‘Ghetto,’ by Mitchell Duneier

The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea
By Mitchell Duneier
Illustrated. 292 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.

When Bernie Sanders tried to step up his racial analysis of American inequality at a presidential debate in Flint, Mich., last month, he stepped into a racial controversy instead by evoking a term fraught with competing meanings and a long history of misuse. “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto — you don’t know what it’s like to be poor,” Sanders said. Commentators pounced from all corners, criticizing him for his “ghetto gaffe,” or what they perceived to be his tone-deaf portrayal of poverty as a uniquely black phenomenon, something whites just don’t understand.

But the outrage was misplaced. The problem isn’t Sanders’s intended use of “ghetto” as a place where many poor black people live, police brutality reigns and, as he later went on to say, “institutional racism” persists in 2016 — a reality shaped by the past. The problem is the pervasive use of “ghetto” as an ahistoric cultural signifier of all things bad, broke and black: ghetto schools, ghetto jobs, ghetto names, ghetto music.

Although others have talked about the ghetto as a term of endearment, kinship and empowerment — Langston Hughes’s 1931 poem “Negro Ghetto,” or Pras’s 1998 hip-hop anthem “Ghetto Supastar” — the tally of negative uses divorced from historical context has grown so commonplace that some big-city politicians and leading academics have called for removing it from official use.

That would be a mistake, argues Mitchell Duneier, a Princeton sociologist of the black urban experience, in “Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea,” a stunningly detailed and timely survey of scholarly work on the topic. Contrary to contemporary understanding, Jews — not African-Americans — are the original “ghettoized people,” he writes, noting that most of his students these days have no clue. “The link between blacks and the ghetto has been around for less than 10 percent of the term’s 500-year ­history.” Recovering this forgotten history is critical because the “troubled legacy” of the old ghetto endures.

In 1516, Venice’s Jews were forced by decree into confinement behind the high walls of the Ghetto Nuovo, an island named after a copper foundry — geto, in the Venetian dialect. Rome soon followed suit, as the Catholic Church and city rulers there and elsewhere deemed the Jewish faith a consummate threat to Christianity. Napoleon set out to demolish the ghettos of Western Europe in the early 19th century, but the Roman ghetto didn’t fall until the late 1800s. Rome’s Jews maintained economic relations with the surrounding city by day, but lived behind locked gates from sundown to sunrise.

Vibrant cultural traditions survived and even flourished, but the first ghettos quickly became places of decay and disease. The original intent of forced separation retreated over time behind the veil of a self-serving propaganda. One generation after another of Christian Europeans believed theirs was a natural, superior and God-sanctioned exemption from the abject reality of overcrowding and premature death experienced by European Jews. “The consequences of ghettoization provided an apparent justification for the original condition,” Duneier writes. This “pernicious circular logic” — using ghetto squalor, brought about by segregation and neglect, to justify more segregation and neglect — would characterize approaches to the ghetto for centuries after. And this began well before Hitler’s murderous turn in the 20th century.

Origin stories are revealing. This one makes clear that ghettos are physical places that are perpetuated by vicious cycles of inequality and are justified by ideologies of cultural or racial pathology. No reference to “ghetto,” as place or modifier, can escape this history. Nevertheless, many of the most influential 20th-century social scientists and policy makers have tried. “Ghetto” is a book about books and a study of studies. Duneier shows in six thick chapters just how ideas and prescriptions for the early American ghetto elided the story of racism and power — the story of blacks as “America’s Jews.”

Beginning with the pioneering Chicago school of sociology and following the era of Jewish emancipation across ­Europe, researchers, often first- or second-­generation immigrants themselves, redefined Northern segregation as voluntary and natural. Economic forces and the tendency of “birds of a feather to flock together” led to self-segregation, according to Louis Wirth, a German Jew and the author of “The Ghetto,” published in 1928. Jewish areas like the Lower East Side “had come about without any legal mandate,” Duneier writes. These were turn-­of-the-century ethnic enclaves and slums as mere way stations for newcomers on the road to assimilation. The Chicago school scholars believed black areas were no different.

Duneier, the author of “Slim’s Table” and “Sidewalk,” knows better. Anti-black housing discrimination severely circumscribed neighborhood choices among ­African-Americans. Drawing on the work of black sociologists, Duneier uses their perspectives, rhetorical strategies and the push and pull between them and their white colleagues to frame each chapter, examining the erasure of the black ghetto as a place of forced confinement.

