A Cultural Manifesto: Thoughts on 'ghetto'

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In the last few editions of this column I've written about an incident of alleged racism at Bella Vita in Geist and the episode of violence in Broad Ripple that left seven injured from gunshot wounds. While these two occurrences have nothing in common, there was a noticeable similarity in some of the public dialogue these events sparked: the use of the word "ghetto" to reference certain characteristics of these situations. 


In the case of Bella Vita, I read speculations that the rejected black patron was denied entry because he was dressed too "ghetto" to be admitted into the club. I also heard a large contingency of voices describing the perpetrators of violence in Broad Ripple as being representative of "hood" or "ghetto" behavior. 


First, a little history: the word "ghetto" dates back to Italy during the 1600s. For the majority of the word's lifespan, it's been used to label Jewish neighborhoods forcibly segregated by racist civil policies. In more recent history, the word ghetto has become a catchall term to identify poor urban areas where large populations of minority groups reside due to social and economic inequalities.


But now, I mostly hear the word used as an adjective used by persons of privilege to describe things they deem as being of inferior quality. I've heard the term applied to everything from consumer products to systems of human values. "I just bought these sandals, and the strap already broke. They're so ghetto," or "That guy just cut in front of the line. That's so ghetto," are a couple typical examples of current usage.


Personally I find this use of the word extremely distasteful and completely incorrect. This usage assumes (absurdly) there is a de rigueur low standard of quality and ethics the residents of impoverished neighborhoods have collectively agreed to follow. It also blindly ignores the rich history of innovation ghettos have fostered in cities across the United States. From jazz to blues to hip-hop to rock to salsa to electronic dance music, so many of our beloved American cultural institutions have deep roots in ghetto societies. 


Here in Indy local neighborhoods identified as ghettos have birthed some of our city's most significant cultural contributions. The Indiana Avenue of the mid-1900s provides a striking example. This district was literally born from a slum. In 1935 when the WPA initiative Lockfield Gardens began construction, only one of the neighborhood's 363 existing dwellings was deemed as inhabitable by project surveyors. 


Despite disadvantages, the ghettos of Indiana Avenue produced what is likely the most profound and influential cultural movement in Indiana history. The area cultivated great athletes like basketball star Oscar Robertson. The neighborhood inspired world renowned writers, like Mari Evans, and Etheridge Knight. It was a base of operations for America's first self-made female millionaire Madam Walker. And, of course, the neighborhood produced a generation of jazz musicians whose work made history.


I'm certainly not attempting to glamorize ghetto life or ignore the struggles residents face. Ghettos, like any other kind of neighborhood, exist as microcosms of larger social structures — there's both good and bad to be found in equal measure. While the harsh conditions of ghetto poverty often produce more amplified examples of negative behavior, that shouldn't define the average ghetto resident anymore than notorious Wall Street criminals should define corporate America.


I feel the current misuse of the word ghetto reflects a larger cultural trend of demonizing the poor, making them scapegoats for a grab-bag of social ills. Perhaps it's easier for us to ignore the suffering of the poor if we convince ourselves they're bad people, not worthy of our respect or even our empathy.

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