What We Talk About When We Talk About a Ghetto

Precision in language is less important than consistency of usage. Words and concepts benefit from a bit of flexibility. It represents the grey area and ambiguity inherent in real life. To apply a term differently across bodies of scholarship, however, is to take advantage of this complexity and to obscure distinctions of place or kind, time or degree. Through participating in the Sawyer Seminar, I realized that the term "ghetto" can not be uniformly applied to every place where we see "ghetto" conditions. Although we can create a flexible category for similar cases of urban segregation, they are not all "ghettos." The political power of the term "ghetto" only arises when a parallel is drawn to the historical experiences of European Jewry.

The quest to precisely define a ghetto began early in the Sawyer Seminars. Scholars such as Bernard Cooperman, Benjamin Ravid, Kenneth Stow, and Samuel Gruber argued that the early modern Italian ghettos were neighborhoods where Jews were forced to reside, where non-Jews were forbidden to live, and that were enclosed by walls. This initial definition of "compulsory, segregated, and enclosed" guided our interpretation of racial separation in apartheid South Africa, Nazi Europe, and northern American cities after the Great Migration. We began to see the limitations of this definition. First, it described the physical space but not the rationale for separating populations. Why is separation necessary and valuable to a ruling group? Second, "compulsory, segregated, and enclosed" does not provide any sense of how separation actually occurred in practice. Just how compulsory or how enclosed does the ghetto have to be? Can it be enclosed residentially but open as a labor market, for example? It's too static of a description. Finally, this definition does not reveal any of the socio-economic context within and outside of the ghetto walls. 

By the time we reached the last case study, though, our question had shifted from "what is a ghetto?" to "when and why do we call places ghettos?" It became clear that the word "ghetto" has not been used consistently throughout time and place--South Africans never used "ghetto" to describe the compulsory, segregated, and enclosed areas in which Africans resided. Although the practice of urban segregation spread southward and eastward along with European colonialism, the word "ghetto" seemed to only move westward to the United States. To the best of our understanding, it was brought by Jewish immigrants to the U.S., who by the 1920s were moving into the middle class and increasingly college educated. The newly emerging academic disciplines of history and sociology attracted Jewish scholars who were eager to understand why they had achieved success and upward mobility while another minority group, African Americans, remained in poverty. In the decades following World War II, African Americans adopted the term. It was a politically useful parallel; the American military saved Jews from the Nazi ghettos, yet discrimination kept (black) American citizens trapped in similarly crowded, poor conditions in cities across the U.S. 

These African American neighborhoods were very different from the Venetian Jewish ghetto of the 1600s or the Nazi ghettos. All three were compulsory, segregated, and enclosed in their own ways--(im)precisely defined, they were all a "ghetto." Conditions were similar, though the practices that maintained seperation were very different. Scholars can argue until they are blue in the face about whether it is "accurate" to call postwar American neighborhoods a ghetto when so much time and distance separate it from early modern Italy. I think it's more interesting and important to recognize that, in the twentieth century, African American residents of these areas adopted the term "ghetto" to describe their neighborhoods because they recognized an enduring relevance and value to the word--it highlighted the historical parallels between their marginalization and that of the Jews. 

The question that remains for me is, how and when did widespread adoption of "ghetto" occur? Was there a single person or an article or an event that popularized it? Did it happen quickly or slowly? Was it already in use before the Nazi ghettos, or did that revival of the use of the word "ghetto" during World War II make the transition from Jewish to African American usage possible? To answer these questions, I am working with Profs. Wendy Goldman and Joe Trotter to conduct a corpus analysis of American writing from the 1890s to the 1980s. We know that black neighborhoods in American cities were, by (im)precise definition, ghettos before the 1960s. While I doubt we will be able to identify an exact moment when African American urbanites began describing their neighborhoods as ghettos, I do hope to discover how and why the word only achieved widespread usage in the 1960s and '70s.