Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto:
The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea
In 1516, Venice’s ruling authorities, concerned about an influx into the city of Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492, created an official Jewish quarter. They termed the quarter “ghetto” because it was situated on a Venetian island that was known for its copper foundry, geto in Venetian dialect. In 1555, Pope Paul IV forced Rome’s Jews into a similarly enclosed section of the city also referred to as the “ghetto.” Gradually, the term began to be applied to distinctly Jewish residential areas across Europe. After World War II in the United States, the term took on a life of its own, applied to African-American communities in cities in the urban North. In Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier, professor of sociology at Princeton University, examines the origins and usages of the word “ghetto.”
The major portion of Duneir’s book explores how the word influenced selected post World War II thinkers in their analyses of discrimination against African-Americans in urban America. While there were a few instances pre-dating World War II of the use of the term ghetto to describe African-American neighborhoods in the United States, it was Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe that gave impetus to this use of the term. By the 1960s, the use of the word ghetto to refer African-American neighborhoods had become commonplace. Today, Duneier writes, the idea of the black ghetto in the United States is “synonymous in the social sciences and public policy discussions with such phrases as ‘segregated housing patterns’ and ‘residential racial segregation’” (p.220).
Duneier wants us to understand the urban ghetto in the United States as a “space for the intrusive social control of poor blacks” (p.xii). It is not the result of a natural sorting or Darwinian selection; it is not an illustration of the adage that “birds of a feather flock together.” He discourages any attempt to apply the term to, for example, poor whites, Hispanics or Chinese. The notion of a ghetto, he argues, becomes a “less meaningful concept if it is watered down to simply designate a black neighborhood that varies in degree (but not in kind) from white and ethnic neighborhoods of the city. . . Extending the definition to other minority groups . . . carries the cost of obscuring the specific mechanisms by which the white majority has historically used space to achieve power over blacks” (p.224). Duneier shows how, in the decades since World War II, theorists have emphasized different types of external controls over African-American communities: restrictive racial covenants in real estate contracts in the 1940s, precluding the sale of properties to African-Americans; the rise of educational and social welfare bureaucracies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; and, more recently, police and prison control of African-American males resulting from the war on drugs. But Duneier’s story, tracing the idea of a ghetto, starts in Europe.
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In medieval times, Jews in French, English and German speaking lands lived in “semi-voluntary Jewish quarters for reasons of safety as well as communal activity and self-help” (p.4). But Jewish quarters were “almost never obligatory or enclosed until the fifteenth century” (p.5). Jews were always free to come and go and were, in varying degrees, part of the community-at-large. This changed with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, with many migrating to Italy. Following the designation of the ghetto in Venice in 1516, Pope Paul IV gave impetus to the rise of separate and unequal Jewish quarters when he issued an infamous Papal Bull in 1555, “Cum nimis absurdum.” In that instrument, the Pope mandated that all Rome’s Jews should live “solely in one and the same place, or if that is not possible, in two or three [places] or as many as are necessary, which are to be contiguous and separated completely from the dwellings of Christians” (p,8). After centuries of identifying themselves as Romans and enjoying relative freedom of movement, Duneier writes, suddenly Rome’s Jews were forcibly relocated to a small strip of land near the Tiber, “packed into a few dark and narrow streets that were regularly inundated by the flooding river” (p.8).
This pattern prevailed across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, with Jews living in predominantly Jewish quarters in most major cities, some semi-voluntary, others mandatory. “Isolation in space” (p.7) became part of what it meant to be Jewish. Napoleon’s war of conquest in Italy in 1797 led to the liberation of Jewish ghettos in Venice, Rome and across the Italian peninsula. In the 19th century, ghettos began to disappear across Europe. Yet, Rome remained stubbornly resistant. When Napoleon retreated from Italy in 1814, Pope Pius VI almost immediately reinstated the Roman ghetto, sending the Jews back into the “same dank and overcrowded quarter that they had occupied for centuries” (p.12). A product of papal authority, the Roman ghetto was formally and officially abolished with Italian unification in 1870. Thus, Rome’s Jews, among the first in Europe to be confined to a ghetto, “became the last Jews in Western Europe to win the rights of citizenship in their own country” (p.12).
Duneier perceives a benign aspect to confinement of Jews in traditional ghettos. The ghetto was a “comfort zone” for often-thriving Jewish communities, a designated area where Jews were required to live but could exercise their faith freely, in a section of the city where they would not face opprobrium from fellow citizens. Jewish communities possessed “internal autonomy and maintained a wide range of religious, educational, and social institutions” (p.11). In Venice and throughout Europe, the ghetto represented a “compromise that legitimized but carefully controlled [Jewish] presence in the city” (p.7). The traditional European ghetto was thus “always a mixed bag. Separation, while creating disadvantages for the Jews, also created conditions in which their institutional life could continue and even blossom” (p.10).
