“Ghetto.” The word evokes a long and vexing tradition of racial imagery and history in the United States. We may think we know what the word means, but where does it come from? Why does it carry such socio-cultural weight?
Mitchell Duneier explores these questions in his examination of the evolution of the word in his comprehensive volume Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea. The author explains that though ghetto is a term whose very association aligns it with negative feelings, it is a word that has picked up complexity, both practical and moral, along its surprisingly long and multifarious life. “Ghetto” has mutated over time to the point where even New York City council members once considered banning its use in their meetings. Yet Duneier implores us to reconsider the purely negative connotation and spend the time to understand the origin and impact it has had on the Western world and specifically what the word means to the history of the United States. This topic is especially important to consider now, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Fair Housing Act.
With great complexity comes unexpected genesis. The story begins in 16th century Venice, where the term originated as a word for an island that housed a copper foundry, a geto. The word gained new meaning in 1516, when the polity required all of the Jews in Venice to live behind closed walls on the former copper-producing island. We fast-forward to the eventual Nazi appropriation of the term, though the intricacies of being Jewish and European from the Crusades all the way through World War II are layered on top of that word choice.
This legacy of enclosures and isolation reveals itself as a lamentable connection to the experience of being black in America. Duneier rightly points out that for many blacks after WWII, the Nazi ghetto provided a powerful metaphor for their own experience. As famed African-American scholar W.E.B. Dubois declared, “I have seen something of human upheaval in this world. The scream and shots of a race riot in Atlanta; the marching of the Ku Klux Klan…but nothing in my wildest imagination was equal to what I saw in Warsaw in 1949. I was taken out to the former ghetto. There was complete and total waste, and a monument. And the monument brought back again the problem of race and religion, which so long had been my own particular and separate problem.”
Duneier’s historical exploration continues with stories of the experience of black Americans in 1940s Chicago, 1960s Harlem, then again to Chicago in the late 1980s, ultimately delving into the resonance of the term in the aughts in Harlem. Life flourishes among the evils of segregation, and this thread of history is also highlighted in the book. Ghetto is a story of flowering cultural institutions among rhetorical and factual problems. It is a story of metaphors of transformation and peoples left behind. Ultimately, it is a story of a challenge to public policy and a provocation for awareness.
Duneier’s etymological journey urges the reader to dig deeper than their cursory understanding of a term rife with multiple legacies, to actively observe cause and effect throughout the course of the word’s history. To understand the age-old concept is to begin to peel back the layers where race, place, poverty, housing, economics, and social issues all intersect in America. For Duneier, it is all about historical awareness, because “so much has been lost that needs to be remembered, if only because the ghetto’s troubled legacy has not gone away.”