Constructing the American Ghetto

by Gus Mallett on 18 March 2021
Constructing the American Ghetto
Broadly speaking, we all arrive at roughly the same definition of the ghetto – a space marred by dispossession, shaped by crime and addiction and policed with heinous brutality. Why do we find this story so compelling? Does it come from a place of empathy? Are we infuriated by the injustice?

References to the “ghetto” are rife in American cultural output. Just think of Tupac’s ‘Ghetto Gospel’.

Music, TV, cinema and art have constructed an image of the American ghetto as being violent, addiction-ridden, crime-infested, poor, undesirable and almost exclusively inhabited by African Americans.

It was in fact 1960s civil rights leaders who first imported the word ‘ghetto’ for these inner-city areas did so in order to point out residents’ level of suffering and ostracisation.

But although it was initially launched as an act of protest, “today the term has come to have more negative overtones, suggesting poor conditions in African-American neighborhoods without necessarily recognizing society’s responsibility for them.”

The load that the term “ghetto” implies and its ubiquity across Western popular culture means that it must be studied and understood.

By running through some of its cultural depictions (Blaxploitation, N.W.A., Moonlight, the political mess of the War on Drugs, and the song ‘In the Ghetto’) and outlining the historical reasons for the emergence of inner-city American ghettos, I will argue that if we are to consume “ghetto” culture, we should increase our understanding of the historical situations that created these problematic residential situations in the first place.

Where did the word come from?

A ghetto is defined as an urban community made up of a concentrated minority group who are barred from leaving. As a term, it first emerged in Venice in the 1500s when the Italian authorities segregated Jewish residents in gated areas.

As historian Daniel Geary explains:

“Predictably, ghetto residents suffered from poverty, overpopulation, squalor, and disease. Perversely, these conditions were used to portray Jews as inferior and to justify their forced segregation ‘not as the direct consequence of discrimination . . . but as the natural state and deserved fate of those who had betrayed Christ.’”

Other European cities, in regular fits of anti-Semitism, followed Venice’s example. And so, 500 years later, the term had widened to apply to crowded urban quarters lived in by other minority groups. The most infamous usage of the word described the European Jewish ghettos constructed by the Nazis. It was only after World War Two that civil rights activists in America imported the term ‘ghetto’ to American cities. They “believed urban African Americans suffered from a systemic racism similar in kind if not in degree to that faced by Jews under fascism”. How had this situation arisen?

After slavery was abolished in 1865, the segregation of non-white Americans from their white counterparts was pursued by both legal and private efforts. One method of segregation was through housing policy: “[r]esidential segregation was enforced by methods such as restrictive covenants written into housing deeds that prevented sale of property to non-whites”. The effect of this was to restrict African Americans to living in “certain areas of the city, their neighborhoods had a population density more than four times greater than white areas”.In Chicago, a northern industrial city, by the 1940s, “half of [all] neighbourhoods were effectively off-limits to blacks”.

60 years on, communities are still highly segregated: “On average, 60 percent of blacks would have to move in order for blacks and whites to be equally distributed in American cities”.

‘In the Ghetto’ by Elvis Presley

Modern popular culture has consolidated and arguably exploited the notion of the ghetto that exists in the American mind. This was being done as early as 1969, which was when Elvis released ‘In the Ghetto’, a song about a boy growing up “in the ghetto”. With it, he scored his first top 10 hit in the U.S. for four years. It went straight to number one in West Germany, Ireland, Norway, Australia and New Zealand. In the 52 years since, it has been covered by dozens of artists from across the spectrum of musical genres

‘Well the world turns,

And a hungry little boy with a runny nose

Plays in the street as the cold wind blows

In the ghetto’.

‘In the Ghetto’, Elvis Presley (1969)

What is it about ‘In the Ghetto’ that is so captivating? It’s partly the catchy refrain. But more than that, it’s the story. The song’s lyrics offer a stark depiction of an American (specifically, Chicagoan) ghetto, replete with deprivation, lawlessness and, ultimately, death. Although it is not explicitly stated, we can assume that the protagonist of Elvis’ song is African American.

The depiction of the ghetto in Presley’s song aligns with the ghetto as it exists within the popular imaginary – as an outlawed and immoral section of society. Presley’s song is an early example of one of many acts of collective and ongoing cultural construction; In essence, mythmaking. But how did we arrive at this contemporary understanding, and what relation, if any, does it bear to the ghetto’s construction as physical space? This piece will pin down the myths closely associated with the ghetto in the context of actual, tangible space and outline the history of American ghettos as they have developed over the last century.

Ghettoisation and geographics

Broadly speaking, inner city ‘ghettoisation’ began in the early 20th century, as an influx of slave descendants from the South travelled North in search of job opportunities in an exodus known as the Great Migration. Demand for unskilled labour increased at the outbreak of the First World War just as the racial makeup of cities began to change. Arguably, this period represented economic possibility, with housing, employment and travel opportunities all in abundance. However, this was short-lived. White hostility festered, erupting in acts of sporadic violence and the singular brand of extra-legal justice meted out by the Ku Klux Klan. Elsewhere, black people were discouraged from renting or buying in white neighbourhoods, and often fell victim to predatory landlords and lenders. The growth of cities continued apace.