In the early 20th century, the word ghetto came to refer to high-density neighborhoods inhabited predominantly but voluntarily by Jews. In the United States, the word frequently denoted neighborhoods inhabited not by African-Americans but by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Then, when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they gave ominous new meanings to the word ghetto. Privately, Hitler used the word to compare areas of enforced Jewish habitation to zoos, enclosed areas where, as he put it, Jews could “behave as becomes their nature, while the German people look on as one looks at wild animals” (p.14). Publicly, and more politely, Hitler argued that confined Jewish quarters under the Nazis simply replicated the Catholic Church’s treatment of Jews in 19th century Rome.
But ghettos controlled by the Nazis were more frequently like prisons, surrounded by barbed-wire walls. The Nazi ghetto was a place established with the “express purpose of destroying its inhabitants through violence and brutality” (p.22), a place where the state exercised the “firmest control over its subjects’ lives” (p.220). The Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism, Duneier concludes, “transformed the ghetto into a means to accomplish economic enslavement, impoverishment, violence, fear, isolation, and overcrowding in the name of racial purity — all with no escape through conversion, and with unprecedented efficiency” (p.22).
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The fight in World War II against Hitler and Nazi tyranny, in which African-Americans participated in large numbers, understandably had the effect of highlighting the pervasive discrimination that African-Americans faced in the United States. The modern Civil Rights movement came into being in the years following World War II, focused primarily on the Southern United States and its distinctive system of rigid racial separation know as “Jim Crow.” A less visible battle took place in Northern cities, where attention focused on discrimination in employment, education and housing. A small group of sociologists, centered at the University of Chicago, emphasized how African-Americans in nearly all cities in the urban North were confined to distinct neighborhoods characterized by sub-standard housing, neighborhoods that came to be referred to as ghettos.
Framing the debate in post-war America was the work of Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who wrote what is now considered the classic analysis of discrimination in the United States, “An American Dilemma.” Myrdal’s work, based on research conducted during World War II and published in 1944, took on a high level of importance in post-war America. Myrdal’s research focused principally on the Jim Crow South, where three-fourths of America’s black population then lived. But Myrdal also advanced what may seem in retrospect like a naïve if idealistic view of Northern racial segregation: it was due primarily to the practice of inserting restrictive covenants into real estate sales contracts, forbidding the selling of property to minorities (along with African-Americans, Jews and Chinese were other groups often excluded by such covenants). Restrictive covenants directed against African-Americans had a component of racial purity that was uncomfortably similar to Nazi practices, most frequently excluding persons with a single great-grandparent of black ancestry. Such clauses, Myrdal argued, were contrary to the basic American creed of equality. Once white citizens were made aware of the contradiction, they would cease the practice of inserting such restrictions into real estate contracts, and housing patterns would desegregate.
Myrdal himself rarely used the term ghetto and his treatment of the urban North was “perfunctory by any standard” (p.58). His main contribution was to view Northern segregation not as a natural occurrence, but as a “phenomenon of the majority’s power over a minority population” (p.63). Myrdal’s notion of majority white control over African-American communities influenced the views of two younger African-American sociologists from the University of Chicago, Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake. In 1945, Cayton and Drake published Black Metropolis, a work that focused on discrimination in Chicago and the urban North but failed to gain the attention that Myrdal’s work had received. Duneier indicates that Myrdal’s analysis of the urban North suffered because he was unable to work out an arrangement with Cayton to use the younger scholar’s copious notes of interviews and firsthand observations of conditions in Chicago’s African-American communities.
Cayton and Drake sought to “systematically explain the situation of blacks who had recently moved from the rural South to the urban North” (p.233). They were among the first to use the word ghetto frequently as a description of African-American communities in the North. The word was for them a “metaphor for both segregation and Caucasian purity in the Nazi era” (p.71-72): blacks who sought to leave, they wrote, encountered the “invisible barbed wire fence of restrictive covenants” (p.72; Duneier’s emphasis). Cayton and Drake considered black confinement to black neighborhoods as permanent and officially sanctioned, unlike Hispanic or Chinese neighborhoods, giving African-American neighborhoods their ghetto-like quality. For Cayton and Drake, therefore, ghetto was a term used to highlight the differences between African-American communities and other poor neighborhoods throughout the city.
Echoing the interpretations of traditional European Jewish ghettos discussed above, Cayton and Drake emphasized the “more pleasant aspects of black life that were symbolic of an authentic black identity” (p.69). They argued that racial separation had created a refuge for blacks in a racist world and that blacks had no particular interest in mingling with white people, “having accommodated themselves over time to a dense and separate institutional life – ‘an intricate web of families, cliques, churches, and voluntary associations, ordered by a system of social classes’ – in their own black communities. This life so absorbed them as to make participation in interracial activities feel superfluous” (p.69). Today, Black Metropolis remains a “major inspiration for efforts to understand racial inequality, due to its focus on Northern racism, physical space, and the consequences of racial segregation” (p.79).
