Photo by Geoffrey Hatchard

The term “ghetto” is often an overused and stereotypical term used to describe urban culture and residential communities.  Any avid reader of neighborhood blogs in DC has most likely noticed how commenters over use the term “ghetto” to describe communities they see as poor, crime ridden, undesirable, and Black. A recent post about a new mural in Bloomingdale produced a number of comments from readers who used the term “ghetto” to describe the mural and the surrounding neighborhood. The flippant use of the term “ghetto” has severely impoverished contemporary debates about the social and economic conditions of urban communities.

The term “ghetto” has become such a common term in everyday language, it is hard to determine what we really mean when use the term. Even urban scholars are guilty of overusing and under-defining the term “ghetto.” Many scholars use the term “ghetto” to describe a geographic area, such as a neighborhood or census tract that is characterized as having a high concentration of households in poverty as well as a high concentration of blacks, or any other racial/ethnic minority group. General public use of the term “ghetto” tends to assume such areas characterized by crime, slackers, Chinese take-out restaurants, store front churches, poverty, and racial/ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, for many individuals, their image of a “ghetto” is less from actual experience but influenced by the popular media. Such characterizations of the “ghetto” communities ignores people who work everyday as nurses, teachers, civil servants or people who maintain lovely gardens, are active in local politics or volunteer. Perhaps, as historian Robin D. G. Kelley suggests, these urban dwellers are not as interesting as “the hard-core ghetto poor” because they are similar to you and me.

Sociologist Mario Small argues that there are four main reasons why the term “ghetto” should be abandoned. First, the term ghetto is often used under the assumption that poor neighborhoods are relatively homogeneous across cities. However, poor urban communities across cities vary in terms of access to resources, transportation, police presence, crime, etc. Assuming that all poor urban communities are the same undermines serious efforts to assess local conditions and social/economic solutions.

Second, Small suggests the term “ghetto” is stereotypical and not typical. The popular media has produced over generalized images of poor neighborhoods that often do not accurately describe the everyday lives of urban Blacks. While Blacks in general are more likely than other racial groups to live in high poverty and same-race neighborhoods, many live in mixed income communities. In the DC region, there are several affluent Black communities, including the neighborhood of Crestwood in NW DC as well as several areas across Prince George’s County.

Third, urban communities are influenced by national and local policies, which in turn leads to different outcomes. Federal public housing and urban renewal legislation in the 1940s and beyond have had devastating effects on poor and minority communities because it destroyed more housing than it created. However, local actors such as mayors, city council members, and other local legislators often matter more to the urban poor because the have more control over how federal urban policies are implemented through zoning, taxes, and other general land-use policies. While it may be easier to blame the federal government for the continuing presence of poor communities, it is important to hold local officials accountable for their actions regarding housing policies and access to services.

Lastly, Small argues that the term ghetto needs to be abandoned because many assume that the “ghetto” is maintained through involuntary segregation that is absent of choice, when in reality anti-discrimination housing policies are often not enforced leaving many Blacks and other racial/ethnic groups with a limited or constrained set of choices.

Clearly, we need a more sophisticated approach to how we classify the social and economic conditions of urban neighborhoods; one that does not demoralize a community and its residents. The current use of the term “ghetto” glosses over the real issues facing urban communities and allows individuals to hide behind racist and classist assumptions instead of engaging in productive conversations and actions. More importantly, it is on us to change or abandon the term “ghetto” because the cultural and ideological construction of the term has often shaped public policy. Stereotypes and sweeping generalizations should not be the basis for reform. The problems we face in urban America are complex and should be treated as such.

Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own.