Inner-City Blues

Ghetto is one of those words that ring tinnily today. The put-down “He’s ghetto” implies that its target is low-class or unsavory—an association that only has meaning in the context of America’s poisonous culture of race. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, when social scientists fretted about a “ghetto underclass” of single mothers, welfare-dependent children, and “superpredators,” the term enjoyed a brief recrudescence. But then a diverse array of scholars, including historian Michael B. Katz, sociologist Herbert J. Gans, and political scientist Adolph Reed, stepped in to point out that ghetto and underclass alike were value-laden and inaccurate, reinforcing a stereotype of poor Americans as a group fundamentally separate from society, possessing dangerously unknown values and motivations. It’s hard today to find an American sociologist or historian who uses ghetto without scare quotes or at least serious qualifications. Enter Mitchell Duneier, a distinguished Princeton-based ethnographer, who seeks to revive the descriptive and historical use of the term.

The word comes from sixteenth-century Italy. There, in 1516, the Venetian senate, fearful of the city’s rapidly growing Jewish population, confined Jews to the Ghetto Nuovo, an area associated with a municipal copper foundry. “Il ghetto or getto,” Duneier instructs us, “is derived from gettare, which means ‘the pouring or casting of metal.’” From there, the word spread throughout early-modern Europe to describe those neighborhoods where authorities cordoned off Jews.

Over the next few centuries, as the Jews were slowly emancipated in Western Europe, ghettos ceased to be strictly sites of forced resettlement. By the early-twentieth century, the term had taken on a looser meaning: Ghetto came to denote any densely populated, predominantly Jewish neighborhood from Prague to the Lower East Side. In the 1930s, the Nazis revived the involuntary ghetto, but with a degree of brutality, total control, and absolute segregation that would have been unimaginable to the founders of Venice’s ghetto.

This new idea of the ghetto traveled to the United States, Duneier contends, through the work of African American journalists and intellectuals in the ’30s and ’40s. “As spatial restriction of blacks increased,” he maintains, “the Nazi persecution of Jews became an available analogy for some.” Both Fascists and white supremacists held to a rigid scheme of racial classification and devised technologies to enforce racial subordination. The analogy was, of course, imperfect, but it was politically resonant for black activists seeking to discredit American racism by associating Hitler with Jim Crow, Hamburg with Hattiesburg.

The heart of Duneier’s book spans the period from World War II to the early-twenty-first century, tracing the changing definition of the ghetto in America through an intellectual history of sociology and social policy. Duneier follows the careers of four men—all African American—who grappled with the question of how the modern ghetto had taken shape in two cities, Chicago and New York. Horace Cayton, by far the most interesting of Duneier’s protagonists, was a Chicago-trained sociologist who launched an ambitious project that would lead to the landmark book Black Metropolis, published in 1945 and still the best social-scientific account of an American city in print. Next, Duneier follows the career of Kenneth B. Clark—the psychologist most famous for his doll studies showing that black children reacted favorably to white dolls but not to black dolls—whose findings influenced the Supreme Court in its Brown v. Board of Education decision. Duneier then turns to the most prominent black sociologist of the late-twentieth century, William Julius Wilson, who, like Cayton, made a career studying race and class in Chicago. Wilson became famous—or infamous, depending on his readers’ politics—for his influential argument about the “declining significance of race” in the 1970s, and for his assertion, in the mid-’80s, that the black urban poor had grown increasingly marginal and isolated as their black middle-class betters fled to the suburbs. This pattern of geographic isolation, Wilson argued, left poor African American families stranded in decaying inner cities with few social connections and no informal networks of social control. Duneier’s fourth biographical vignette focuses on the educational reformer Geoffrey Canada, who channeled tens of millions of dollars of corporate and philanthropic contributions into the Harlem Children’s Zone, an experiment in undoing the “pathologies” of poverty by training inner-city parents in effective child-rearing techniques and encouraging their children to be more hardworking and motivated. Canada’s well-funded initiatives have, unlike the work of the three other figures profiled in Ghetto, left inner-city racial segregation unchallenged.

