Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea

Mitchell Duneier. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 304 pages. $28.00.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

By Kayleigh Whitman

Mitchell Duneier’s Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea seeks to restore the ghetto as a valuable intellectual concept. Ghetto essentially tells two stories: first, an intellectual history of the term in America and second, a comparison between the long history of the Jewish and African American ghettos. Both are critical to understanding the trajectory of these spaces as well as the ways in which politicians, activists, and scholars have used an evolving understanding of the term to discuss race and poverty in the United States.

The intellectual history comprises the bulk of the text. Each chapter features the works of a prominent African American sociologist or activist who wrote on the ghetto experience: Horace Cayton (Chicago, 1944), Kenneth Clark (Harlem, 1965), William Julius Wilson (Chicago, 1987), and Geoffrey Canada (Harlem, 2004). Ghetto provides a detailed study of the major works by each man and their impact both within the scholarly community and the realm of policy making and public discourse. All of the chapters contain strong intellectual analysis and are useful for placing the intersecting conceptions or diagnoses of the ghetto in conversation with one another. 

The problem that Duneier identifies in each study is how they often engaged with a single underlying problem such as Wilson’s insistence on class and jobs or Canada’s interest in alleviating violence. In this way Ghetto shows the tragic way that each thinker reacts to his own historical time. This is problematic because without appropriate context their works were subject to use in single focus solutions that were often detrimental for the ghetto. In Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race, for example, comments on the underclass’ welfare dependency unintentionally provided legitimacy to the Regan administration’s interest in cutting public benefits. 

The most interesting and urgent part of the text is Duneier’s second task: connecting the American ghetto to the longer history of European Jewish ghettos. Duneier points out that the link between African Americans and the ghetto has been around for less than ten percent of the terms five hundred year history. The book begins by tracking voluntary, semi-voluntary, and forced ghettoization beginning in the sixteenth century and the dramatic difference that existed in the economic exclusion and control that characterized the Nazi ghettos. The Nazi’s intentions were conceptually different from those imposed by European monarchs or the Catholic Church. They intended to marginalize and then control at every level the people that lived in these spaces. The point was that they could not flourish or even survive in these quarters.

So, when W.E.B. DuBois and other black scholars returned to the U.S. after visiting Europe after World War II they naturally made a comparison between the black and Jewish experiences. What Duneier shows though is that while the racial component of the Nazi ghettos was definitely in place in America through race restrictive covenants and federal housing discrimination, severe state control and degradation were not present. This can be seen when Horace Cayton writes of “Bronzeville” in Harlem, a place where the black professionals lived and people created a distinct black urban culture. As the text moves through the various thinkers, however, it reveals the depletion of the ghetto—the departure of the black professional class, the difficulty of procuring work outside of the ghetto, and the increase in violence. The War on Drugs does not have a large presence in the narrative, but it is undoubtedly there as images from Ferguson sit alongside those of the Nazi ghettos in the center of the book. 

Placing the evolution of the Jewish ghetto alongside the African American ghetto shows that in fact they may have undergone similar transformations. By not explicitly recognizing that the Nazi ghetto was fundamentally different from earlier ghettos, though, contemporary scholars and those of the past have created a problematic parallel. The early ghettos of America were not the same as the Nazis, but through policy, public perceptions, and academic oversight the ideas that emerged at the time of World War II may be more relevant than ever. Duneier writes, “…the ghetto can no longer be simply defined as a segregated area in which most blacks live. It is better understood as a space for the intrusive social control of poor blacks.” Focusing on the persistence of northern black ghettos, Duneier shows that the African American experience is different from other poor ethnic communities because of the gradually increasing social control that exists to keep these people segregated. Duneier’s Ghetto shows that if the popular understanding of ghettos remains divorced from its historical past, then the depth and interconnectedness of race, class, and control remain out of reach. 

Kayleigh Whitman (ΦBK, Florida State University, 2014) is a PhD student at Vanderbilt University focusing on 20th century American History. Vanderbilt is home to the Alpha of Tennessee Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.