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Book Review of “Ghetto” by Mitchell Duneier

Book Review of “Ghetto” by Mitchell Duneier

In “Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea,” author Mitchell Duneier forwards a bold and important message: that the “ghetto” as an idea can be a powerful and indispensable tool. Despite the idea’s limitations, properly understanding the full history of the ghetto is a crucial step in coming to understand the

by Karsen Maruca April 3, 2018
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In “Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea,” author Mitchell Duneier forwards a bold and important message: that the “ghetto” as an idea can be a powerful and indispensable tool. Despite the idea’s limitations, properly understanding the full history of the ghetto is a crucial step in coming to understand the complex dynamics of the lives of poor blacks in the United States.

A sociologist and ethnographer, Duneier has developed an impressive résumé. He earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago – an institution who casts a long shadow in “Ghetto” – and has already encountered acclaim for his writing. His first book, “Slim's Table: Race, Respectability, and Masculinity,” received the American Sociological Association's award for Distinguished Scholarly Publication, and, later, his ethnography “Sidewalk” won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the C. Wright Mills Award. It is now no surprise that “Ghetto” has been awarded the seventh annual Zócalo Book Prize and has been greeted by great applause.

And, indeed, “Ghetto” is very much deserving of this warm celebration; it is a massive and moving achievement. Setting out to demystify the word and paint a clear portrait of the reality of racial inequality in the United States, Duneier traces the idea of the ghetto from its origins in sixteenth-century Italy to present day. It is clear that the idea had been in want of a clear-eyed and penetrating reassessment: many burgeoning young scholars of the millennial generation would be surprised to learn that, before it had been employed to describe the poor black neighborhoods of twentieth century USA and today, the term “ghetto” was used rather euphemistically by the Nazis to refer to the World War II-era concentration camps in which innumerable Jews were sequestered. Even less recognized is that the term has its origins in the name of an island – the Ghetto Nuovo, in turn named after a copper foundry – where the Jews of Venice, Italy, were first forced into confinement, sparking a trend that was echoed throughout the Catholic world and which did not fall completely until the end of the nineteenth century.

While in “Ghetto” Duneier is focusing on the black ghetto of the USA – he dedicates only one of the book’s six chapters, A Nazi Deception, to exploring the centuries-long history of the Jewish ghetto before examining 60-years of spatially defined racial inequality in America – he finds comprehension of the term’s full history imperative in imbuing the idea with worth and power, and so he meticulously charts the evolution of the ghetto across its lifespan up to the present moment.

Book Review of “Ghetto” by Mitchell Duneier

Before concluding his book in The Forgotten Ghetto, Duneier chronologically dedicates each of the four chapters of the book’s meaty middle section to prominent African American social scientists (Horace Cayton, Kenneth Clark, William Julius Wilson, and Geoffrey Canada, respectively) working on the concept of the ghetto, and ascribes a key year and ghetto location – either Chicago or in New York City’s Harlem – where this work reached some apogee. Each subsequent chapter introduces a new way of considering the ghetto that builds upon the foundations of history and thinking that precede it.

That Duneier, an outsider, chose to highlight the monumental works of these four black thinkers is significant – this act lends credence to his research, and recognizes the voices of those most affected by the ghetto phenomenon. In another wise formula, Duneier of course by no means limits his analysis to the works of these men, but delves in great detail into the political and sociological context in which these scholars were working, using their theories as points of entry into the diversity of thought on the ghetto in each of these four key generations of theory.

“Ghetto” is thus almost overwhelmingly rich with information, but Duneier masterfully ensures that it is never presented in a matter that is remotely confused, tangled, or overly dense. Aiding the reader’s navigation through this wealth of often upsetting material, Duneier weaves a strong narrative thread – looking also at the lives of the book’s key players, providing substantial insight into the back stories behind publications, theories, and relationships – that is full of its own surprises, intrigues, amusing anecdotes, and moments of heartbreak that conveys a poignancy on a human and personal level. It is a book both academic and humane, smart and sensitive.

Duneier remains nonetheless committed to avoiding romanticization and exaggeration, and he very largely refrains from expressing anything that might resemble an opinion, excepting the occasional use of a word like “unfortunately” that lets additional shades of color to shine through and subtly demonstrates Duneier’s affections for the subjects of his research. It is by no means an unemotional book; its passion comes from the voices of indignation of his subjects. Duneier allows his theorists on societal, political, and economic issues to speak for themselves – these voices are full of sobering and incendiary theories balanced with their rebuttals and firmly situated in resonance with hard data and historical context.

