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book review

‘Ghetto’ as a place, metaphor, and disparagement

The Frankfurt ghetto circa 1865. Ghettos were often concentrations of deprivation and hardship
The Frankfurt ghetto circa 1865. Ghettos were often concentrations of deprivation and hardshipShutterstock / Everett Historical

A description, a place name, a disparagement, and a metaphor, the word “ghetto’’ has been part of Western civilization for five centuries, yet its meaning remains dimly understood.

Enter Mitchell Duneier’s “Ghetto,’’ a searing and searching examination of the political and cultural history at the root of this powerfully evocative and inflammatory term.

Ghetto finds its origins in a Venetian island that was home to a “geto,’’ or copper foundry, where, exactly 500 years ago, Jews were forced to live apart from the rest of the population. The word, and the restrictions it came to represent, spread. “In all these places,’’ the Princeton sociologist writes, the Jews “simultaneously suffered and flourished.’’

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Indeed, the word has a curious resilience, having been applied liberally to high-density enclaves of Jews in Europe and the United States and most recently to areas of urban America where blacks were concentrated and social pathologies often multiplied.

It was Napoleon, an unlikely liberator, who first sought to undermine the ghettos, a project that continues to this day. In the name of the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty and equality, he succeeded on the Adriatic in 1797 where Lyndon Johnson failed on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic some 17 decades later. Duneier argues that, like the black ghettos of America, the Jewish areas in Europe preserved traditions and created social solidarity but often at substantial cost.

A century ago most ghettos were both voluntary and Jewish, taking root in Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Frankfurt, Cologne, the Lower East Side of New York, and the West Side of Chicago. These were hardly successful communities, however, being concentrations of deprivation and hardship, often of prostitution. The involuntary Nazi ghettos that followed were far worse, conceived as instruments of segregation and evolved into holding pens for extermination.

American ghettos, too, have been sites of oppression, and in these pages Duneier allows us to view them through such landmark thinkers and activists as Horace Cayton, Kenneth Clark, William Julius Wilson, and Geoffrey Canada, each of whom rates a chapter teeming with academic studies, statistics, intellectual conflict, heartfelt efforts and, often, heartbreaking failures.

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A scholar and activist from a prominent black family, Cayton battled the race-restriction covenants prominent in many cities, especially Chicago.

Clark was a Columbia-trained intellectual whose work shaped the arguments in Brown v. Board of Education. His 1965 book, “Dark Ghetto,’’ portrayed the American version of the phenomenon in a far different light than its European counterpart: as the product of a landmark flight of blacks from the South to the North and of black powerlessness.

Duneier then introduces Wilson, who pioneered the emphasis of class over race in American life, winning the enmity of many black scholars and leaders in the late 1970s, when more blacks were in segregated schools than in 1954, the year the Supreme Court ruled against segregation. The enduring significance of Wilson is in his definition of a ghetto as any place where 40 percent of the population lived beneath the poverty level.

Even in a setting like that, an educator such as Canada would remain undaunted with his belief that, as Duneier puts it, “the solution was to improve communities from the ground up’’ — a notion that took form in Canada's Harlem Children’s Zone.

In these pages, too, are Gunnar Myrdal, whose “An American Dilemma’’ (1944) was one of the landmark 20th century studies of America’s race issue; Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose views on race and emphasis on the black family alienated him from his liberal friends and won him a new panoply of conservative allies; and Charles Murray, who viewed the federal social and economic programs targeted at the ghetto as an assault on personal incentives toward self-improvement.

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Some readers may leave this volume with the weary conclusion that the American version of the ghetto is the sad reflection of the nation’s failures regarding race. In some of these pages, Duneier shares that view, which bends toward hopelessness. But in his conclusion, he offers a heroic bow to the residents of these places, a salute to their valiant efforts and to their values.

“[W]hile the ghetto tends to be characterized by outsiders in terms of its pathologies, most of its inhabitants are struggling to live in accordance with standards of moral worth and decency,’’ he writes. “If these attempts rate often desperate and sometimes unsuccessful, it is because they occur against great odds.’’ Great odds indeed, and great challenges, still.

GHETTO: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea

By Mitchell Duneier

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $28


David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.