Monday, March 7, 2016

The United States' Meanings Of The Word "Ghetto" And Senator Bernie Sanders' Ghetto Comments

Edited by Azizi Powell

[Revised March 8, 2016]

The idea for this pancocojams series came to me while I was reading an article that was posted on dailykos, a democratic political forum. The author of that article indicated that she considered Senator Bernie Sanders to be tone deaf when he used the word "ghetto" in reference to African Americans during a nationally televised debate, and also in his clarifying comments the following day. Some commenters to that article agreed and some disagreed with that conclusion. (For the record, I agree with the author's position). Selected comments from that article are quoted below.

While Bernie Sanders' undoubtedly meant well by his comments about Black people living in ghettos, I still smh'ed* when I heard those comments. Lots of people (Black and non-Black) have stated that Senator Sanders shouldn't have made those comments. Maybe he also has come to that conclusion. I hope so.

*smh'd" = shook my head (in amazement, exasperation, and/or irritation etc.)

It struck me while reading that dailykos diary that since the 1990s if not earlier, the noun "ghetto" has been dropped from formal use in the United States as a geographical term because it was considered to have insulting, if not pejorative meanings or connotations. However, it seems to me that in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in Hip Hop circles, some people boasted about being "from the ghetto" as that gave them some street cred, and showed that they were from the center of Black creativity (or at least some forms of Black creativity). Saying that you were from the ghetto meant that you were "hip to the jive" (to use an older saying that those young people probably wouldn't have used then or now). In other words, a person who was "from the streets" knew the importance of "keeping it real" and demonstrated that in his or her life and words and actions. Of course, there were some people (Black and non-Black) who really weren't from an impoverished section of an urban community but decided to "fake the funk" (pretend to be from the "streets") in order to get that desired cred.

"The 'hood" is term for Black poor urban neighborhoods that African Americans probably use the most. "'Hood" is a clip of the word "neighborhood". For example, click for a Wikipedia article on the 1991 movie "Boyz N The Hood, which was "filmed in South Central Los Angeles, California" and "depict[ed] life" in that urban community. In American mass media, some substitutes for the now retired word "ghetto" are "inner cities" (as in "inner city neighborhoods), "low income communities", "Black urban communities" (although many Black urban neighborhoods aren't "ghetto"), and impoverished communities.

Nowadays, the only time I hear (or read) the word "ghetto" is when it's used as an adjective. Among Black and non-Black people, "ghetto" describes something associated with Black people or someone Black who is low class (according to mainstream White American values, middle and upper class Black Americans' values, and other middle and upper class Americans' values). According to those who use the adjective form of "ghetto" a person's name and/or way of dressing, and/or way of talking can be negatively judged as being ghetto. "Ratchet" is a contemporary word that means the same thing as "ghetto". Some of the definitions given below provide examples of what those commenters said was or is "ghetto".

This is Part I of a three part pancocojams series on the word "ghetto" (as used in the United States).

Part I presents definitions of the word "ghetto" from and selected comments from a dailykos article about comments that Senator Bernie Sanders made about African Americans and "ghettos".

for Part II of this series.

Part II presents information about the Funk band "War" and showcases that band's 1972 song "The World Is A Ghetto". Selected comments from that sound file's discussion thread are also included in this post.

Click for Part III of this series.

Part III showcases Too $hort's Hip Hop song "The Ghetto".

The content of this post is presented for socio-cultural, etymological, and political purposes.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.


1. definition:
"1. (n.) an impoverished, neglected, or otherwise disadvantaged residential area of a city, usually troubled by a disproportionately large amount of crime
2. (adj.) urban; of or relating to (inner) city life
3. (adj.) poor; of or relating to the poor life
4. (adj.) jury-rigged, improvised, or home-made (usually with extremely cheap or sub-standard components), yet still deserving of an odd sense of respect from ghetto dwellers and non-ghetto dwellers alike

John's paranoia about triple-checking whether or not he's locked his car doors comes from his growing up in the ghetto
2. "Why you always be talkin' ghetto? Get yo'self a propa' e-ju-ma-kay-shun, kid!"
3. Jane hid her head in embarrasment as her mom shamelessly committed the ghetto act of stuffing the restaurant's bread rolls, sugar packets, and silverware in her purse
4. "A TV Guide duct-taped to a 4 foot stick?! That's one hella ghetto 'mote control!"

