Ghetto: Overview, Special Considerations, FAQ

What Is a Ghetto?

The term ghetto is a derogatory term for a neighborhood characterized by low property values and relatively little public or private investment. It is a slang term that is generally considered an offensive stereotype because ghettos have historically been inhabited by racial minorities.

The term is frequently used for communities with low incomes, high unemployment, inadequate municipal services, or high school drop-out rates from schools. Neighborhoods that are considered ghettos may be underpopulated with abandoned homes or they may be densely populated with large families living in small spaces.

Key Takeaways

  • A ghetto is an offensive term for a neighborhood with low property values and relatively little public or private investment.
  • These areas are characterized by income and economic inequality, and very little development.
  • Neighborhoods tend to be racially segregated in the United States as a result of a history of redlining, mortgage lending discrimination, and Jim Crow laws.
  • Renewal policies and gentrification have rapidly changed some low-income neighborhoods.
  • Urban renewal programs and policies are controversial for their effect of displacing minority and low-income residents.

Understanding Ghettos

The term ghetto comes from medieval Europe. Cities in Spain, Germany, Italy, and Portugal sought to segregate Jewish populations into one area upon the suggestion of Pope Pius V during this period. In 14th century Venice, Italy, Jews settled into an area of an old iron foundry, otherwise known as a ghetto. The term also has roots in the Greek word ghetonia (which means neighborhood) or the Italian borghetto (which means small neighborhood).

In contemporary usage, the word ghetto is a derogatory term for communities with minority populations. These areas may be generally characterized by a lack of resources, little development, or high crime rates. Real estate values in these communities are generally much lower than in other parts of the same city, as properties tend to be outdated and run down. Some of the homes and establishments in these areas may even be abandoned.

Jim Crow laws and income inequality contributed to the creation of many low-income, minority neighborhoods in the United States. Some were formed after the Civil War, while others were created in the late 20th century.

In contemporary usage, the word "ghetto" is considered offensive because it is often used as a derogatory term for communities of color. In 2016, director Quentin Tarantino aroused controversy by using the term at the Golden Globes awards ceremony.

Special Considerations

Areas that are considered ghettos in the United States statistically tend to be racially segregated. This reflects a history of segregation in the country as well as a history of inequality when it comes to access to income, wealth, property rights, and other resources.

Many of these neighborhoods lack adequate resources, good schools, and may even be heavily policed. Literacy and poverty rates tend to be fairly high while the level of education in many underdeveloped neighborhoods remains low when compared to other larger areas. Residents in these neighborhoods are also subject to predatory financial practices, such as mortgage lending discrimination and redlining.

Redlining is the illegal practice of denying financial services to residents of some areas based on their ethnicity or nationality. Although prohibited by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, informal discrimination and housing segregation continued for many decades afterward.

Government Policies

Many neighborhoods that were once considered ghettos have seen major changes through what is referred to as urban renewal policies, shifting racial demographics, or gentrification. Large investments come to these areas because of local or state policy, generally from private entities.

Governments create policies to entice real estate developers to purchase multiple properties in these areas. Companies often build new homes and commercial spaces, taking advantage of incentives, such as lucrative tax breaks and loose zoning laws. Changes often come quickly, drawing in new residents and businesses and pushing out those who can no longer afford to live and do business there.

These urban renewal policies remain a controversial topic. That's because they have been known to displace minority and low-income residents who generally struggle to find affordable housing in a market with increasingly high property values, not to mention small businesses that operate in these areas. Critics suggest policies should address and help shape the economic and social dynamics that led to the ghettoization of these neighborhoods.

Although some of these areas have gone through the process of gentrification, others may still show signs of inequality.

What Is the Origin of the Word "Ghetto"?

There are many possible origins for the term "ghetto." One theory holds that it originated in Venice, where the city's Jewish residents were mandated to live in a specific neighborhood near an iron foundry. This foundry, or gheto, became synonymous with the city's Jewish community. Other theories tie the word to the Greek ghetonia (neighborhood) or the Italian borghetto (small neighborhood).

What Is an Example of an Historical Ghetto?

One of the most famous ghettos was the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland, where the city's Jewish population was confined prior to their deportation during the Holocaust. In contemporary American usage, certain parts of Compton and Oakland in California, Flint, Michigan, Harlem, New York, and Montgomery, Alabama, had well-established minority populations that could have been considered ghetto neighborhoods.

Why Is the Term Ghetto Offensive?

Many people consider the term "ghetto" offensive because it evokes a long history of racial segregation and discrimination. In the United States, many such communities were created through deliberate policies that denied housing and financial services to ethnic minority groups. Some celebrities have stirred controversy by using the word in public.

Article Sources
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  1. Time. "How America's Ugly History of Segregation Changed the Meaning of the Word 'Ghetto'."

  2. Center for American Progress. "Racial Disparities in Home Appreciation."

  3. Smithsonian Magazine. "The Centuries-Old History of Venice’s Jewish Ghetto."

  4. NPR. "Historian Says Don't 'Sanitize' How Our Government Created Ghettos."

  5. Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy. "Racial Inequality and the Black Ghetto."

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Service-Assistant Secretary For Planning and Evaluation. "Overview of Community Characteristics in Areas with Concentrated Poverty."

  7. HUD User. "Managing Community Change: A Dialogue on Gentrification."

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