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Ghetto
Cover of Ghetto
Ghetto
The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea

A New York Times Notable Book of 2016
Winner of the Zócalo Public Square Book Prize

On March 29, 1516, the city council of Venice issued a decree forcing Jews to live in il geto—a closed quarter named for the copper foundry that once occupied the area. The term stuck.

In this sweeping and original account, Mitchell Duneier traces the idea of the ghetto from its beginnings in the sixteenth century and its revival by the Nazis to the present. As Duneier shows, we cannot comprehend the entanglements of race, poverty, and place in America today without recalling the ghettos of Europe, as well as earlier efforts to understand the problems of the American city.

Ghetto is the story of the scholars and activists who tried to achieve that understanding. As Duneier shows, their efforts to wrestle with race and poverty cannot be divorced from their individual biographies, which often included direct encounters with prejudice and discrimination in the academy and elsewhere. Using new and forgotten sources, Duneier introduces us to Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake, graduate students whose conception of the South Side of Chicago established a new paradigm for thinking about Northern racism and poverty in the 1940s. We learn how the psychologist Kenneth Clark subsequently linked Harlem's slum conditions with the persistence of black powerlessness, and we follow the controversy over Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report on the black family. We see how the sociologist William Julius Wilson redefined the debate about urban America as middle-class African Americans increasingly escaped the ghetto and the country retreated from racially specific remedies. And we trace the education reformer Geoffrey Canada's efforts to transform the lives of inner-city children with ambitious interventions, even as other reformers sought to help families escape their neighborhoods altogether.

Duneier offers a clear-eyed assessment of the thinkers and doers who have shaped American ideas about urban poverty—and the ghetto. The result is a valuable new estimation of an age-old concept.

A New York Times Notable Book of 2016
Winner of the Zócalo Public Square Book Prize

On March 29, 1516, the city council of Venice issued a decree forcing Jews to live in il geto—a closed quarter named for the copper foundry that once occupied the area. The term stuck.

In this sweeping and original account, Mitchell Duneier traces the idea of the ghetto from its beginnings in the sixteenth century and its revival by the Nazis to the present. As Duneier shows, we cannot comprehend the entanglements of race, poverty, and place in America today without recalling the ghettos of Europe, as well as earlier efforts to understand the problems of the American city.

Ghetto is the story of the scholars and activists who tried to achieve that understanding. As Duneier shows, their efforts to wrestle with race and poverty cannot be divorced from their individual biographies, which often included direct encounters with prejudice and discrimination in the academy and elsewhere. Using new and forgotten sources, Duneier introduces us to Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake, graduate students whose conception of the South Side of Chicago established a new paradigm for thinking about Northern racism and poverty in the 1940s. We learn how the psychologist Kenneth Clark subsequently linked Harlem's slum conditions with the persistence of black powerlessness, and we follow the controversy over Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report on the black family. We see how the sociologist William Julius Wilson redefined the debate about urban America as middle-class African Americans increasingly escaped the ghetto and the country retreated from racially specific remedies. And we trace the education reformer Geoffrey Canada's efforts to transform the lives of inner-city children with ambitious interventions, even as other reformers sought to help families escape their neighborhoods altogether.

Duneier offers a clear-eyed assessment of the thinkers and doers who have shaped American ideas about urban poverty—and the ghetto. The result is a valuable new estimation of an age-old concept.

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About the Author-
  • Mitchell Duneier is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His first book, Slim's Table, received the 1994 Distinguished Publication Award from the American Sociological Association.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from February 15, 2016
    In his timely history of the black American ghetto and the thinkers who theorized and defined it, Princeton sociologist Duneier (Sidewalk) resuscitates the “forgotten ghetto” and the various ways it was understood. Tracing decades of scholarship that is inextricable from its political context, Duneier focuses on the prescient African-American scholars who were too often overshadowed by more prominent white academics. Post-WWII, Horace Cayton drew on the history of Jewish ghettos from 16th-century Venice to Nazi Germany, forging a metaphorical link between the Jewish and black ghettos and assisting his crusade against the racial covenants he saw as instrumental in the creation of the black ghetto. Kenneth Clark’s civil rights–era criticisms of “social work colonialism” and understanding of ghetto dwellers as “subject people” echoed Black Power rhetoric. William Julius Wilson’s analysis, emphasizing an economic framework over a racial one, gained traction during the Reagan era, and the tactics of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone reflect a modern, corporate mind-set. Duneier’s main lesson is perhaps the most damning: the intractability of the black ghetto results from a moral failure of white Americans, who remain unwilling to make sacrifices for the benefit of racial minorities. It is not an easy conclusion to hear, but Duneier’s far-reaching and incisive study makes it a hard one to deny.

  • Kirkus

    February 15, 2016
    How communities--especially in the United States--created, ostracized, and condemned the idea and reality of the ghetto. For more than 500 years, urban societies have found ways to coerce, compel, and otherwise force perceived undesirable groups into their own isolated and sometimes literally enclosed areas of cities. These areas, known as "ghettoes," most often served to separate Jews from the rest of the population. Yet today, when Americans hear the word "ghetto," they are most likely to associate it with the African-American "inner city." In this fine book, Duneier (Sociology/Princeton Univ.; Sidewalk, 1999, etc.), a sociologist who has a knack for writing for general audiences, examines the history of the spaces that came to be called ghettos as well as the concept of them. In the first chapter, the author clearly shows the long history of the ghettos that emerged in Europe to isolate Jews, and he emphasizes the way the Nazis brought the stigmatization of Jews to its most extreme manifestation. He then follows with a series of chapters that alternate between Chicago and New York's Harlem and the individuals who confronted the emergent ghettos in those cities. Duneier effectively merges scholarship with a journalist's eye for detail and compellingly reveals the myriad ways in which the ghetto has come to embody the fears and failures of the societies where they have manifested. However, given that he notes how it is ahistorical to associate the idea of the ghetto primarily with black Americans since American ghettos make up only about 10 percent of the 500-year history of their existence, it is curious that roughly 90 percent of his book is devoted to precisely that anachronism. An expansion of the themes of his first chapter would have strengthened the book. Nonetheless, this is accessible historical sociology that deserves a wide readership. Americans did not create the ghetto, but in this well-documented study, we see clearly how those urban areas have come to embody so many of our shortcomings when it comes to matters of race.

    COPYRIGHT(2016) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from July 1, 2016

    Duneier (sociology, Princeton Univ.; Slim's Table) offers a fascinating analysis of the various conceptions of the "ghetto" throughout history, as well as a look into the many sociological controversies of these areas and structural racism in the United States. The author takes readers on a visit to Poland and Germany with civil rights leader and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, as Du Bois witnesses the ghettoization of the Jews in Europe. The book then traces these designated living quarters through Jewish communities in Venice and Rome to the Nazis' deadly Warsaw ghetto. Next, Duneier explores the ghetto's relationship to U.S. racial policies and politics using the writings of three well-known black sociologists: Horace Clayton, Kenneth Clark, and William Julius Wilson. By providing their work, Duneier gives a clearer understanding of the serious issues relating to housing, school, and employment discrimination along with the various attempts by black scholars to play a societal role in remedying these uniquely American racial problems. VERDICT A clearly written book for anyone who is interested in the history of racism and its possible solutions.--Amy Lewontin, Northeastern Univ. Lib., Boston

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea
Mitchell Duneier
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