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When a "ghetto" is not a "ghetto"

The term "ghetto" is often an overused and stereotypical term used to describe urban culture and residential communities. Any avid reader of neighborhood blogs in DC has most likely noticed how commenters over use the term "ghetto" to describe communities they see as poor, crime ridden, undesirable, and Black. A recent post about a new mural in Bloomingdale produced a number of comments from readers who used the term "ghetto" to describe the mural and the surrounding neighborhood. The flippant use of the term "ghetto" has severely impoverished contemporary debates about the social and economic conditions of urban communities.

Photo by Geoffrey Hatchard

The term "ghetto" has become such a common term in everyday language, it is hard to determine what we really mean when use the term. Even urban scholars are guilty of overusing and under-defining the term "ghetto." Many scholars use the term "ghetto" to describe a geographic area, such as a neighborhood or census tract that is characterized as having a high concentration of households in poverty as well as a high concentration of blacks, or any other racial/ethnic minority group. General public use of the term "ghetto" tends to assume such areas characterized by crime, slackers, Chinese take-out restaurants, store front churches, poverty, and racial/ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, for many individuals, their image of a "ghetto" is less from actual experience but influenced by the popular media. Such characterizations of the "ghetto" communities ignores people who work everyday as nurses, teachers, civil servants or people who maintain lovely gardens, are active in local politics or volunteer. Perhaps, as historian Robin D. G. Kelley suggests, these urban dwellers are not as interesting as "the hard-core ghetto poor" because they are similar to you and me.

Sociologist Mario Small argues that there are four main reasons why the term "ghetto" should be abandoned. First, the term ghetto is often used under the assumption that poor neighborhoods are relatively homogeneous across cities. However, poor urban communities across cities vary in terms of access to resources, transportation, police presence, crime, etc. Assuming that all poor urban communities are the same undermines serious efforts to assess local conditions and social/economic solutions.

Second, Small suggests the term "ghetto" is stereotypical and not typical. The popular media has produced over generalized images of poor neighborhoods that often do not accurately describe the everyday lives of urban Blacks. While Blacks in general are more likely than other racial groups to live in high poverty and same-race neighborhoods, many live in mixed income communities. In the DC region, there are several affluent Black communities, including the neighborhood of Crestwood in NW DC as well as several areas across Prince George's County.

Third, urban communities are influenced by national and local policies, which in turn leads to different outcomes. Federal public housing and urban renewal legislation in the 1940s and beyond have had devastating effects on poor and minority communities because it destroyed more housing than it created. However, local actors such as mayors, city council members, and other local legislators often matter more to the urban poor because the have more control over how federal urban policies are implemented through zoning, taxes, and other general land-use policies. While it may be easier to blame the federal government for the continuing presence of poor communities, it is important to hold local officials accountable for their actions regarding housing policies and access to services.

Lastly, Small argues that the term ghetto needs to be abandoned because many assume that the "ghetto" is maintained through involuntary segregation that is absent of choice, when in reality anti-discrimination housing policies are often not enforced leaving many Blacks and other racial/ethnic groups with a limited or constrained set of choices.

Clearly, we need a more sophisticated approach to how we classify the social and economic conditions of urban neighborhoods; one that does not demoralize a community and its residents. The current use of the term "ghetto" glosses over the real issues facing urban communities and allows individuals to hide behind racist and classist assumptions instead of engaging in productive conversations and actions. More importantly, it is on us to change or abandon the term "ghetto" because the cultural and ideological construction of the term has often shaped public policy. Stereotypes and sweeping generalizations should not be the basis for reform. The problems we face in urban America are complex and should be treated as such.

Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own. 


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No offense Lynda, but again your post is so off-topic. What does this have to do with anything? Enough random editorializing on GGW!

by RT on Jun 16, 2009 2:29 pm • linkreport

@RT: Could you please explain why you think this is off topic and/or any more editorialized than a post on transportation or planning policy?

by jaime on Jun 16, 2009 2:37 pm • linkreport

This post is ghetto.

(Just kidding, I like it!)

by Tom A. on Jun 16, 2009 2:45 pm • linkreport

godwin's law activation in five... four...

but seriously, i think i'm missing the point in this post. either that or i'm blissfully unaware of overuse/misuse of "ghetto" in political and social revitalization discourse.

by AJ on Jun 16, 2009 3:03 pm • linkreport

Hmm... Can I still use the term ironically? As in, if I live north of Georgetown, but not in Georgetown, I can tell people that I live in the ghetto? This is just an example, because I actually live across from the projects in SE.

by Sue on Jun 16, 2009 3:12 pm • linkreport

Perhaps that word meant something more at one time. Since it has become an adjective rather than a noun it has lost its relevence.