In supplement to Duneier’s hefty text, “Ghetto” contains in its center four glossy pages of black and white images, mainly sharing portraits of the key thinkers and a few visual documents of life in the Jewish and African-American ghettos. I wish there had been four times as many images, so lovely as they are and so profound are the stories that they illustrate. While Duneier manages to bring his narratives to vivid life through his writing, the stories are often so compelling that one cannot help but want more. What did the Venetian ghetto look like? There is a beautiful passage in which Kenneth Clark enters the ghetto of Newark, New Jersey, after that city’s riot of 1967; the ghostly devastation there strikes him as a war zone – we wish that we, too, could witness what the news crews that Clark accompanied could have documented on the streets of Newark at that time.

This desire for even richer detail extends beyond the slim section of (admittedly nonessential) images. In another passage, Daniel Patrick Moynihan sends a letter to Gunnar Myrdal in which the former attempts to elevate his work by drawing an allusion between his thinking and the latter’s celebrated oeuvre, only to have this stance roundly undermined by Duneier. How did Myrdal respond? Later, we are told of Moynihan’s controversial arrival at Stanford University to deliver the 1975 commencement address; Moynihan is greeted by protests – but what happened? It is unlikely that the answers to these questions are enlightening in a way that contributes to Duneier’s portrait of the idea of the ghetto, but they would perhaps provide another satisfying piece of the intriguing narrative that Duneier assembles.

Duneier is, however, the first to admit the certain pieces of the ghetto story are necessarily missing from his text. Duneier laments that no significant work has been undertaken to explore the role of the breadth of the role of women in the ghetto, particularly from a female perspective, and it is not without some frustration that Duneier presents keynote thinkers who are all men – as are the vast majority of “Ghetto's" thought contributors. As readers, we are required to be unsatisfied – there is still much essential work to be done, both to understand the ghetto as it has existed and exists, and to learn what can be to improve the lives for those who suffer there.

There are striking absences in “Ghetto,” though, that is never addressed. Duneier most occasional references to the “flourishing” that happens in a ghetto environment, but makes almost no concrete reference to what this flourishing looks like, especially in the black ghetto. While the Harlem Renaissance occurred some years before the timeline through which Duneier explores the African American ghetto, its exclusion feels spectral and haunts the pages. What other celebrations of black life arose from these ghetto conditions? While Duneier rightfully endeavors to highlight the scourge of racial injustice, a tribute to black creativity would not only be a fitting high note but further underline the depths of this injustice. Duneier also dedicates little more than a dismissive page to the Gay Ghetto, and never looks at queerness in the black ghetto, when, for example, luminary figures like Langston Hughes were key players in the Harlem Renaissance, and Harlem gave birth to the LGBT subculture of the Ballroom Community which thrived in the 1980s and has had far-reaching waves of impact.

Book Review of “Ghetto” by Mitchell Duneier

In a Trumpian era that has seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter and alt-right movements in conjunction with increased anger and awareness of police brutality and institutionalized racism and corruption, we also wish “Ghetto” could speak more directly to the pressing issues of its moment. Released on the eve of Donald Trump’s election to the position of president of the United States of America, “Ghetto” is both uncannily timely and eerily silent.

Perhaps most surprising in its absence is an analysis of the evolution of the term “ghetto” into an adjective in recent decades. It is this new and popular ascription of meaning that has made the word particularly taboo, ahistorically signifying things that are uniquely bad and black. This pervasive use in the popular vernacular is certainly problematic and – in turn, adopted into and even celebrated black music and fashion to describe a mode of life in which some African Americans take a certain pride – fascinatingly complex. While Duneier inexplicitly aims to bring light to the value of a term that now makes us squeamish and that we shy away from, his omission of an exploration the term’s most controversial use is very much like an elephant between the lines. Certainly no linguist, Duneier has nonetheless missed a unique opportunity to deepen his book and provide further illumination to his reader. As a call to attention to the usefulness – however, limited – of the term in understanding the unique situation of racial inequality in the United States, the book is a stunning success. As a history of the “ghetto” concept – and thus of a term that has changed in meaning over time in response to socio-political, historical, and cultural circumstances and forces – the book leaves us yearning for more.

“Ghetto” is nevertheless a fantastic education on the complexity of the problem of racial inequality in the United States. Duneier demonstrates a deep sociological and historical understanding and provides a sweeping account that is as sharp as it is broad. Duneier remarkably manages to emphasize the intergenerational nature of the “ghetto” issue as it spans decades – and, indeed, centuries – while conveying the cumulative interplay of a host of parallel and often conflicting theories. Without answering them, Duneier raises important questions that the reader cannot resist considering. While providing no pretense to offer solutions, “Ghetto” is full of a biting sense of urgency to solve one of the USA’s most monumental and uniquely American problems.

What do you think of the value of the term “ghetto” in today’s cultural and sociopolitical climate? What do you believe is at the heart of the USA’s enduring struggles with racial inequality, and how do you envision we could move toward a more equal future? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.

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Credits: Image courtesy of Karsen Maruca, and creative commons images courtesy of The U.S. National Archives, CBS This Morning, and Fibonacci Blue.

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