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark studying a child’s reactions to white and black dolls, 1947. © Gordon Parks Foundation, Courtesy Library of Congress
Dr. Kenneth B. Clark studying a child’s reactions to white and black dolls, 1947. © Gordon Parks Foundation, Courtesy Library of Congress

Duneier’s intellectual biographies sparkle with revealing details. Cayton scrambled to get adequate funding for his massive Chicago project and, as a result, relied heavily on contributions from Chicago’s black underworld, including its wealthy numbers runners. Clark, a liberal lion, grew increasingly pessimistic about American race relations because of his experience in the North, where liberal whites trumpeted their support for civil rights while accepting the near-total segregation of their cities, their schools, and their workplaces as natural and immutable. In 1964, the same year that Congress passed landmark civil-rights legislation, Clark acerbically commented, “I have come to the conclusion that so far as the Negro is concerned, the ethical aspect of American liberalism . . . is primarily verbal.” Clark came to analogize the plight of American cities to the war in Southeast Asia, pointing to the “potential Vietnam . . . within Newark’s and other American ghettos,” but he didn’t think America’s homegrown guerrillas would be able to repel what he had come to see as a military invasion. Instead, he predicted an endless “day-to-day riot of the human spirit.”

Duneier offers one of the best—and certainly the most readable—accounts of the transformation of American sociological thinking on race. Like the most accomplished intellectual biographers, he situates his subjects in fierce debate with their contemporaries and with each other. He shows how it’s impossible to understand Cayton and Clark without examining their vexed relationship with Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, who received millions of dollars in funding to conduct research on American race relations, resulting in the landmark book An American Dilemma, published in two massive volumes in 1944.

But this historian wanted to read a little more sociology in these pages. For all the power of Duneier’s intellectual biographies, the topic of ghettoization sometimes slips out of view. His book is ultimately about the idea of the ghetto, not the place itself. He offers only fleeting explanations of why a system of residential segregation by race emerged in early-twentieth-century American cities.

It’s an especially puzzling oversight, since other scholars have produced rich explorations of the subject. The historian Carl Nightingale has insightfully argued, in his 2012 book Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities, that the rigid division of cities by race grew from systems of imperial control in European colonies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and took on a new form amid fears of contagion and disease in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Nightingale describes a global period of twentieth-century “segregation mania,” which included American-style Jim Crow and black ghettoization, Nazism, and South African apartheid. In other accounts, the rise of racial segregation and the modern ghetto is intimately entwined with the rise of modern science and social science, as these disciplines provided rigid definitions of race, justified racial sorting and separation, and, by the 1920s, had linked ostensibly innate racial differences to the valuation of property.

Racial segregation is also the result of deliberate public policy, another topic that Duneier mentions but leaves woefully underdeveloped. He puts far too much emphasis on the importance of racially restrictive covenants—clauses in deeds and titles to houses that forbade sale to, or rental or occupancy by, nonwhites, a widespread practice in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. But these racial restrictions had a short shelf life—the Supreme Court rendered them unenforceable in 1948—and were never, in any event, the most effective mechanisms for maintaining racial segregation. Far more important, though scarcely discussed in these pages, were the massive federal home-ownership programs created during the New Deal and World War II that carved up American cities into rigid territories of black and white—with blacks unable to access federally backed home loans and mortgages. This trapped them in neighborhoods segregated by public policy and in home-financing markets dominated by predatory lenders.

What we get at the end of Ghetto, then, is a provocative and often brilliant history of urban sociology and public policy—but not much of a sense of where the ghetto came from, what it was, and what it is becoming. Today’s America is less segregated than it has been at prior points in our modern history, but certain patterns continue. The idea of the ghetto has shifted over time, but its form has remained persistent. Black and white Americans still remain remarkably separate and unequal today, and new research on Latinos by Princeton sociologist Marta Tienda points to a disturbing trend of Latino “hypersegregation,” particularly in immigrant-magnet cities. Regardless of how we understand the historical ramifications of ghetto as both a fraught word and an idea, racial segregation in housing and education—and racial inequality as a result—has remained a stubborn fact of life.

Thomas J. Sugrue is a professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University and the author of many books, including These United States: A Nation in the Making, 1890 to the Present (with Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore) (Norton, 2015).