Understanding The Ghetto

I know most newly weds wouldn’t think of moving into an urban, low-income, and poorly developed neighborhood, but my wife and I did. Places like these can easily be characterized by poverty, high crime, and hopelessness. We call it the Ghetto. They are the run down parts of the city, not a place you would be comfortable being at night. Since my family is physically here, we see more than what the local news typically shows its viewers, but we can’t ignore the death of our community; it’s crime, drugs, and undesirable appearance. There was a time I wondered how long had this neighborhood been like this? And what was the cause? There are ghettos all over the country in major cities, what made them all?

Understanding what caused the Ghetto can be one-sided depending on which culture you asked. If you asked the dominant culture (predominantly white) where the Ghetto came from, sadly, a great deal would say African-Americans can do nothing else but create a Ghetto, because they  prefer chaos rather than a productive society (I know this because I have asked several). If you asked the sub dominant culture (mostly African-American) where the Ghetto came from, they too can point the finger, accusing the dominant culture of its ignorance in not realizing the horrendous effects of slavery, discrimination, and unequal opportunities. So what do we say to this? Well……. both have some truth but neither are completely accurate.

A Cultural Clash

The African American Ghetto was birthed in the early 1900s due to the most interesting circumstances; the great migration in the 20th century of African Americans from the South to the North.  In 1890, 90 percent of the African American population lived in the South. Wanting to escape the dangerous and oppressive society in the South, Southerners migrated north in great numbers in the early 1900s to big cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York, and smaller cities like them; even Cincinnati. In those years, there was already a small minority of African Americans living in the Northern cities. Although segregated in housing, many of them were doing well, conducting themselves in such a way that actually showed progress in their struggle for equality. But they got some unexpected tension from their Southerner counterparts.

Many African Americans who migrated from the deep South were more often affected from the oppressive systems that existed there. They were more prone to have had broken and unstable families, and having no culture of their own, they took on much of the chaotic culture of Southern whites that existed in all of the cotton belt. Therefore, doing the early years of the migration many Southern migrates were culturally out of touch with the Northern African American population, and there lifestyles were more likely to be at odds with African Americans in the North. So what happened was a literal cultural clash between the disciplined and functional native Northerners and the undisciplined and dysfunctional Southerner migrates. This damaged race relations, since most whites in the 1920 & 30’s still lived in areas with African Americans in the North. But because of this cultural clash, the white majority either left these communities or forced African Americans out of them altogether. The dysfunctional value system of some Southerners kept growing, and eventually overpowered and outnumbered the achieving culture of the native Northerners. This gave birth to the Ghetto.

Taking Responsibility

Racism wasn’t enough to create ghettos. Deep down every influential African American leader knows this. This is not to say that racism didn’t have it’s part, a thought many of the white majority refuse to consider. But even still, the cause of the Ghetto was mainly cultural, not racial. It was the clash of two different value systems, one achieving and the other non-achieving; this was about values. The achievers valued things like hard work, goal orientation, ownership, and family. Non-achievers had values that were subsistent and even some that were nihilistic. So working towards goals, conducting well behavior, sharing a sense of ownership, and taking care of the family were not important values to many Southern migrates.

The African American Ghetto is still dominated with this non-achieving nihilistic culture. There have been many attempts to instill an achiever value system into these communities ( African American church leaders, black consciousness movement, Nation of Islam, etc), but the powerful force of this nihilistic culture has again and again over powered these works. There are even people like my own family, who chose to move into these communities to help change this culture, but it was only a couple weeks after our marriage that our own house was burglarized. Racism didn’t break in our home, non-achieving people of our Ghetto broke in our home.

I can imagine many of the white majority applauding me and may think I am reaffirming what they have always thought; that most African Americans are dysfunctional people and the Ghetto is all their fault. I could also imagine many of my fellow African Americans calling me a sell out for spilling our dirty laundry. I don’t wish to appease either one of them. If my white friends have enjoyed reading this, they should also read what I have written about Racial Justice as well. If my fellow African Americans advocate racial justice, they should be willing to hold our communities accountable too. My desire is that both people groups understand what the culture of the Ghetto really is, so that we know what we are really dealing with here. Neither culture can point fingers, there are white Ghettos too after all, and most of them originated the exact same way. And not all African Americans are non-achievers, in fact; most are achievers! You just tend to see non-achievers whenever you drive through the Ghetto.

We can no longer be scared, hush up, or be ignorant about the cultures of American Ghettos ( both White and African Americans). They all have strong deficient cultures that explains there resistance to be reformed, we must seek to understand these. Gospel centered Christians know that nothing but the Gospel can truly transform individuals in this culture. And our churches must use every avenue possible to help that happen. 

References: 1. Carl Ellis Jr. Ghetto Nihilism 2. McWhiney, G. (1988). Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. 3. Fischer, D. (1989). Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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