by k1 October 12, 2001

2. definition
"ghetto 

projects; run down homes or parts of towns or cities

you live in the ghetto"

by dilpgh May 03, 2003

3. definition
"ghetto 

1) Yelling at your boo in the middle of the street
2) Using the walkie-talkie feature on your cell to discuss personal drama in order to save minutes
3) Dressing for work like you are going to the club
4) Wearing house slippers outside the house
5) Taking pride in being broke
6) Flashing money you don't have instead of making your money last.
7) Having a new ride with large chrome rims but don't have a job.
8) Wearing your same clothes 5 days in a row but keeping them clean and pressed.
9) Running from the cops for no reseaon just to see if they can catch you......
This list could be pages long...

ghetto is also know as hood rich.

by I am not telling January 29, 2008"

4. definition
"ghetto 

This is an {URBAN} dictionary, so I reject that others try to force literal, mainstream definitions of slang on the words defined here. With that said, ghetto is not just a place where Jews were segregated in the past, it is also a way of thinking and behavior evolved from living in a physical ghetto. BECAUSE there are so many listings with ghetto linked to them, it is a FACT that people associate ghetto with not just a blighted area, but also a condition, an association with people, objects, and behavior not considered 'acceptable,' or 'proper' by mainstream society.

John lives in the ghetto.

Man, why you gotta be actin all ghetto?

That hoopty is straight up ghetto.

by destardi June 17, 2006
"hoopty" = an old, beat up car

5. definition
"ghetto 

A word misused by wannabe rapper/wigger White punks, male and female alike, so they sound more "gangster". When in actuality, if said White punks actually spent some time in a real ghetto they would go running back to their middle/upper class subdivisions crying for mommy AND the police.

You 12 - 23 year old posers have a lot to learn about life. Your craving to be affilliated with black street culture so you can appear "different", is really not being different at all. When you're reduced to the point that you have to find a new angle to cock your baseball cap so you're different from all the other crooked hat wearing little wimps, you don't realize that you're truly not different at all.

Want to be different, new and exciting? Lose the baggy pants, that juvinile looking baseball cap, spend $30 on a Polo shirt and $20 on some Wranglers and be amazed at the respect you'll instantly receive, instead of the total lack of respect adult give you now. Oh, and sell that Honda Civic with all the bulls__t* added to it and buy a real car. The Folgers coffee can for a tailpipe doesn't do a damned thing and my 43 year old White ass in my 1/4 ton Toyota Tacoma leaves you little bastards at the red light every time, throwing your hands up and down and pointing fingers inside the car like a chimp with a coconut.

Grow up little boys.

Look at little Zachary from the Uptown Garden District. When he's around his friends he goes by "Little Z" and listens to Fifty Cents, had daddy spend $4000 on extras for the Honda Prelude he got for making the A Honor Roll at Tulane and cut holes in his $120 jeans so he can look all "ghetto". Classic example of a wannabe Wi___er** who's really just a poser.

Again, grow up you little idiots.

by Voice of Maturity February 02, 2006
*That word was fully spelled out in that definition.

**This word was fully spelled out in this definition. It is a putdown referent for a White person who acts like a [n word].

From Does The Tone-Deafness Never End? Bernie Sanders Talks 'Ghettos' by By Bravenak, 2016/03/07

While discussing his own racial “blind spots” during Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Michigan, Sen. Bernie Sanders offered that white people “don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.” His comment drew swift condemnation on social media, since it appeared that the Vermont lawmaker was implying that only black people live in impoverished communities, reinforcing inaccurate and painful stereotypes that have dogged African-Americans for years....

On Monday, Sanders attempted to clarify his debate statement, telling a gaggle of reporters in Detroit: “What I meant to say, is when you talk about ghettos, traditionally what you’re talking about is African-American communities.”"...

Here are some selected comments from that dailykos article.

These comments are given in chronological order but may not be in consecutive order. I've numbered them for referencing purposes only. Note that some commenters in that discussion thread were supportive of Senator Sanders' statements about Black people and ghettos. I've included some of those comments in this short compilation.