My first encounter with it being used as an adjective was when I was a freshman at UMD and some kid from Potomac called College Park "a little bit ghetto." I was just stunned. To me, College Park seemed (and I still feel this way) like a nice quiet town in the inner suburbs. I grew up in Cecil County out in the country. College Park seemed like a big step up to me at the time. They would talk about how poor Prince George's was, much to my confusion. Prince George's is a pretty wealthy place in the big picture. Especially compared to where I grew up.

I have heard similar people, now adults use the same word to describe where I now live. I have been to many neighborhoods that have been described that way to me. Most of it is without merit. Most of those places derided with that word are quiet residential areas, nothing more, nothing less.

Good post. The word "ghetto" has long since stopped meaning anything tangible.

by Cavan on Jun 16, 2009 3:12 pm • linkreport

lol, Sue!

by Cavan on Jun 16, 2009 3:16 pm • linkreport

How about we define "ghetto" the way that it's been defined ever since the term was first used, in 17th Century Italy -- a segregated part of town that is populated by a discriminated-against social class, and that receives worse services than other parts of town?

If the term ghetto has any relevance at all in the post-Civil Rights Act era, then certainly Bloomingdale is a ghetto. Gage-Eckington Elementary has 119 black students, two Hispanics, and 0 -- ZERO -- white students. The poverty rate is 75%. Montgomery Elementary has 191 black students, one Asian, and 0 -- again, ZERO -- white students. The poverty rate is 85%. The test results in these schools match what you'd expect from ghettoized social services -- proficiency figures hover around 15-20%.

Bloomingdale is, in short, a ghetto. Eliminating the word does not eliminate the problem.

by tom veil on Jun 16, 2009 3:19 pm • linkreport

tom: your analysis has a very large, gaping hole in it. you're attempting to draw a direct correlation between the elementary school populations in nearby schools with the population of the entire neighborhood.

your oversimplification leaves no room for children who don't attend one of these two schools, for starters. while i don't have numbers i can quote, i'm certain that there are many in the neighborhood whose children either go to public charter schools, private schools, or to an out-of-district public school.

in addition, there are many people in the neighborhood who don't have children. for example, there are 4 people who live in my apartment, all caucasian, with no children and a combined income that (i'm guessing) is somewhere above $120,000. that's just one example of many in the bloomingdale neighborhood alone.

sure, there is poverty in our neighborhood. but universally, crushing poverty, and a nearly uniformly black populace? not the case.

by IMGoph on Jun 16, 2009 3:51 pm • linkreport

So what we are saying here is that we stop using the term ghetto, and instead come up with several more words to describe to the many nuanced differences between different ethnically homogonous, poor, urban communities? No two neighborhoods are exactly alike, so this post would seem to state they defy any simple classification. I'm of the mind that things need labels, as without them language is meaningless. At least on this site, I don't see a lot of people throwing the word ghetto around (and I have to agree with AJ, I don't see it overused or misused other places either, aside from maybe its usually joking adjective use). Therefore, I don't really see an issue with continuing to use the word "ghetto" to describe ethnically homogonous, poor, urban communities.

by Steven on Jun 16, 2009 4:58 pm • linkreport

RJ-I think there's a positive informal "urban dictionary meaning", too. But i agree. In a professional setting other then the m-w defitinon usage would not be acceptable and even the word "ghetto" would not be acceptable in many prof. settings b/c of the social stigma connotation attached to it historically. One would use the more cumbersome "underserved community" to describe the "ghetto" one is reffering to. i don't know when sociologist Small was writing but in my profession no one ever uses "ghetto". We use "underserved community".

by Bianchi on Jun 16, 2009 6:21 pm • linkreport

But you do realize Bianchi that once we start saying 'underserved community', that too will eventually get stigmatized ... and we'll be forced to find another euphemism. Language is important. Wouldn't it be better if we just 'destigmatized' the word ... AND the community it refers to itself?

