Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea

Written by Mitchell Duneier
Review by Lucille Cormier

Ghetto is an analysis of the work of four prominent black intellectuals: Horace Cayton, Kenneth Clark, William Julius Wilson, and Geoffrey Canada. All are social scientists attempting to understand why African Americans seem locked into their ghettos in an ever-descending spiral of poverty and powerlessness. They identify factors such as real estate “covenants” that excluded black home buyers in Chicago, lack of public transportation to suburban workplaces, double discrimination faced by black women, white control of welfare and policing policies.

The author also contrasts urban black ghettos to the original Jewish ghettos of Venice and Rome and to Nazi “ghettos” whose purpose was not so much to contain Jews but to exterminate them. Ghettos aimed primarily at containment, Duneier finds, could become flourishing cultural centers, e.g., the Harlem Renaissance. In the main, however, they have been and continue to be crippling environments that affect generations to come.

Ghetto is an important study of the history and complexity of an enduring, destructive social phenomenon. There is much to be learned in reading it. Not an easy read, but one well worth the effort.