The metaphor of African-Americans as “America’s Jews” started in 1945 with the publication of “Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City,” by Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake, two black University of Chicago graduate students. They presented a seminal and devastating critique of Northern racism in ­migration-era Chicago, based on an extensive W.P.A.-sponsored multiyear research project led by Cayton. Using imagery of the Nazi ghetto, the authors told of white neighborhoods closed to aspiring black homeowners and renters who “hit the invisible barbed-wire fence of restrictive covenants.” Like the yellow badge worn by Warsaw’s Jews, Cayton and Drake noted, Chicago’s blacks, “regardless of their affluence or respectability, wear the badge of color.” And yet black people managed to find cultural agency and build a robust life inside the ghetto, as others had for centuries.

“Black Metropolis” also observed that African-Americans in Chicago’s Bronzeville thought American hypocrisy would have to end with World War II. In light of Europe’s horrors, if America wanted to be a true beacon of democracy and freedom, surely it would treat its black citizens better than its German prisoners.

But Cayton and Drake’s research didn’t shape the direction of policy making over the next several decades. It was overshadowed by a more racially accommodating and far more influential work: Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma,” published the year before “Black Metropolis.” In the tradition of Tocqueville, the Swedish economist was hired by the Carnegie Corporation to bring a foreigner’s impartial eye to America’s racial scene in the late 1930s. Myrdal had great intentions from the start, and he built an impressive team of researchers, many of whom were senior black scholars. But the colossal study had two major biases. Myrdal put the full weight of American racism on the South, fueling the Southern exceptionalism myth that white supremacy was parochial, atavistic and doomed. He also placed tremendous faith in “white people’s conscience.” If the reality of black suffering were put before white Americans, Myrdal surmised, they would abide the egalitarian principles of the American Creed: “A great many Northerners, perhaps the majority, get shocked and shaken in their conscience when they learn the facts.” Cayton and Drake had far less faith, given their findings, as well as the fact that the president of their own university, Robert Maynard Hutchins, publicly supported restrictive covenants, and used university funds to maintain them. To his credit, Myrdal knew Cayton’s research was valuable and tried to recruit him to his team, but after months of going back and forth over compensation, they could not agree on fair terms. Myrdal’s bible of mid-20th-century race-relations policy — a book so influential it was cited in the Brown v. Board of Education decision — left a gaping hole in the scholarship. Thus with only two mentions of the word “ghetto” in his 1,400-page book, Myrdal, and by extension the nation, failed to understand Northern racism and its enduring impact.

“Ghetto” tells several stories of other missed opportunities, ideological disagreements, and research and policy paths not taken. The psychologist Kenneth Clark’s 1965 indictment of the “Dark ­Ghetto” as the result of an “institutionalization of powerlessness” through redlining and white control anticipated urban uprisings from the mid-60s up to Ferguson, but it gained little traction. Instead, the White House policy adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “tangle of pathology” thesis from the same year won out, making him the new Myrdal in policy circles. The famed African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson, starting with the 1978 publication of “The Declining Significance of Race,” made a strategic gambit to emphasize economic inequality, in the hope that white Americans would be more likely to support policies perceived as race-neutral. But his work did not lead to a massive jobs program, as he had insisted upon repeatedly, and was instead distorted and appropriated by conservatives in the Reagan administration and later inspired President Bill Clinton to “end welfare as we know it.” Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, made a valiant effort to prove that a cradle-to-college approach could transform the 21st-century ghetto. But his funders expected results in a few years, not decades.

Lesson learned: Philanthropy, ­Duneier writes, is a weak “substitute for public policy.”

The consequences of all this are still with us. The American Creed has stood its ground, shaken but undeterred. And the black ghetto remains for many people a product of what Myrdal called “certain characteristics of the Negro population,” rather than, as Duneier concludes and the history attests, “a phenomenon of ongoing external domination and neglect.” Indeed, given how much we now know about the racial dimensions of mass incarceration, it is striking how little attention these pathbreaking studies gave to the topic of, in Duneier’s words, “place-based policing” as one of the “specific mechanisms by which the white majority has historically used space to achieve power over blacks.”

As for Bernie Sanders’s “ghetto” comment, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first Jewish presidential candidate to win a primary, who had relatives killed in the Holocaust, happened to agree with Duneier’s critique. Yes, per Sanders’s critics, many white people know what it’s like to be poor: The number of poor white people in this country is nearly double the number of poor black people. But the ghetto involves more than restrictions on income; African-Americans, like the Jews of 16th-century Venice or 20th-century Lodz, have historically had to contend with restrictions on where they could live — restrictions on space and on their very humanity. In Duneier’s impressive and comprehensive volume, readers will find a greater sense of the complexity of America’s problem of racial inequality, as well as the urgency — practical and moral — of solving it.
Correction: April 12, 2016

An earlier version of this review misidentified the Michigan city that was the site of a debate between Democratic presidential candidates in March. It is Flint, not Detroit.