The end of World War II also signalled an era of unprecedented economic growth, ‘The Golden Age of Capitalism’, coinciding with a near-complete overhaul in U.S. production. From the 1950s onwards, hard industry was slowly pushed to the side by invisible services such as information processing and finance. This left an unskilled black labour force locked out in the cold.

Increasingly, the black population of northern cities splintered into factions. The educated few were able to move with the times and assimilate into the middle-class, while the majority toiled away in the burgeoning slums. All the while, the human flow gathered steam. As the cities swelled, white Americans fled for the suburbs, disenchanted at the prospect of sharing space with undesirables. ‘Urban renewal’, a euphemism for bulldozing slums and privatising land, began in earnest. As well as being a precursor to the modern American housing crisis, this process gutted black communities. Leisure and recreation all but disappeared from the ghetto, and gangs thrived in their absence. In New York, the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway which began in 1948 tore the city’s poorest borough in half, displacing 5,000 families and precipitating a micro-migration from South to North.

Ultimately, the ghetto crystallised slowly, an act of deliberate co-construction fathered by urban planners, property developers and racist white people. Black people were driven out of affluent neighbourhoods, exploited by lenders, subject to discriminatory real estate practices and otherwise herded, corralled and compartmentalised into diminishing physical spaces. Packed so tightly together, the community would be easier to control - or so the logic went.

The Harlem Renaissance

For decades, this physical reality has proved to be fertile ground for cultural imaginings. The Harlem Renaissance, a literary and artistic movement spanning the 1920s and 1930s, marked the first such major instance. Poets such as Langston Hughes documented the minutiae of contemporary African American life in the ghetto in painstaking detail. For Rivke Jaffe, the Renaissance:

“…exposed its oppressive conditions and revalorised it as the heart of black cultural life, to the fascination of many middle-class outsiders but sometimes to the dismay of locals”.

Similarly, playwright Lorraine Hansberry brought many issues associated with the ghetto sharply into focus. ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, Hansberry’s magnum opus, debuted on Broadway in 1959, earning critical acclaim and landing the playwright an FBI file for her troubles. It was adapted to film two years later, retaining largely the same cast and netting star Sidney Poitier his third Golden Globe nomination. Poitier would later become the first black man to win Best Actor in 1963 for his role in ‘Lilies of the Field’. ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ follows the working-class Younger family as they eagerly await a $10,000 life insurance payout. Unfolding largely within the confines of their apartment in South Side, Chicago, the family are at loggerheads over how to spend the money. They invest in a white suburban neighbourhood in Clybourne Park, prompting a visit from local ‘Improvement Association’ representative Karl Lindner. In an unsettling scene, Lindner offers them money in exchange for steering clear. Throughout, he refers to the Youngers as “you people”, and it is not difficult for the audience to imagine the implicit threat from escalating.

This was a situation that Hansberry had personally experienced. In 1940, her family’s attempt to move into a white Chicagoan neighbourhood was met with violence, resulting in the landmark Supreme Court case ‘Hansberry vs Lee’. In the end, they reject his offer and embrace a future of uncertainty and – perhaps misplaced – hope. For all its idealism, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ is a poignant commentary on the difficulty of escaping the ghetto.


In a complete stylistic departure, film sub-genre Blaxploitation is a fascinating prism through which to view life in the contemporary ghetto. In less than ten years, it left a sizable imprint on American popular culture. Just ask Quentin Tarantino. In the 1970s, the film industry was in grave financial trouble. Theatres were mainly based in cities, and, increasingly, cities were composed of poor African Americans with little interest in the so-called ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’. So, executives began to commission movies aimed squarely at ‘New Urban Blacks’.

Less a genre than a collection of common tropes, Blaxploitation centres solitary male protagonists in a world of crime and violence. Protagonists evade the clutches of ‘The Man’, against a backdrop of funk and real ghetto iconography, courtesy of on-location shooting. In ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’, the eponymous hero is arrested for his resemblance to a known fugitive – in other words, he is black. On the way to the station, the cops stop to beat a young black activist. Appalled, Sweetback attacks them and, freeing the young man, flees to the U.S.-Mexico border. Director (and star) Melvin van Peebles is at pains to depict downtown Los Angeles as under occupation. Sirens wail and the ubiquitous flashing of red and blue accompanies our hero while he makes his escape. Long shots are used throughout to further invoke the trappings of ghetto life. It is worth noting that in 1965, the LAPD began to use helicopters as a means of surveillance. Chief William Parker, a notoriously racist police officer, spearheaded efforts to spread fear among poor citizens by any means necessary. 30 years later, Ice Cube immortalised these ‘ghetto birds’ in popular culture: “Why oh, why must you swoop thru the hood / Like everybody from my hood is up to no good?”. ‘Sweetback’ and Blaxploitation generally, remains a visceral portrayal of the animosity between ghetto inhabitants and law enforcement.

