The Ghetto in the Americas

Learning Objectives

In this module, students will learn: When and how the term “ghetto” arrived in the United States; how the use and application of the term changed before the 1930s; how “ghetto” became associated of black urban neighborhoods; how ghetto studies contributed to the development of sociology and urban history as academic disciplines; the role of the state in forming postwar American ghettos; how academic and politicians have debated the existence of an urban “underclass”; and what form poor and/or racially segregated neighborhoods take in Latin America. Based on these readings and sources, students should be able to make critical arguments about: how the meaning of “ghetto” in the U.S. has changed throughout the twentieth century; how and to what extent various factors contributed to the creation of segregated black urban neighborhoods; how ghettos in the U.S. compare to poor urban neighborhoods in Latin America; and whether a distinction exists, in form or symbolically, between ghettos, barrios, favelas.

Readings

Bruce D. Haynes and Ray Hutchison, “Introduction,” in Bruce D. Haynes and Ray Hutchison, Ed., The Ghetto: Contemporary Global Issues and Controversies (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012), vii-xliii.

  • The first twelve pages (vii-xviii) of the introduction to this edited volume provides a historical overview of the Venice ghetto’s formation and the relationship between the Venetian state and the Jews enclosed within the ghetto walls. It also briefly traces the term’s movement to England and the United States. The remainder of the reading is more historiographical and theoretical, and the material is better covered by the readings listed below. This selection explains how the term “ghetto” originated and expanded in sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century Europe, but does not digress into a detailed study of early ghettos.  
  • This reading is accessible for all undergraduates. It is short and does not use much theory.
  • This text could be paired with: Benjamin C.I. Ravid, “From Geographical Realia to Historiographical Symbol: The Odyssey of the Word Ghetto” in David B. Ruderman, ed., Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (New York, 1992); Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto

Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).

  • This book examines how American social scientists adopted the term “ghetto” to explain immigrant acculturation and the opposite phenomenon—why African Americans were not experiencing the same rates of upward mobility, residential dispersion, and social integration. Duneier argues that the term and metaphor of the “ghetto” have lost their symbolic power in contemporary discourse because Americans no longer remember its origins in modern Jewish history. He draws his readers into the lives, careers and  scholarship of three emblematic African American social scientists—Horace Cayton, Kenneth Clark, and William Julius Wilson—to show how each tried to elicit sympathy and support for the black community by comparing the persecution of Jews in Nazi ghettos to the discrimination, powerlessness, and pathologies of African American urban neighborhoods.
  • This reading is accessible to most undergraduates. Advanced undergraduates could read it over for one or two seminar meetings. It could also be used as a textbook and read over several weeks of the semester in tandem with lectures on twentieth-century American history.
  • This Text should be paired with Trotter Appendix 7, which examines how historians have studied ghettos and thus balances out Duneier’s focus on sociologists and the discipline of sociology.
  • This text could be paired with excerpts from: Louis Wirth, The Ghetto (1928); St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945); Margot Alpert, “Doll Cultural Study Had Impact on ‘Brown v. Board’” NPR, December 11, 2003.

Joe W. Trotter, “Appendix 7,” in Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-45 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1985).

  • This historiographical essay provides an overview of the scholarship produced by a cohort of urban historians in the 1960s and ‘70s who made a clear historical comparison between American and early modern European Jewish ghettos as a way of explaining the rise of segregated black neighborhoods. Trotter demonstrates that “ghetto synthesis” scholars such as Alan Spear, Gilbert Osofsky, David Katzman, and Kenneth Kusmer argued that the color line was the modern incarnation of Jewish ghettoization; just as Jews were compelled to live together and apart from their Christian neighbors, it was white hostility that caused the residential separation of black urban citizens.
  • This reading is accessible for all undergraduates. It is short and does not use much theory.

Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race & Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

  • This text bridges the period of early ghetto formation of the Great Migration to the post-WWII consolidation of poor black urban communities. Hirsch argues that the second ghetto emerged out of the responses of white politicians and the white state to the changing racial boundaries of postwar Chicago. This text demonstrates the role of the state in forming postwar American ghettos.
  • This reading is accessible for most undergraduates. Advanced undergraduates could read it over 2 weeks, or chapters could be excerpted for less advanced students.
  • This text could be paired with: Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis; Digitized Redlining Maps

Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

  • This case study of Detroit synthesizes many theories on the urban crisis and argues that the urban crisis was neither inevitable nor natural, but rather the product of clear economic and political decisions and policies that perpetuated racial discrimination and segregation. The book traces how white suburbanization contributed to the formation of segregated black cities; it should help students understand the various factors that contributed to the creation of segregated black urban neighborhoods
  • This reading is accessible for most undergraduates. Advanced undergraduates could read it over 2 weeks, or chapters could be excerpted for less advanced students.
  • This text could be paired with: Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto; Trotter, Black Milwaukee Appendix 7

Alice O’Connor, “Race and Class in Chicago-School Sociology: The Underclass Concept in Historical Perspective,” in African American Urban Experience: Perspectives from the Colonial Period to the Present, Ed. Joe W. Trotter, Earl Lewis, Tera W. Hunter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

  • This historiographical essay explores how academics have debated the existence of an urban “underclass” living within American ghettos. O’Connor asks: What are the historical roots of the “underclass” debate? The essay connects William Julius Wilson’s underclass theory to the Chicago School’s past theories of ghettoization and black assimilation.
  • This reading will challenge undergraduates.
  • This text could be paired with: Duneier; Countryman

Matthew J. Countryman, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

  • This book intervenes into the “underclass” debate by highlighting black actors and black actions in response to the failures of racial liberalism and the struggle for racial equality. Countryman agrees with scholars like Hirsch, Jackson and Sugrue about the structural contributors to the segregation of urban, working class and poor African Americans. He differs from these authors, however, by revealing that (heterogeneous) black actors in these (heterogeneous) communities responded to deindustrialization, employment and housing discrimination, and racism through political organizing and activism and through communal/institutional organization and support.
  • This reading is accessible for most undergraduates. It is probably unnecessary to assign the entire book, but students may enjoy reading about Black Power!
  • This text could be paired with: O’Connor, “Race and Class in Chicago-School Sociology: The Underclass Concept in Historical Perspective”; Introduction to Donna Jean Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Stevie Wonder, “Living for the City,” (1974)

Alan Gilbert, “On the Absence of Ghettos in Latin American Cities,” in in Bruce D. Haynes and Ray Hutchison, Ed., The Ghetto: Contemporary Global Issues and Controversies (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012),191-224.

  • In addition to offering a geographical comparison, this text argues that the term “ghetto” is rarely applicable in Latin American cities. Additionally, because Gilbert uses Loïc Wacquant’s definition of ghetto as a framework to examine possible cases in Latin America, this text provides students with the possibility to critically examine the possibilities and limitations of Wacquant’s definition specifically, and definitions of “ghetto” more generally.
  • This reading is accessible for most undergraduates. It is written plainly and does not lean heavily on theory, though students would benefit from a brief introduction to neoliberalism before reading if they are not already familiar with this economic paradigm.
  • This text could be paired with: Brasilmar Ferreira Nunes and Leticia Veloso, “Divided Cities: Rethinking the Ghetto in Light of the Brazilian Favela,” in in Bruce D. Haynes and Ray Hutchison, Ed., The Ghetto: Contemporary Global Issues and Controversies (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012), 225-244.

Brasilmar Ferreira Nunes and Leticia Veloso, “Divided Cities: Rethinking the Ghetto in Light of the Brazilian Favela,” in in Bruce D. Haynes and Ray Hutchison, Ed., The Ghetto: Contemporary Global Issues and Controversies (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012), 225-244.

  • In addition to offering a geographical comparison, this text argues that despite historical and structural differences between the American black urban ghetto and Brazilian favelas, in both places there is a stark deviation between how outsiders and insiders view the neighborhoods’ space, people, and society. Ferreira Nunes and Veloso use this deviation to argue against the association of the ghetto with eventual assimilation and with cultures of poverty.
  • This reading is accessible for advanced undergraduates or for undergraduates who are experienced readers of social science. It engages with theoretical definitions of, and explanations for, the ghetto.
  • This text could be paired with: City of God (film)
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