Actually though, I really don't think 'ghetto' equals 'underserved community'. The word 'ghetto' doesn't connote 'lacking' anything. It just connotes 'seperatenes'. For example, haven't you ever heard 'the gay ghetto' applied to certain parts of downtown?

by Lance on Jun 16, 2009 9:12 pm • linkreport

A ghetto is any place in the city that a reader of this blog talks about having a "close-knit community", "great heritage", "quaint rowhomes" and "unlimited potential", yet will never actually live in until all the black people have been kicked out and either a Potbelly's or Whole Foods has been put in.

by MPC on Jun 17, 2009 12:15 am • linkreport

mpc: i know you're just trolling for a response, so i'm doing just what you want by jumping in here, but did you know that you come across as a racist, bigoted, self-important jackass with a hyper-inflated ego?

no, you didn't?

well shit, i guess someone had to tell you.

i live in the neighborhood you describe (with dripping sarcasm). i'm white. the neighborhood is majority black. guess i'm the exception to your rule, eh? bugger off...

by IMGoph on Jun 17, 2009 12:24 am • linkreport

to me, part of the point here is that folks continue to use "ghetto" in a casual, informal, or joking way that is readily accepted rather than seen as pejorative (and i would argue it is the latter). much like "retard" and "retarded" are used casually far too often....

actually, the special olympics site says it quite eloquently: "our language frames how we think about others."

by jaime on Jun 17, 2009 12:34 am • linkreport

Ghettos are what the other guy lives in. There are plenty of upscale, self-imposed ghettos in and around DC. Either their residents don't recognize them as such or refuse to accept that designation, but they're ghettos nonetheless. Nothing to do with income and everything to do with an attitude of separateness and a desire to be surrounded by people with which they identify. To me, Potomac is just as much a ghetto as any housing project; I don't feel particularly comfortable in either neighborhood and I'm sure they wouldn't care for someone like me moving next door. And it definitely takes more than a mural to make a ghetto.

Just because you eat small plates instead of mambo sauce doesn't mean you're not in a ghetto.

by monkeyrotica on Jun 17, 2009 7:57 am • linkreport

I knew it would happen- I could see it coming as I read down through the responses. As soon as someone(mpc) pointed out the real truth, the truth that hurts, somebody in here got their feelings hurt and lashed out! Just because a few pioneering whites have moved into the inner city(read ghetto) to take financial advantage of the "urban gentrification" phenomenon doesn't mean that we are in a "post racism" or "post racial" era. It is not racist or bigoted to call it as one sees it. A few whites move in to a neighborhood and all of a sudden the police are more prevalent, the public services become more frequent and reliable, etc.- that's what we here in the ghetto see. A ghetto by any other name is still the neighborhood where minorities are stuck with sub-standard housing and services, where long-time residents can't get an affordable loan to fix up the family home but yuppies that make obscene salaries(notice I didn't say they earned the salaries, just that they make them) come in and turn a shell into a luxury town home with separate basement apartment to be rented for more than I pay in rent for five months. No amount of playing with semantics will change this reality that some here want to gloss over. And to the white person(s) here who do live in a majority black neighborhood I would say- holla at me when you have your next dinner party, and let me know how many of your black neighbors are invited!

by KevinM on Jun 17, 2009 8:03 am • linkreport

I discovered an interesting use of the word "ghetto." The University of Dayton owns most of the houses in an adjacent neighborhood, and it is the primary area where seniors, and some juniors live. All of the students affectionately refer to the area as "The Ghetto" and, in fact, it is a real recruiting tool for the university. Students come to Dayton looking forward to the day when they will live in "the ghetto." It's where parties and most social life for the campus happens. No one at the school seems to have a problem with calling the neighborhood "the ghetto", although when I've used it as an example of a very strong residential student community when talking with administrators at other schools, they've had real problems with the term.

I tend to think of a ghetto as any place that has a high concentration of a similar group of people -- nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps for that reason, the word doesn't trouble me. I understand other perspectives expressed here, but like some have said, words do matter, and I'm not sure that dressing up the concept by calling it an "underserved community" really means anything.

Finally, on the subject of words, I recently learned that the latest thinking in the world of homelessness is to refer not to "the homeless" but to "people experiencing homelessness." The first appellation describes a type of person and suggests a permanent condition; the second describes a life circumstance that can change. Words do matter and I think this is a case where the distinction is actually helpful and relevant, despite the somewhat more cumbersome nature of the phrase "people experiencing homelessness."

by tomc on Jun 17, 2009 9:54 am • linkreport

"Underserved community" is understood, among my colleagues, to apply to any group that is historically underserved whether they live in Appalachia, Detroit, rural Mississippi or DC. So technically "underserved community" is not a synonym for "ghetto", which refers to an urban neighborhood by M-W's definition and by historical understanding. "Underserved community" is not a euphemism. It's a description of a current condition common to a group of people who share other commonalities(sp?). Not only that, "underserved community" is a definition recognized by the NIH. There are certain research grants, especially for "translation" (public health jargon), that are reserved for implementation in historically underserved communities. So, you may object, but the term is in use and has a meaning attached to it. It's not interchangeable with "ghetto". I was wrong about that and somewhat flippant in my earlier comment. For an example of "underserved community" in action see todays "links" about the mobile produce carts in certain NY 'hoods.

