When ethnographer Mitchell Duneier discussed the word ghetto in his sociology class at Princeton, his students were surprised to hear that its association with African Americans in the U.S. constitutes only a small part of its 500-year history. Until World War II, he explains in his newest book, Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, ghettos denoted neighborhoods in which Jewish people were forced or pressured to live by law at various points in European history. Duneier saw that there was more to this lexical shift than meets the eye. In Ghetto, he delineates how figures from Pope Paul IV in the 16th century to Adolf Hitler to mid-19th century sociologists to contemporary activists like Geoffrey Canada have attempted to define the ghetto sociologically, politically, and ideologically. Duneier also shows that the ghetto has resisted these figures’ efforts towards its encapsulation and has proved to be a more elusive concept than is often assumed.
Another conception of the ghetto that appears in the book is as a captivating subject deeply tied to the personal identities of the social scientists who study it. Duneier powerfully elucidates this story in chapters about the social scientists of the Chicago School and their successors. So I asked him to tell me about his own sense of purpose for studying the ghetto. Initially, he limited his answer to a discussion of his field. As an ethnographer, an “outsider” who examines specific communities up close—for example poor, African-American street vendors in Greenwich Village, the subjects of his first book Sidewalk—he was fascinated by the work of social scientists such as Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake. “They had been doing the exact kind of work that I had been doing, but they were doing it as insiders from within that community,” he explains.
Duneier expanded his response in an email a few hours after our conversation, writing that as a young Jewish man growing up on Long Island in the early 1960s, much of his Jewish identity was formed by ideas his father shared with him after reading works like Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. These works showed the ghetto as both a way of life and, in the hands of Nazis, a measure used to destroy Jews. Later, spending time among the residents of America’s ghettos for Sidewalk and his other book Slim’s Table, Duneier began to feel that the American ghetto formed another part of his Jewish identity. That his book is an attempt to articulate that personal connection is visible in the quiet but dogged pursuit of historical threads between the histories of Jewish European ghettos and predominantly African-American ones in the U.S.
But Duneier’s purpose in writing Ghetto ultimately transcends his individual history. In his book, Duneier tries make the ghetto, whether American or European, Jewish or African American, visible as a symbol of, as he puts it, “the nation’s violation of its ideals.” Recently, debates and protests over police violence have raised the public profile of the issue of ghettos as a measure of the health of American democracy. Duneier mentions Bernie Sanders’ choice to describe a neighborhood as a ghetto in a recent presidential primary debate as an example of how important it is to consider the word’s use in public discussion. He adds that while he could understand why people could feel offended by it, “it’s also important to understand this long history [of the word], and particularly the way in which African-American scholars have been so central in using the idea to highlight the distinctiveness of the social forces that have brought about this distinctive experience.” Ghetto makes clear that an open, critical, and historically informed discussion of the ghetto takes us beyond offensive stereotypes, working toward an ingrained sense in the American collective consciousness that we are all implicated in its future. Alexia Nader is a writer living in San Francisco and a senior editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly.