemned building to the next, with displaced people overcrowding into the remaining tenement housing stock owned by abusive slumlords, leading to severe and shameful breakdowns of public health, sanitation and safety.
  • City mayors forced to prioritize roadbuilding over schools, hospitals, police and fire departments.
  • A forty-year standstill on investment in public transit leaves subways jammed and unsafe, and commuter trains slow and packed.
  • Low-clearance bridges on key highways prevent buses from establishing travel to nearby suburbs.
  • New highways are built without the option to add rail in the future, locking in the automobile as the only way to get around.
  • Planners from all over the country visit New York to see how it’s done, and they find plenty of money available from auto, energy and construction interests to follow similar blueprints in building a car-dependent America.

Oh, and this egomaniacal New York builder responded to any perceived slight or challenge to his authority or ambition by attacking the questioner’s motives, personality and looks. He knew how to play the media. He figured out how to gain power in unconventional ways that had never been done before. And his lasting ambition was to put his name on big works.

I smell sequel.

“Save us, Ghetto All-Stars!”

Books in this review:
  • Ghetto
    by Mitchell Duneier
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    April 18, 2016
    304 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Ivan writes shelf talkers for Mercer Street Books. You can also find him at www.ivantohelpyou.com.

Follow Ivan Schneider on Twitter: @ivantohelpyou

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