I'm a terrible speller.

by Bianchi on Jun 17, 2009 11:47 am • linkreport

And to the white person(s) here who do live in a majority black neighborhood I would say- holla at me when you have your next dinner party, and let me know how many of your black neighbors are invited!

Sure! And let me know when you have *your* next dinner party, and let me know how many of your white neighbors are invited!

Oh, What's that? You're a hypocrite? Ah, okay.

That's one of the problems with the 24/7 victim mentality: it absolves you of all responsibility for your own communities, etc... You don't have to treat your neighbors with the respect and openness you expect from them, because they're the evil oppressor, and you're just the innocent victim.

My guess is that if you telegraph this kind of rancid attitude at your neighbors all the time, there's little wonder these "newcomers" don't invite you to dinner.

by ibc on Jun 17, 2009 11:56 am • linkreport

so now "ibc" asks me questions then presumes to answer for me. oh well...

by Kevinm on Jun 17, 2009 1:48 pm • linkreport

Finally, on the subject of words, I recently learned that the latest thinking in the world of homelessness is to refer not to "the homeless" but to "people experiencing homelessness." The first appellation describes a type of person and suggests a permanent condition; the second describes a life circumstance that can change.

That's real sweet. And how exactly does this help the homeless? I mean, apart from making them feel good about experiencing a changeable life circumstance?

I suggest people should refer to others as "racist" but as "people experiencing racist tendencies." With enough nurturing and sensitivity training, these people can alter their circumstances for the better. The same goes with "people perpetuating crime" and "men who are rapey."

Anyone familiar with the term "polishing a turd?"

by WTF? on Jun 17, 2009 1:54 pm • linkreport

"Okay, we don't do espresso over ice. Why? Number one, because we don't do it. Number two, because we don't do it. Mostly for quality reasons. Also, because more than half the time, it's abused (Google "ghetto latte") ..." Nick Cho

by Trulee Pist on Jun 17, 2009 1:56 pm • linkreport

Regarding turd polishing: words should be chosen carefully. For example calling Chief Justice John Roberts a "racist" to his face would raise his hackles and close his mind. Saying that his opinions regarding the Voting Rights Act "expressed racist tendencies," you might get somewhere. Assessing the usefulness of different words is what semantic debates are about. The lesson here is to only call Justice Roberts a racist behind his back.

I think that ghetto is a useful word to describe a place where people are segregated and economically hurt against their will. That definition comes for the word's history. "Getto" in Italian means foundry and probably referred to the large Jewish ghetto in Venice which contained a foundry. There's a good chance that the term not only came from the site to which Jews were segregated, but the polluted site to which Jews were segregated.

In today's usage I think it's a good word to describe areas where housing discrimination and lending discrimination have segregated and impoverished neighborhoods.

by Nat on Jun 17, 2009 2:35 pm • linkreport

And to the white person(s) here who do live in a majority black neighborhood I would say- holla at me when you have your next dinner party, and let me know how many of your black neighbors are invited!

Excellent point! Sorry to have prejudged you specifically, as opposed to the entirety of the Race of White Devils.

by ibc on Jun 17, 2009 4:27 pm • linkreport

"In today's usage I think it's a good word to describe areas where housing discrimination and lending discrimination have segregated and impoverished neighborhoods."

I think so too!!

by KevinM on Jun 18, 2009 6:47 am • linkreport

I agree with you, Lynda, that the term “ghetto” should be abandoned. In the past, it may have been a simply a term to describe a neighborhood with a certain set of problems, but it is predominantly a derogatory term now. For all the reasons cited by you and M.Small, the word ghetto serves as an example of how the use of derogatory or inflammatory language really just makes problems harder to solve. I might add that the use of such language usually reflects poorly on those who speak it since, as you pointed out, it does not address the whole reality of the situation and is therefore unsophisticated. I believe calling a neighborhood distressed by some urban problems a ghetto is similar to calling a mentally disabled person a “retard.” Both are terms which may have had relatively benign origins, but of late they have become insulting, stereotypical terms.

by Steve B on Jun 21, 2009 5:38 pm • linkreport

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