The Crack Epidemic

Any ghetto-based discussion would be incomplete without reference to the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and its primary artefact - gangsta rap. In the book Freakonomics (2005) Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt convincingly argue that “black Americans were hurt more by crack cocaine than by any other single cause since Jim Crow”. Indeed, crack found a real foothold in deprived city areas. Employment rates of black men plummeted – from over 70% in 1970 to 28% in 1987. As trade became increasingly weaponised, it elicited a harrowing amount of gun crime. In response to this explosion of violence, President Ronald Reagan, and his successor George H.W. Bush, launched a rampant war on drugs. Funding for weapons and training soared. Even tanks were employed in crack hotspots.

Away from the battleground, fear was stoked among middle-class Americans. Nancy Reagan began her infamous ‘Just Say No’ campaign in 1982, four years before 15 million tuned in to CBS for documentary film ‘48 Hours on Crack Street’. Somehow even more horrific and exploitative than it sounds, the documentary demonstrates that the level of public hysteria had reached a climax.

Several years later in 1989, President Bush strayed into quasi-parody. Displaying a bag of crack in the Oval Office during a televised address, he lamented:

“This is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago by drug enforcement agents in a park just across the street from the White House. It’s as innocent looking as candy, but it’s turning our cities into battle zones”.

Of course, the sale was set up by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), who reached out to an 18-year-old from a different neighbourhood. He got sent to jail for 10 years.

The real nature and agenda of the War on Drugs was revealed by the eagerness of Bush to make a regional, lower socio-economic and almost entirely black concern national. Not for one second was it about prohibition. Astonishingly, John Ehrlichman (domestic policy chief under the Nixon Administration) admitted as much in a Harper’s Magazine interview in 1994:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”

And the devastating line:

“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.’”

Constructions and connections to the ‘ghetto’ in contemporary music

N.W.A knew this when they changed the landscape of popular culture forever in 1988. ‘Straight Outta Compton’ remains the most searing evocation of the crack trade and the government’s involvement in it ever produced. The controversy surrounding ‘Fuck tha Police’ is veritable household knowledge. The cease-and-desist letter from the FBI; the concert raid by Detroit police in 1989; the numerous radio station blacklists.

Miraculously, ‘Dope Man’ escaped the same treatment. Released as part of the compilation album N.W.A and the Posse in 1987, it highlights several concerns unique to the crack enterprise. Supporting characters are revealed through graphic exchanges with Cube and his cohorts, including Strawberry – “a girl selling pussy for crack”. The so-called ‘crack whore’ was a common feature of the media’s attempts to sensationalise the epidemic. Of course, this represents just another iteration of leveraging women’s sexuality for the purposes of fomenting mass hysteria. In truth, such transactions were common in ghetto areas ravaged by addiction. As mentioned earlier, unemployment rates spiralled in the epidemic years, and sexual slavery represented a viable means of transaction. ‘Moonlight’ (2016) explores this reality with unflinching brutality. Throughout ‘Dope Man’, Cube pulls no punches in his assessment of women offering sex in exchange for a hit: “Give tha bitch a rock, she’ll fuck the whole damn crew!” Although it’s undoubtedly uncomfortable listening, the song depicts a ghetto brought to its knees by crack cocaine.

One of the first CDs I was exposed to as a kid was Elv1s, a compilation of The King’s 30 number one hits. We kept it in the car and played it in full every year on the long drive to Gower for our summer holiday, along with Let Go by Avril Lavigne. ‘In the Ghetto’ is the 26th track on that album. Its enduring popularity is testament to several factors, as outlined at the start of this piece. Chief of these is the fact that consumers have always been fascinated by the ghetto as a physical space. This interest has led to a continuous act of collaboration that transcends geographic border, form and generations.

Broadly speaking, we all arrive at roughly the same definition of the ghetto – a space marred by dispossession, shaped by crime and addiction and policed with heinous brutality. Why do we find this story so compelling? Does it come from a place of empathy? Are we infuriated by the injustice? Sadly, it is much more likely due to a collective voyeurism.

I have tried to demystify the ghetto by grounding it in physical reality. It is my hope that we can become more receptive to the narratives that permeate our shared consciousness. Art, perhaps more so than anything else, has the potential to destabilise and challenge our notions of fairness. Unfortunately, it also has the ability to purport unhelpful and damaging stereotypes. As consumers of popular culture, we must ensure that we are aware of these myths in order to fully deconstruct them.

Thank you to Gus for this excellent and enlightening article about an under-discussed topic. What comes to your mind when you think of a “ghetto”? What do you think about the way its represented in popular culture? Email us your thoughts and any comments to

References, in order of appearance: