300_coverGhetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea
Mitchell Duneier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
18 West 18th Street, New York, NY 10011; us.macmillan.com/fsg
2016. 304 pages. Hardcover, $28.

The transmission of ideas and concepts across wildly different societies is usually a tale of progress; Mitchell Duneier’s Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea is not one of those stories.

The term ghetto, derived from gettare, meaning “the pouring or casting of metal,” first arose in Venice in 1516, derived from the island where Jews were compelled to live, and proved one of the most unfortunate of that city’s exports, spreading throughout Europe to refer to a wide range of locations where social boundaries were poured and cast to contain Jews.

These were institutions of residential segregation premised on religion: the movement of residents was generally free otherwise; the Nazis took up the concept and molded it into something previously unseen—ethnic urban prison neighborhoods ringed by barbed wire.

The term’s next leap, across the Atlantic Ocean, for all of the recent criticism of its use for ostensibly stigmatizing character, was the work not of the oppressor but the oppressed: African American writers and academics began applying the term to urban neighborhoods “making a claim that their experiences were of comparable importance to Americans to that of Jews in Europe.” References to “black ghetto” increased in the postwar period; by the 1960s, ghetto was rarely modified, having become a commonplace term for U.S. urban neighborhoods.

Duneier’s impressive exploration takes as its principal framework the work of several African American sociologists who explored the evolving form and reality of the U.S. ghetto, focused particularly on Harlem and Chicago but encompassing the many cities where African American populations were and are now heavily concentrated in small neighborhoods.

Horace Cayton’s and St. Clair Drake’s Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City emerged as a clarification of the condition of African American urban neighborhoods. While a growing body of sociological analysis of slums was obviously relevant to these communities, they weren’t just any slum. Other populations generally faced few obstacles to moving but wealth: African Americans were confined by restrictive covenants, redlining, and more overt racism.

While flatly indicating the racialized constraints that built the ghetto, the authors did point to the vitality that it, like Jewish ghettos, did engender—the role of the ghetto as a “refuge for blacks in a racist world,” one that did in earlier decades contain genuine socioeconomic diversity.

Kenneth Clark’s work in the 1960s, particularly in Dark Ghetto, found few such silver linings, identifying Harlem as a “philanthropic, economic, business, and industrial colony of New York City.” His work concentrated on the comprehensive powerlessness of local residents: faulty education, local elites interested in their own power, and national elites whose schemes for ghetto improvement took the form of massively disruptive urban redevelopment.

William Julius Wilson’s 1987 work, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, arrived at a moment of mixed fortune. Barriers to relocation had largely disappeared for the black middle class, which moved elsewhere, but so had nearly all nearby employment, leaving ghettos the exclusive preserve of the poor, lacerated by increasingly intense drug epidemics.

Wilson’s account attributed less consequence to contemporary racism, but tremendous vestigial consequence to the landscapes that it had shaped in the past.

Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem’s Children’s Zone is the last of Duneier’s concentrations, another valorous but stymied effort to mobilize change, this time focused on education. The trouble, as encountered with any single-pronged effort to effect change, was the lack of sustained interest in crafting solutions, and the inadequacy of a focus on any one element of a set of problems tangled beyond any easy isolation. The ghetto is “a place in which too many things have gone wrong for a simple fix.” Duneier’s is an eloquent narrative of more complicated fixes; may we get them.