‘Ghettos’ Didn’t Always Mean Black

How America’s Horrid Background of Racial Segregation Transformed the Understanding of the age-old term ‘Ghettos’

In modern times, for many US residents, the word “ghettos” conjures images of run-down and crime-ridden African American segregated areas. The word ghettos is often used synonymously with the term, “inner cities,” This meaning is relatively recent. It has only become mainstream in the past 70 years or so. Beforehand, the term ghettos was primarily associated with Jewish urban quarters. The changing meaning of the word illustrates the troubling tenacity of such an idea.

The History of Jews and “Ghettos”

The linkage between Jews and “ghettos” began in the early 16th century. In 1516, as a compromise offering to those agitating for the city to be Christian-only, Venice confined its Jewish populace to a little island in the northern part of the city known as the New Ghetto. The name “Ghetto” likely derived from the Venetian verb gettare, meaning to pour or to cast, and probably can be traced to the earlier presence of a copper foundry in what was to become the all-Jewish district.

From the 16th to the 18th century, the institution of the legally compulsory and physically enclosed exclusively Jewish enclave spread to Rome, Florence Mantua and a host of other Italian towns and cities. The Venetian label stuck, and these mandatory Jewish areas throughout Italy came to be called ghettos too.

Last of the European Ghettos Dissolved in 1870

The emancipation of the Jews of Italy starting in the late 18th century led to the dismantling of these ghettos, culminating in the dissolution of the last of the surviving ghettos in Europe-the ghetto of Rome-in 1870. But the word ghettos was harder to get rid of.

New York Ghettos

In the ensuing decades, the word “ghetto” was resurrected to refer to new big-city Jewish immigrant neighborhoods, such as Manhattan’s Lower East Side (once labeled the “New York Ghetto”). These “ghettos” were densely crowded but legally voluntary and more mixed between Jews and non-Jews in reality than in popular perception.

Nazi Ghettos

jewish ghetto
Jewish Ghetto

Later still, during World War II, the Nazis revived the ghetto as a site of enforced Jewish segregation. As places of mass starvation and disease, and eventually of deportation to the death camps and killing fields, however, the Nazi ghettos bore little in common with the original Italian ghettos beyond the name.

African American Ghettos as early as 1910

Chicago Ghetto on the South Side

Meanwhile, African Americans had begun employing the term “ghettos” to refer to their own residential segregation as early as the 1910s, at a time when several American cities were passing zoning ordinances that prohibited black persons from living on blocks where the majority of residents were white. (Such laws were found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1917.) Black usage of “ghettos” became more widespread amidst the legal battle over restrictive covenants in the aftermath of World War II.

Racial Segregation of Housing in Washington DC

A 1948 statement on Segregation in Washington-published the same 12 months that the Supreme Court banned judicial enforcement of restrictive covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer-contained a chapter on housing segregation entitled “Ghettos in the Capital.” The authors made no bones about their intent to evoke the specter of the ghettos of the Holocaust in the way they referred to the residential segregation of blacks. “Ghetto is an ugly word,” one chapter opened. “To a Dane it is ugly. To any Nazi victim. To anyone who saw how Hitler placed a yellow mark on Jews so they could be made to live apart, suffer apart, die apart. To an American it is ugly.”

Urban Rebellions of 1960 brings Ghettos to Forefront

The new black referent for “ghettos” truly came to the fore in the 1960s, as urban race riots starting in the middle of the decade vaulted segregated areas onto the front pages of newspapers and onto television screens across the nation and the globe. Digital history resources reveal how usage of the term “ghettos” soared in the 1960s and 1970s and how phrases like “Negro ghetto” or, increasingly, “dark ghetto” found eclipse “Jewish ghetto.”

Kenneth Clark’s 1965 Book Dark Ghetto

The African-American psychologist Kenneth Clark’s 1965 book Dark Ghetto probably did a lot more than any other individual work for connecting “ghettos” and “black” in the mainstream media. The name of the reserve was doubly suitable. For Clark, the darkness of the “dark ghetto” was evident not merely in your skin color of its inhabitants however in the actual fact that he found such areas as bleak, desperate places, without faith in a much better potential and awash in self-destructive behavior and cultural vices, even as these were defended by others as the house of vibrant lifestyle and community

Use of Ghettos to Refer to Black Areas Stirs Initial Controversy

The transference of the term “ghetto” from Jewish to dark enclaves stirred controversy. Some pointed to having less statutory laws and regulations restricting African Us citizens to recommended areas, but that argument overlooked a complete range of condition actions-from the enforcement of restrictive covenants before 1948, to aid for redlining and the denial of house insurance for blacks in the suburbs, to the building of public casing in currently segregated districts-that made dark residential concentration a lot more than purely a case of de facto segregation.

Others, echoing the latest firestorm more than calling immigration detention centers “focus camps,” protested the use of a term linked to the Holocaust. In 1964, the Jewish intellectual Marie Syrkin wrote, “The word ‘ghetto,’ now frequently prefixed with the adjective ‘black,’ includes a particular Jewish origin: this means literally 25 % to which Jews had been restricted for legal reasons.” She after that added, “In the instant in addition to historic connection with the Jews a ghetto isn’t a metaphor; it really is a cement entity with wall space, stormtroopers, no exit save the gas chamber.”

African-American Objection to Ghetto Label

Some African-American thinkers objected to the label for what they saw as its stigmatization of dark communities. In a 1965 interview, the writer Ralph Ellison defined the portrayal of Harlem as a ghetto as “probably the most harming misuses of an idea that has ever happen in the usa.” If a black writer, he claimed, accepted the description of “Harlem as a ‘Negro ghetto’-which means, to paraphrase one of our writers, ‘piss in the halls and blood on the stairs’-he’ll never see the people of whom he wishes to write.”

Now Ghetto Means Black

Even as the word “ghetto” has come today to be seen first and foremost as part of the African American experience, its utilization is still not without controversy. Some view “ghetto,” especially when used colloquially as an adjective meaning deviant or tawdry, as slanderous and racist. Others believe the term powerfully conveys the intractable, prison-like nature of black segregation, the reality that residence in inner-city neighborhoods remains involuntary for most, practically if not legally.

What is clear is that this disturbingly resilient word-“ghetto”-has not lost its capacity to unsettle and provoke.

Daniel B. Schwartz teaches history and Judaic Studies at The George Washington University. He is the author of Ghetto: The History of a Word, available now from Amazon and Harvard University Press.

VIA Time