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From easy round-up for genocide to "ghetto fab": a look at the history of the term 'ghetto'.

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

The word 'ghetto' is one of the most controversial words in modern day vernacular. Historians, academics, and influencers debate the proper usage of the term: is it meant to describe a community? Is it a type of housing environment? Is it a persona? Is it meant as an insult? Is it a type of fashion statement? We debated the term ourselves, and dug deep into the history of 'the ghetto' to learn more.

Forced Living and Easy Round-Up

In the 16th and 17th centuries, cities like Venice, Frankfurt, Prague, and Rome forcibly segregated their Jewish populations, walling them off and putting them under onerous restrictions. The areas in which they were were walled off were called ghettos.

By the late 19th centuries, the Jewish ghettos in Italy had disappeared. By the 20th century, however, they were reestablished in various European countries, forced into existence by German dictatorship under the Nazi regime. The Jewish ghettos were isolated, strictly controlled, and resource-deprived. The efforts to reestablish ghettos on the part of the Nazi regime made mass genocide a much easier affair. Instead of searching for Jewish families that were spread across the country, they were forced into the ghetto where they could be accounted for. Ghettos would be emptied by the trainload into the Nazi-controlled Jewish concentration camps, where approximately six million Jews would face the gas chamber or die from starvation, beatings, German medical experiments, and other violent and horrendous acts.

From the Jewish Ghetto to the Black Ghetto

In 1908, the term ghetto broadened from it's original antisemitism to include dimensions of race and poverty. 'Ghetto', specifically in post-Civil War America, was used to define communities that were not mandated by law, but were defined by constraints of economic status, racial prejudice, and cultural differences.

Racial prejudice in the early 1900's helped to not only establish American ghettos, but also shaped and defined institutional racism. Redlining and restrictive covenants were designed explicitly to separate white and non-white city dwellers. Redlining, an overt prejudicial practice used primarily up until the 1970's, was comprised of two primary practices. First, redlining included written policies in the government's FHA and private bank's mortgage loans that made it okay to deny mortgages to most non-white Americans on the basis that they were not white. Second, the FHA would draw red lines on paper maps of the areas of the city that were primarily non-white populations, deny mortgages and housing loans to those citizens, and even refuse most commercial housing developments from building in those areas. FHA publications even purported 'best practices' indicating that families of different races should not share neighborhoods.

After World War II, "white flight" - white people moving in exponential numbers out of the city and to the suburbs- served to further exacerbate discrepancies in communities. Poverty rates among people of color- primarily Black people- skyrocketed. The poverty-stricken, low resource areas of the inner cities were often referred to as ghetto. By 1970, 'ghetto' moved from referring to the Jewish Ghetto to describing the Black Ghetto.

Ghetto in Modern Day Pop Culture

As early as 1970, artists like Elvis Presley were singing about the ghetto. From an outsider's perspective, Elvis lamented the ghetto in his song lyrics: "Are we too blind to see / Do we simply turn our heads / And look the other way / Well the world turns / And a hungry little boy with a runny nose / Plays in the street as a cold wind blows."

Later, Busta Rhymes would sing about the ghetto as well, but from a much different perspective. His songs did not ignore the inter-generational poverty effect within ghettos (note his lyrics: "crackhead chicks still smoke with babies in their bellies"), but he also doesn't allow the narrative to claim that all ghetto-dwellers are miserable: "where you find beautiful women and rugrats / And some of the most powerful people / I love that."

Song lyrics aside, use of the word ghetto to describe communities in print has drastically declined since the early 1970's; however, 'ghetto' as slang has been on the uptick for the past 40 years. In one day, Twitter tracked the usage of the word "ghetto" at 20 times per minute.

The most common reference is "being ghetto", or acting in a low-class manner. "Ghetto fab" has also emerged as a popular term, indicating that an individual is classy without being wealthy.

Modern Day Missteps

In 2016 at the Gold Globes, Quentin Tarantino, a white film director, used the word in his acceptance speech in reference to various types of movie music producers, with the intent to insult. The host- Jamie Foxx, a Black actor- disdainfully repeated the word back to Tarantino as he exited the stage with his award. A media backlash ensued.

In 2019, Time Magazine published an article referring to the controversy surrounding the word 'ghetto.' A Jewish historian they interviewed said: "The term 'ghetto' now has a specifically Jewish origin; it means a quarter in which Jews were restricted by law. In the immediate as well as historic experience of Jews a ghetto is not a metaphor; it is a concrete entity with walls, storm troopers, and a gas chamber."

Regardless of your take on the word 'ghetto', it is important to understand the historical significance to both Jewish and Black groups. If you are American, you cannot fully understand the cycles of oppressive housing policies, areas of poverty, and impacts on marginalized populations without understanding how ghettos helped shape the American narrative of poor communities.

Tune in to the Success in Black and White conversation this week: "90: Buzzwords Busted: 'The Ghetto.'"

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About the Author:

April Lovett is co-host of the Success in Black and White podcast, a weekly podcast in which she and her husband, Darryl Lovett, discuss a variety of topics dedicated to bridging the gap between racial boundaries. April identifies as white (Western European decent), cisgender, heterosexual, woman, wife, and mother. She is committed to fair representation and storytelling, while recognizing her identity could unintentionally beget biases.

Connect with April on Instagram or Twitter.

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