Ghetto asserts complicity of white Americans

Two girls study a sign in Lakeview, N.Y., in April 1962. The sign was an attempt to keep African-Americans from exceeding the number of whites living in the integrated town. (AP Photo)

By Mitchell Duneier
Published by Farrrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pages, $28

Recent confrontations between police and African-Americans in Northern cities may alert white liberals that racism is not bound by the Mason-Dixon Line. Though Northern liberals may have condescended as Southern politicians revered the Confederate flag or questioned the contributions of African-Americans to Western civilization, they must have reappraised their prejudices as they watched Eric Garner suffocate for selling cigarettes on the sidewalk in Staten Island.

Or maybe not. Regardless of the expressions of support for victims of discrimination, most liberal Northern whites couldn't imagine surrendering their privileges, subjecting their children to substandard schools, or sacrificing their personal wealth or well-being to move into a majority black neighborhood. For Mitchell Duneier, this "deeper and more insidious" Northern racism has been the foundation of the creation, perpetuation and slow degradation of black ghettos.

Duneier's Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, with its painstaking analysis of urban sociological theories of the 20th century, forces all Americans to consider their complicity in spatial isolation of the black poor. Duneier's book is not merely a survey of critical statements in the developing sociological understanding of the ghetto, but also the story of white America's active, indomitable, yet largely unconscious protection of its privilege.

As Duneier puts it, "This ability of the American people to compartmentalize, to live with moral dissonance, is the crucial underlying foundation of the forgotten ghetto."

The black ghetto did not result from clannishness, separatism, or moral or intellectual inferiority. Rather, argues Duneier, the ghetto is an expression of white power. Black ghettos result from the dominant culture's power to restrict poor blacks in a bounded space. External factors, not internal pathologies, have created the black ghetto, a space with inferior schools and health care, and where arrest and incarceration are the primary means of social control.

White moral dissonance underlies Duneier's prehistory of the American ghetto. In his justification of the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto in Poland, Hitler "tricked" the world into acquiescence by arguing that his ghettoization of Jews followed the model of European forebears, who physically segregated Jews but allowed them to remain largely autonomous and to retain their social, familial and religious institutions. In reality, however, Hitler used the ghetto as a temporary stage in a process of total extermination.

Though extermination may not be the goal of American ghettos, our ghettos, argues Duneier, are designed to protect the racial purity of majority white neighborhoods and to maintain control over poor blacks. Furthermore, the deprivation and persistent policing of American urban ghettos create "vicious cycles" in which the ghettoized population vindicates white assumptions and justifies further control.

Duneier's examination of the scholarship and activism of Horace Cayton, Kenneth Clark, William Julius Wilson and Geoffrey Canada reveals their struggle not only to understand and solve the problem of the ghetto, but also to deal with white readers, colleagues and funders who prefer theories that absolve whites of guilt and that trace the problem of the ghetto to family breakdown and immorality. All ultimately doubted Gunnar Myrdal's contention that the solution to the problem of racial discrimination in the U.S. would be white culture's sense of moral obligation.

Cayton was the first sociologist to note that white immigrant neighborhoods could flourish culturally and economically because they were formed voluntarily: Residents were free to emigrate from them and assimilate into the majority culture. In contrast, citizens in black neighborhoods, despite enjoying a short period of cultural flourishing before World War II, were not free to leave, being subject to restrictive covenants, a system of spatial exclusion of blacks practiced by neighborhood groups, national institutions and even Cayton's employer, the University of Chicago.

The invisibility of these covenants led to a sense of inevitability: Unconscious of or unconcerned about the real reasons for segregation, whites saw the separation of races, and the gradual deterioration of overcrowded majority black neighborhoods, as natural occurrences. Cayton asserted that white Northerners held whispered "folk beliefs" of racial superiority that exerted a greater influence on their thinking and convinced them that having black neighbors was not in their best interest.

Clark stressed the sense of inferiority that the enclosed space of the ghetto instilled in children. Clark, who conducted the pivotal "doll tests," argued that black ghettos differed not in degree but in kind from other minority communities. Beset by problems that even the civil rights movement couldn't solve, the black ghettos became colonies of impotence that bred hopelessness and despair.

Though whites were distressed by Clark's arguments, they found comfort in Wilson's scholarship. Writing in the late 1970s, Wilson argued that race no longer determined a black American's destiny to the same degree as economic and social class. With the ascent and consequent relocation of the black middle class, poor blacks became more isolated in decaying urban environments, deprived of role models and success stories. Wilson was uneasy with conservatives' embrace his analysis, but understood white conservatives well enough to argue that remedies for the plight of poor blacks would have to be disguised as remedies for all forms of poverty.

The type of stealth program promoted by Wilson has been put into practice by Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone. His determined effort to develop and improve poor, isolated communities, primarily through education, depended on private investments from white liberal billionaires rather than from government funding. Though Canada's efforts have had measurable results, Duneier questions the sustainability of reforms that rely on charismatic leaders and sympathetic donors.

Ghetto is not an easy read for non-experts. Distinguishing the detailed dialogues among scholars demands concerted attention. However, unlike a formal scholarly review, Duneier's portrayal of the scholars' lives, goals and struggles gives his book an engaging narrative arc.

Such a biographical view complicates our sense of a researcher's objectivity. For example, knowing that Cayton's interracial marriage "exacted a heavy toll on him" may, along with his desire for academic fame, explain his resistance to Myrdal's request for data he had accumulated. Yet this biographical approach humanizes the scholarly process of discovery: We learn whom these scholars read, where they sought information, and what frustrations and doubts they faced.

As we confront our own frustrations with the persistence of racial tension, Duneier's Ghetto demands that we review our assumptions and understand how the exercise of our enlightened self-interest contributes to the discrimination we decry. It is essential reading.

[Dennis D. McDaniel is associate professor and chair of the English department at St. Vincent College. Read more book reviews at]

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