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Whose Ghetto?

"The consequences of ghettoization provided an apparent justification for the original condition," sociologist Mitchell Duneier writes in his new book, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea.

Or as Khalil Gibran Muhammad writes in The New York Times: "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."

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"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 . . .

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.

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Further:

"[Vaunted University of Chicago president] Robert Maynard Hutchins, publicly supported restrictive covenants, and used university funds to maintain them."

Ghettos are created - and maintained.

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"Philanthropy, ­Duneier writes, is a weak 'substitute for public policy.'"

For one thing, it's not sustainable. For another thing, philanthropy doesn't change the system, it just tries to ameliorate its effects enough to ameliorate the guilt of creating and maintaining a system that results in those effects.

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Duneier has always been of particular interest to me because he spent time in the Tribune newsroom on a special project ("Andrea's Dream;" here's the final installment) while he was at the University of Chicago, in one of many creative moves by then-editor Howard Tyner, whose tenure remains underrated, perhaps because the execution of his ideas often fell short of their intentions (perhaps in part because of a recalcitrant newsroom).

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Duneier also took on Eric Klinenberg's conclusions in Heat Wave. I happen to think Heat Wave is a masterful work that, among other things, revealed the cynicism of Richard M. Daley and his administration at its worst - when public relations was more important than human lives, which is to say, all the time, but even then. The political establishment was never fully held to account, certainly not by the media, which was similarly exposed as disconnected from Chicago's neighborhoods and generally uncaring about waves of fatalities among people they did not know. But so be it, Duneier makes his argument. (I also found Slim's Table to be pretty rudimentary and unoriginal stuff.)

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Here is Duneier at the L.A. Times Festival of Books three days ago:

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Waiting for someone to write a New York Review of Books essay derived from Ghetto, The Defender and The South Side.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on April 12, 2016


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