1. defiant
Mar 07 · 05:38:45 PM
Please put Bernie’s comment in his actual historical perspective.
[posted by Margaret Rose]
"Okay. Ghetto is an Italian word that was originally used for the segregated part of a city where Jews lived. As a Jew whose father fled Poland during the Holocaust, I’m sure Senator Sanders has heard of the Warsaw Ghetto, where an act of resistance by the Jews living there ended in a slaughter of thousands by the Nazis.

So, knowing these facts, how is it that Bernie can only conceive of ghettos as places where black people reside? Even worse, how is it that he seems to only conceive of African Americans as people residing in ghettos? With that comment, he erased both poor white people—of whom this country has plenty; in fact, the majority of Americans who receive public assistance are white—and middle class and wealthy African Americans.

The problem seems to be that he can only seem to understand any issue insofar as he can relate it to income inequality. And that’s not good enough. Black men and women face racism no matter how much money they have. That’s why Henry Louis Gates was arrested for “breaking into” his own home. That’s why Melissa Harris-Perry was accosted by a man mumbling about Nazi Germany. That’s why Jonathan Ferrell was shot to death by cops when he tried to get help after a car accident. While poverty, discriminatory hiring practices, unequal distribution of resources, and environmental racism are (quite obviously) real problems, they are symptoms of a larger issue. Racism is about more than just money."
Another commenter offered the correction that Senator Bernie Sanders' father didn't flee the Holocaust, but came to the United States in 1927.

2. DaisiesArePretty
Mar 07 · 03:57:07 PM
"I haven’t even heard the word ghetto in the past 15-20 years. This goes beyond tone deafness. He’s seriously stuck in the past."

3. Bravenak 
Mar 07 · 04:06:26 PM
"It made me think of 1970s TV. "

4. Standard Deviant
Mar 07 · 05:59:49 PM
[This comment was written in response to a question about why he or she posted a photo of a young Bernie Sanders being arrested during a civil rights demonstration in the 1960s]
"The point is that Chicago and most northern cities in the US instituted policies like redlining that restricted blacks to reside in particular areas of the city—highly concentrated, that also ended up costing residents more for substandard housing. MLK Jr. came and in lived in a Chicago “ghetto” to draw attention to this plight. Those policies of restrictive covenants were even supported by federal housing finance policies. They’ve been deemed illegal thanks to the efforts of people like Dr. King and Sanders. But a different form of redlining still exists under the radar. It’s been studied repeatedly over the years.

And to use the word “ghetto” to describe a neighborhood in which people who have faced discrimination are concentrated, a neighborhood in which schools have been underfunded, a neighborhood in which schools have been underfunded, a neighborhood in which stores that sold wholesome food have fled leaving the areas “food deserts,” where “convenience” stores selling
junk food, alcohol, and lottery tickets pop up to take the place of real markets is not offensive except in the sense that these abandoned parts of US cities where inequality flourishes are a disgrace. It’s not Sanders’s language that people should be fretting about, it’s the utter neglect—an historic neglect of inner-city neighborhoods while gentrified areas attract most of the services and development financing that should be equally available. His word doesn’t vilify a group of people, like “super-predators” does; it vilifies a social policy that fosters inequality."
"Super-predators" is a word that former Secretary of State and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton used in 1996 to refer to violent gangs of African American juveniles.

5. michlawa2  igualdad
Mar 07 · 06:01:05 PM
"I'm from Flint I'm black and we used to say we lived in the ghetto all the time there's nothing wrong with that stupid diary"

6. eltee
Mar 07 · 06:26:56 PM
"Question for black people, because I really want to know and understand the disconnect.

If I had to speak for all whites, I'd say that most of, regardless of poverty level, don't know what it's like to live in a ghetto. My Irish great grandparents did but that was a century ago.

Do most middle and upper class black people also have this lack of awareness? Or is it possible that they could, for the most part, understand exactly what it's like to live in the ghetto even if they never actually have? I do understand that these days we don't call it a ghetto ot "the projects" or even the slums. Honestly, I'm not sure what is acceptable, naming wise. How are we to speak of these areas?