Another protégé of Myrdal, renowned Columbia University sociologist Kenneth Clark, emphasized in the 1950s and 1960s the extent to which external controls of black neighborhoods – absentee landlords and business owners, and school, welfare and public housing bureaucracies – produced a “powerless colony” (p.91). Clark’s 1965 work, Dark Ghetto, which Duneier considers the most important work on the African-American condition in the urban North since Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis two decades earlier, argued that the black ghetto was a product of the larger society’s successful “institutionalization of powerlessness” (p.114). Clark looked at segregated residential patterns as just one of several interlocking factors that together produced in ghetto residents a sense of helplessness and suspicion. Others included discrimination in the work place and unequal educational opportunities. Clark thus saw urban ghettos as reenforcing “vicious cycles occurring within a powerless social, economic, political, and educational landscape” (p.137). Together, theses cycles led to what Clark termed a “tangle of pathologies.”
For Clark, the traditional Jewish European ghetto bore little resemblance to American realities. Rigid housing segregation was “more meaningfully a North American invention, a manner of existence that had little in common with anything that had come before in Europe or even in the U.S. South” (p.114). More than any other thinker in Duneier’s study, Clark provided the term ghetto with a distinctly American meaning. In the 1980s and 1990s, African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson rethought much of the received wisdom that had come from or through Myrdal and Clark.
Wilson took into account the out-migration of African Americans from inner cities that had begun to gather momentum in the 1970s. In understanding the plight of those left behind, Wilson argued that class had become a more significant factor than race. African-Americans were dividing into two major classes: a middle class, a “black bourgeoisie,” more and more often living outside the urban core – outside the ghetto – in outlying areas of the city, or in the suburbs, not uncommonly in mixed black-white neighborhoods. The black ghetto remained, concentrating and isolating the least skilled, least educated and least fortunate African-Americans, a “black underclass.” In contrast to the African-American communities Cayton and Drake had described in the 1940s, those left behind in the 1970s and 1980s saw far fewer black role models they could emulate. A new form of American ghetto had emerged by 1980, Wilson argued, “characterized by geographic, social, and economic isolation. Unlike in previous eras, middle-class and lower-class blacks were having very different life experiences in the 1980s” (p.234).
Wilson further posited that any neighborhood with 40 percent poverty should be termed a ghetto, thereby blurring the distinction between poor black and poor white or Hispanic neighborhoods. Assistance program that target poor communities generally, Wilson theorized, were more likely to be approved and implemented than programs targeting only African-American communities. For the first time since the term ghetto had become part of the analysis of Northern housing patterns in the early post-World War II era, the term was now used without reference to either race or power. With Wilson’s analysis, Duneier contends, the history of the idea of a ghetto in Europe and America “no longer seemed relevant” (p.184).
Duneier devotes a full chapter to Geoffrey Canada, a charismatic community activist rather than a theorist and scholar. In the 1990s and early 21st century, Canada came to see early education as the key to improving the quality of life in African American neighborhoods – in black ghettos – thereby increasing the range of work and living opportunities for African American youth. Canada was one of the first to characterize the federal crackdown on drug crime as a tragic mistake, producing alarming rates of black incarceration. As a result, the country was spending “far more money on prisons than on education” (p.198).
Two white theorists, Patrick Moynihan and Oscar Lewis, also figure in Duneier’s analysis. Moynihan, an advisor to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and later Senator from New York, described the black ghetto in terms of broken families. The relatively large number of illegitimate births and a matriarchal family structure in African-American communities, Moynihan argued, held back both black men and women. Lewis, an anthropologist from the University of Illinois, advanced the notion of a “culture of poverty,” contending that poverty produces a distinct and debilitating mindset that was remarkably similar throughout the world, in advanced and developing countries, in urban and rural areas alike.
In a final chapter, Duneier summarizes where his key thinkers have led us in our current conception of the term ghetto in the United States. “By the 1960s, an uplifting portrait of the black ghetto became harder to draw. Ever since, those left behind in the black ghetto have had a qualitatively different existence” (p.219). The word now signifies “restriction and impoverishment in a delimited residential space. This emphasis highlights the important point that today’s residential patterns did not come about ‘naturally’; they were promoted by both private and state actions that were often discriminatory and even coercive” (p.220).
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Duneier has synthesized some of the most important sociological thinking of the post World War II era on discrimination against African Americans, producing a fascinating, useful and timely work. But Duneier does not spoon feed. The basis for his hypothesis that the links between the traditional Jewish European ghetto and the black American ghetto have gradually faded is not readily gleaned from the text. Similarly, how theorists used the term ghetto in their analyzes of racial discrimination against African Americans seems at times a minor subtheme, overwhelmed by his treatment of the analyzes themselves. Duneier’s important work thus requires – and merits — a careful reading.
Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D. C.
July 27, 2017