Originally Published on 4/20/2009

It’s becoming as American as the iPod: Adult intellectual stud achieves prominence after being born in Ghettoville, U.S.A., knocking down the myriad obstacles in his/her path to reach a level of success that nobody thought possible. Decrepit inner-city schools couldn’t hope him back. Lack of financial resources couldn’t stop her from fulfilling her dreams. Even having an early child was not enough. She may have been in the ghetto, but the ghetto was not in she, as the saying goes.

What exactly is the ghetto?

For the unenlightened – which constitutes, say, anybody who uses this term to connote the urban black impoverished – the term “ghetto” originated as a reference to secluded Jewish quarters in Italy. These quarters weren’t always unkempt either; in some cases, they were well-resourced. Over the years, it has morphed into something of a synonym for blight in chocolate communities. Rampant poverty, drugs and single-mothers. No examples of scholarly or financial excellence. A place where frequent studying and reading makes you an abnormality, but also a place where children can count on the continued encouragement of many adults, even the miscreants. Children who grow up in these environments to receive college degrees should be given a standing O every time they’re seen in the streets. Really.

That’s so ghetto.

It’s an idiom that signals a crude remark or uncouth manners or just general unruly behavior. It is a grossly inaccurate statement, the brother of “hot ghetto mess” and the second cousin of “Indian giver”. It is representative of our lowest rung, the socially invisible and the politically marginalized. It is an incubator where ugly behavior and nihilism lives, a place to be shunned at all costs by higher society. It is what employers see when they look at an applicant’s address, and decide whether to call him or her back based on just that. It is naming your child Tanisha, Shanquita, Lovita, or Amare. It is yelling and cackling in the movie theater. It is long press-on finger nails, loud gum popping, skimpy outfits, tattoos, gold teeth and myriad children running around. It is {fill in the blank with favorite example]. “It” is our ghetto.

Classifying a group of people as this one word is irresponsible at best and hurtful at worse. It goes without saying – and of course I am now saying this – that not everyone from impoverished neighborhoods act uncouth or give their children concocted names. Considering that many of the nation’s best tantalizers, i.e. the rich and famous among us, profess their roots in meager beginnings, there’s a certain hypocritical element that comes with devaluing the “least” among us. The world lauds the sounds and performances and words of Tupac Shakur, Sean Carter, Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Keyshia Cole, Jamie Foxx, Hilary Swank, Lupe Fiasco, Ella Fitzgerald, to name a few, but down their launching pads. These are just a few of the many talents whose provenance was in Obscure America. Rags-to-riches stories of this kind are sold to titillate our fantasies and minds and hearts; it’s even great fodder for journalists, 60 Minute specials and movies.

But the others are ignored. The American blacks that aren’t fortunate enough to “make it out” remain on the fringes, to be dismissed as people who are bereft of the character necessary to pull themselves up and do better.

Where is this ghetto?

Is it public housing? Is it an area of dilapidated homes? Centralized poverty? Is it even brick-and-mortar? The notion of the “ghettocracy” as a purely geographic entity is, to put it bluntly, limited. Institutions, i.e. households and communities, are not soulless; they’re filled with people and are nothing without them. As long as a person retains the comportment congruent to a “ghetto” person, then ghettocracy will live, whether they’re in a mansion or a shanty. There are more white Americans living in poverty than Black Americans, yet this fact seems to elude many publicized case studies. White people can exhibit habits of the ghetto, but never in my life have I heard a white person being called ghetto. This double standard is a new age attack of the nobility vs. the serf, but one that takes on a racial component as well.

It isn’t just white people using the “ghetto” term liberally. The demeaning of American blacks in public housing or anywhere else that are deprived of resources is mostly perpetuated inside the race. White supremacy can and does exist inside black skin, even in the most subtlest of ways.

Living in the ghetto should never be a desirable state of life. Situations of families who have been in the throes of public housing for generations, whether through sloth or unfortunate circumstances, is less deserving of scorn and more deserving of compassion. People who have never set foot in projects routinely enjoy the fruits of former project dwellers (hip-hop artists for example) but remain hyper critical at the behavior, level of crime, poverty and drug uses going on there. Those are real issues to be sure and there is nothing glamorous about the ill effects of these communities. But it is where our disapproval lies that is most telling: Is the ghetto viewed as an enemy to mercilessly avoid or an entity that is full of soulful people that are deserving of our compassion, prayers, and in many respects, our admiration? Before you call someone’s actions ghetto in condescension, remember the connotations. Bad behavior is bad behavior. Rudeness is rudeness. It has nothing to do with salary, as there are rich people who weekly make the news because of “ghetto” behavior. But a rich man’s actions ain’t ghetto…right?

The word “ghetto” is not synonymous with behavior; it is an ecological condition of dystopian proportions on one hand, and a community of fun and loving and dignified people on the other. Children growing up under these environs need every help they can get to escape the grips, not polarizing terms from elitists that do nothing to affirm their worth.

So if you want to use “ghetto” to classify a group of people’s behavior while elevating yourself in the process, well, maybe you should consider climbing off your high horse before you get hurt.

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