a ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence. – James Baldwin
When I think about the ghetto, I think about the Warsaw uprising in 1943, about Murphy Homes, Nickerson Gardens and Marcy; I think about the favelas in Brazil, the Ninth Ward, and the shanty towns in Johannesburg - where those with a penchant for dark-people-pathos board buses for poverty tours.
When I think about the ghetto, I think about violence that's analogous to a warzone in the same way former U.S. Marine Corps captain Nathaniel Fick does when he writes about the need for a class of platoon commanders to be exposed to violent death for training purposes.
"The closest battlefield to Quantico was the Anacostia neighborhood of southeastern Washington, D.C,” writes Fick in his book, One Bullet Away.
And when I think about the ghetto, I think about disadvantage.
But somehow, in the last decade or so, “ghetto” has metamorphosed into pop culture mockery, as a casual descriptive, without the least bit of irony.
About a month ago I climbed the two-dozen or so stairs from the subway platform, hit the street slightly out of breath, and watched as the winter air turned each exhale into tiny pockets of smoke. Inside the Apple store on 14th Street it was toasty and well-lit, like Steve Jobs wanted to be associated with the warmest and brightest part of your day. For some odd reason I couldn't sync my smartphone with my MacBook. It was an old Blackberry, which I figured was at the heart of the problem. The keypad was temperamental; the microprocessor was partially visible. When I placed my phone beside my computer on the counter, the Genius bartender said, "Wow, that Blackberry’s looking pretty ghetto, dude."
He said “ghetto” with the silent cruelty of a high school student.
I asked him where he grew up and he said Greenwich, Connecticut. Now mind you, Greenwich is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. It's bulletproof rich with a cape. What in God's name, I thought does this kid know about the ghetto?
Let's construct an equation: The ghetto - at least in this country - is largely associated with black folks; like the Jewish ghettos in Warsaw, the housing projects in the States were born out of segregation: Add to that the overuse of the term "ghetto" in its pejorative sense, replacing adjectives like tacky, dilapidated, ugly, gaudy, or unappealing to describe something put together in a less than presentable manner, or a sparsely stocked chaotic supermarket. And what do you get? You get an unflattering perception of black folks, reinforced daily without a second thought.
Like the people wrapped too tightly in their heterosexuality calling something weak or uncool "gay," or like those wrapped too tightly in their mental sharpness calling a stupid decision “retarded," those who have never stood on a ghetto street corner and felt its hopelessness use the “ghetto” pejorative overwhelmingly because they’re wrapped too tightly in their privilege. They don’t want to get too close to the less fortunate. They limit themselves to a kind of, according to the writer Ishmael Reed, “reckless eyeballing.”
Now we have Public Service Announcements repudiating the belittling use of both “gay” and “retarded.” And because of this, both expressions are eschewed; viewed as distasteful, inappropriate.
I can't imagine the same being done for "that's ghetto;" it goes beyond the irresponsible use of language. The things non-ghetto dwellers label “ghetto” are the same things with which they don’t want to associate themselves. And the more this label is attached to things, the more these things become less desirable.
For the most part, it speaks to the abandonment of black, brown, and poor people and for the areas where we imagine them living. I don’t think some people have the stomach to just come out say it.
Todd Cole is a segment producer for Up w/ Chris Hayes.