Blog Exclusive Book Review: Ghetto

By Deirdre Oakley and Clinton Boyd, Jr., Georgia State University.ghetto

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

In this new, very timely and well-written book, Sociologist Mitchell Duneier takes on the complex challenge of documenting the history and ever-changing meaning of the now highly stigmatized word “Ghetto.” The term has always referred to the spatial containment of a particular population – first, as Duneier points out, in early 16th Century Venice where the local government required all of its Jewish citizens to reside on a close-by island surrounded by a wall—and then in other Italian and European cities. While such communities were separated from the non-Jewish citizenry, Duneier argues that these were cohesive and self-sustaining neighborhoods and that the Jewish citizenry interacted in positive ways with those outside their walls. We interpret Duneier’s argument here as such: Jews had full citizenry even if they were forced to live separately unlike African-Americans during the Jim Crow era – even though in the latter context there were ‘prosperous’ but ‘separate’ African American communities. However, by the time Hitler began his ascendance in the 1930s, the Nazi propaganda machine began enclosing the European Jewish ghettos both physically and symbolically – physically with razor wire and symbolically with negative public discourse and, of course, subsequent genocide.

In the American Post World War Two context, Duneier contends that the word Ghetto was used to describe inner-city African-American neighborhoods implying all the social problems of such areas. In Chapters Two through Four, he provides a comprehensive review of the scholarly works of three highly esteemed and influential social scientists: Horace Cayton, Kenneth Clark, and William Julius Wilson – all of whom discussed the challenges of African-American life in relation to their spatially-contained urban neighborhoods. Taken together these three scholars, as well as St. Clair Drake who co-authored with Horace Cayton the seminal book Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945) set the stage for future social scientists as well as those in policy circles to research and provide commentary on America’s ‘Black Ghettos’.

While the three scholars Duneier writes about focused on the structural causes of the blight which affected these neighborhoods, in policy circles the emphasis shifted towards the residents. In other words, it was not the environment but the people themselves who were to blame for all the social problems associated with ‘the ghetto’. One of the most damaging critiques came from then-Senator Patrick Moynihan, who wrote The Negro Family: The Case for National Action for the United States Department of Labor released in 1965. A year later Oscar Lewis, a prominent Anthropologist had a book published entitled La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York. Therefore, inner-city “Ghettos” became racialized in very stigmatizing ways and, consequently, became known as ‘no-go zones’ and places in need of routine social control.

Ultimately Duneier concludes that American inner-city ghettos can no longer be defined solely by spatial segregation and the containment of Black and Brown subpopulations, but should be reinterpreted as places of invasive policing and social control. He comes to this conclusion after Chapter Six where he documents the implementation and challenges facing the Harlem’s Children’s Zone (HCZ), a project that was the brain-child of Dr. Geoffrey Canada, an African American educator and social activist. As Duneier illustrates, some of the significant challenges for the HCZ include the issues of scale and whether or not such an intervention can be successfully implemented in other poor inner-city areas without a charismatic leader like Dr. Canada. The HCZ provides comprehensive wrap-around educational and social service programs to families and children in the neighborhood. However, only a small percentage of the neighborhood kids and their families can be part of this program due to limited enrollment, which is based on a lottery system. Yet, for many of the children and families who are fortunate enough to enroll into the HCZ, there are positive outcomes – a solid education for the children and a household opportunity for upward mobility.

While Duneier’s book is certainly ground-breaking in his approach and painstaking documentation and theorizing regarding how the term Ghetto has evolved overtime, our main critique is that the word “Slum” existed in the American urban lexicon long before World War Two. And, like the word Ghetto would ultimately become to mean in the American context, the term slum evoked the negative aspects of poor, inner city Black and Brown communities. Indeed, much of the rhetoric was the same in terms of both structural and individual factors. This link to earlier works concerning the word slum is not something that Duneier addresses thoroughly in his book. Yet the social problems associated with what were then called American inner-city slums emerged in the late 19th century. The word slum originated in the early 19th century European city context as a geographic designation where poor or ‘low’ people resided. Jacob Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives about the slum housing on New York City’s Lower Eastside in 1890. Perhaps even more important was Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois work – in particular the 1899 publication of The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. This book was written during an era when eugenics functioned as a bastion for white superiority – a theory of the biological inferiority of African Americans that Du Bois used rigorous empirical research to disprove. The irony here is that eugenics would subsequently be taken up by the Nazis to justify the sequestering and genocide of the European Jews.

Duneier does point out that Du Bois did not use the word ghetto in this groundbreaking work but instead the word slum, particularly in the book’s section on what Du Bois called “the Submerged Tenth”. In Chapter One, Duneier discusses how Du Bois had visited Warsaw and experienced the spatial sequestering of the Jewish ghetto, something that Duneier notes Du Bois would later write about during the 1950s in his article The Negro and The Warsaw Ghetto. This could be why Du Bois did not use the term ghetto in The Philadelphia Negro. Another reason may be that while ghetto was in the American lexicon in reference to Black urban neighborhoods as early as the 1930s, it was not used in a derogatory sense. For example, Langston Hughes’ 1931 poem The Negro Ghetto evoked pride and black authenticity rather than bringing attention to the social problems associated with the slum.

We acknowledge that no book can cover everything and decisions must be made by the author in terms of time frames. However, we thought this worthy to note in this review. In sum, Duneier has adroitly focused on the changing meaning of the word ghetto through very careful historical analyses culminating with a modern-day case study of a program attempting to ameliorate the structural barriers of a poor inner city neighborhood through education. We highly recommend this book for scholars, policymakers, and students interested in the challenges facing poor and segregated communities.


Drake, St. Clair and Horace Cayton. 1945. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1952. “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto.” Jewish Life 6(7):14-15.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1899. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lewis, Oscar. 1966. La vida: A Puerto Rican family in the culture of poverty—San Juan and New York. New York: Random House.

Moynihan, Patrick. 1965. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Washington, DC: Office of Policy Planning and Research, United States Department of Labor.

Riis, Jacob. 1890. How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins.

Deirdre Oakley is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Georgia State University. She is also one of the Managing Editors of the Journal of Urban Affairs. Her research focuses primarily on how urban social disadvantage is often compounded by geographic space and place-based social policies.

Clinton Boyd, Jr. is a Doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Georgia State University. He is also a 2016-2018 Doris Duke Fellow for the Promotion of Child Well-Being awarded through Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. His research interests include neighborhood and spatial inequality, criminal justice, father involvement, child well-being, and social policy.  

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