I am willing to be totally wrong on this because I keep trying to think of what Bernie should have said, what words would have better conveyed what he was trying to say. I interpreted it as an admonition to people like me...white without a clue. Apologies a hundred times if my comment offends...blast away. This is how we learn, by making mistakes. "
A response to this query was for the commenter to read other articles that were posted by this article's author Bravenak as well as some other articles that were written by some other dailykos members. Here's a link to a non-partisan dailykos article by a Black writer that is frequently recommended: Why black voters vote the way they do? (and advice on how to win them) by dopper0189, 2016/03/03.

I'm not a member of the dailykos political forum. But I'm African American and I was raised in "the projects" (public housing divisions) in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the 1950s -mid 1960s. Thus, I believe that I have some standing to respond to this question. I think that three more acceptable contemporary terms for "ghettos" are "inner city communities", "impoverished communities", and "low income communities". Note the plural references. A singular referent ("community" instead of "communities") suggests that African Americans are a monolith instead of heterogeneous groups of people.

7. mconvente, Mar 07 · 07:43:35 PM
"BTW, the term “ghetto” is still commonly used by white people, particularly middle-to-upper middle class suburban whites. Usually as a pejorative, like “eww, that’s so ghetto”. I’m not defending the usage of the term, which to me is far too often used as racial dog whistle, but just stating that yeah, lots of white suburban high school and college kids use that term.

In fast, the usage is still so common that SNL did a parody on this very subject just last fall.

To be honest, and perhaps this is showing a racial blind spot for myself, are reports from users here who live in poorer neighborhoods but say that don’t ever hear people calling their area a ghetto. Because I heard that term on a daily basis back in white suburbia high school from 2001-2005. I just assumed it is still used a lot by white kids growing up."
"SNL"= American television satire series "Saturday Night Live"

African Americans also refer to something or someone as being "ghetto" (meaning "low class"]
Some definitions from are given above.

8. 4deadinOhio, Mar 07 · 08:38:01 PM
"Yes. The comment implies, whether Bernie meant it or not, that most blacks live in poverty. I am taking this quote directly from the insightful article tenthmuse references above. Why black voters vote the way they do? (and advice on how to win them)


Repeat that to yourselves several times a day if you’re doing GOTV. The black poverty rate is ~27% compared to the white rate of ~11%. So yes because the black poverty rate is high, black voters tend to care a lot about poverty alievement. But that also means 73% of black voters DON’T live in poverty, the ghetto, or whatever other term is casually thrown around. If you assume most black voters live in poverty, you’ll very much insult your target audience."

9. RabidNation,
Mar 07 · 08:38:03 PM
"Methinks that an informed commentator would never lecture a Jewish person who had relatives who died in the holocaust about usage of the word “ghetto,” as it indicates an insane level of stupidity to do so."

10.TenthMuse, Mar 07 · 09:04:15 PM
"He was not referring to the Jewish ghettos in Europe.

"What I meant to say," Sanders said, according to an NBC News reporter, "is when you talk about ghettos, traditionally what you're talking about is African-American communities."

11. RabidNation, Mar 07 · 09:12:19 PM
"Oh. I see. there is some convenient imaginary distinction between herding oppressed, economically disenfranchised people of a minority demographic into a shithole in europe vs. doing the same thing in amerika. my bad. ”ghetto” is not a place. “ghetto” is a condition, a state of oppression imposed on scapegoated subgroups by a racist dominant culture."

12. TenthMuse, Mar 07 · 09:16:37 PM
"You might want to take it up with Bernie then. It’s his explanation."

13. chiplazarus
Mar 07 · 09:56:36 PM
"I think foremost in Bernie’s minds were communities like Ferguson, where the citizens live in complete fear of being pulled over by a cop and hassled. Maybe he shouldn’t have said “ghetto”, maybe he could have said “impoverished African American community”. He would be correct in saying that a white person doesn’t know what it’s like living in an impoverished African American community.

He was answering in the context of a question “What are your racial blindspots?” and his answer was that, generally, you are less oppressed as a white person than as a black person by the threat of capricious police activity. Okay, he bungled it. But only in our insane 24-hour news cycle sound-bite illness would we think (based on everything in Sanders’ history) that he is even remotely racist. Clumsy with his rhetoric at times, maybe. And who isn’t in this matchup."

This concludes Part I of this series.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment