Ghettos : Ethnic Isolation of Minority

ghetto  is a part of a city in which members of a minority group live, typically as a result of social, legal, or economic pressure.The term was originally used in Venice to describe the part of the city to which Jews were restricted and segregated. However, early societies may have formed their own versions of the same structure; words resembling “ghetto” appear in the Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian, Germanic, Old French, and Latin languages. Ghettos in many cities have also been nicknamed “the hood”, colloquial slang for Versions of ghettos appear across the world, each with their own names, classifications, and groupings of people.

The word “ghetto” comes from the Jewish area of Venice, the Venetian Ghetto in Cannaregio, traced to a special use of Venetian ghèto, or “foundry” (there was one near the site of that city’s ghetto in 1516).By 1899 the term had been extended to crowded urban quarters of other minority groups.

The most profitable and productive elements of our society are lodged in our cities.  Cities facilitate trade, provide markets for specialized producers, and, perhaps most important, speed the flow of ideas. Diversity of economy is a must for urban systems. Because of these advantages, big-city workers earn more than their non-urban counterparts — 28 percent more, controlling for education, age, race, occupation, and gender. Certainly there are cities in decline, especially those without a well-educated work force or those with too heavy a commitment to manufacturing. But the overall connection between urbanization and economic growth is such an empirical truth that one can hardly find a wealthy, modern country that is not also urbanized.

So it is disturbing to find geographic concentrations of impoverished ethnic groups in the midst of these productive environments. These districts, commonly called “ghettos,” function culturally, intellectually, and economically apart from the busy downtown. The distance from Wall Street to the South Bronx, along these dimensions, is greater than that between New York and London or Tokyo. Cities throughout history have contained distinct ethnic districts. But rarely have they been so isolated and impoverished as the African-American districts found in U.S. cities today


The African-American ghetto is a creation of the twentieth century. The golden age of Northern black-white relations lies in the period before 1900, write Allan Spear and Kenneth Kusmer, historians of the Midwestern ghettos. Blacks at the time were not generally restricted from using public facilities, and they lived in much more integrated communities than their descendants do today.

Informal practices did limit integration in the North. But only in response to the large-scale black migration north, in the early twentieth century, did these restrictions harden. W.E.B. DuBois, the Harvard-educated black scholar, raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was shocked at the deteriorating conditions he found in the nascent, turn-of-the-century Philadelphia ghetto inhabited by recent migrants from the South “Murder sat on our doorstep, police were our government, and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice.” The apparatus of legal segregation arrived soon thereafter — zoning by race, restrictive covenants, and a myriad of other devices. The U.S. Supreme Court banned explicit zoning by race in 1917, and restrictive covenants were banned in 1948. But these legal restrictions had served as a mighty handmaiden of segregation; by 1920, the color line in Northern cities had fully hardened.

This reinforcement of ethnic barriers was hardly limited to anti black initiatives in Northern U.S. cities. The South created its vast array of Jim Crow laws at the end of the nineteenth century. In the West, whites used restrictive covenants against Asians. In Boston, with a long history of attempts to bar Irish immigrants from Yankee institutions, these barriers, and anti-Semitic restrictions as well, were formalized in the early twentieth century.

Domestic tranquility was marred not just by conflicts between native Protestants and both blacks and immigrants, but by tensions between blacks and immigrants, and among different immigrant groups. In 1910, blacks were more segregated from the foreign-born than they were from native whites. Spear’s history of the Chicago ghetto describes how immigrants were the fiercest opponents of blacks in that city, and how blacks moved into native white areas rather than face the more violent resistance of the newer Americans.

Segregation increased most in those cities with the greatest black in-migration. Whites felt more threatened by larger influxes of blacks, and their racism grew. Black migrants from the South also found in urban ghettos in the North many of the “attractions” seen in other urban immigrant communities. Most were arriving from an inhospitable, impoverished region that still relied on lynching as a tool of discipline, and many valued the comfort of their own community.

African-American ghettos also started out well, economically. In the Midwest, ghettos were built on high wages from manufacturing jobs. In New York City, the housing was superb. Developers in Harlem had built state-of-the-art apartment buildings around the new subway extension for upwardly mobile whites, writes historian Gilbert Osofsky. But they overbuilt, and entrepreneurial real estate agents, of both races, quickly filled vacant units with blacks. By the end of the 1920s, Harlem was home to the nation’s largest concentration of African-Americans. Migrants from the South, to use Nicholas Lemann’s phrase, generally had come to see Northern ghettos as “the promised land.”

The segregation of the foreign-born also rose, for similar reasons, during their period of great in-migration, 1890 to 1920. But once America ended its open-door immigration policy in the mid-1920s, the segregation of the foreign-born began to decline.


Economic conditions in African-American ghettos have deteriorated quite sharply over the past three and a half decades. The inner city, which once might have looked like a promised land, doesn’t much resemble one today. This is partly a statistical phenomenon. The ability of more affluent blacks to leave has lowered the average income of those who remain. The poverty of inner-city blacks also reflects the declining economic position of Americans of all races at the bottom of the income ladder. But a growing body of research shows that the segregation of American blacks in inner-city ghettos further damages their economic chances.

The oldest and the most easily understandable evidence on ghettos compares blacks who grew up in segregated neighborhoods with those raised in integrated neighborhoods. The literature began with a 1968 study, by economist John Kain, in which Kain documented that blacks who lived in ghettos had worse labor-market outcomes than those who did not. Kain’s explanation was “spatial mismatch” — that ghetto residents lived far from where the urban jobs were located. According to Kain, the key economic advantage of living in a city — the opportunities urban environments create for trade and exchange — thus lay beyond the reach of ghetto residents. Subsequent research has generally corroborated Kain’s results. Extremely black neighborhoods are generally located far from job opportunities, and residents do worse, economically, than blacks from more integrated areas.

There is a methodological problem with this type of study, however. A connection between living in a ghetto and being poor need not imply that ghettos create poverty. Poverty could also create ghettos — it could be that poor people can’t afford to live elsewhere.


Another way to gauge the effects of ghettos is to compare black economic outcomes across different metropolitan areas. Cutler and I divided the metropolitan areas of the United States in half — into more and less segregated communities — and examined various outcomes. We found that blacks between ages twenty and twenty-four in the more segregated metro areas are far more likely to be idle 22 percent are neither at work nor in school, compared to 15 percent in the more integrated areas. Segregated blacks are also more likely to have dropped out of high school 26 percent versus 21.5 percent. And segregated black women ages twenty-five to thirty are more likely to have become single mothers — 45 percent versus 40 percent. These effects are big and statistically significant. They also hold up under alternative methods of estimation and after controlling for region, city size, and the racial composition of the metro area.

It is possible, of course, that black poverty at the metro level causes segregation, not the other way around. (This issue of identifying causation is equivalent to the problem, in the intra-city studies, of determining whether ghettos create poverty or poverty creates ghettos.) Cutler and I examined this issue using a variable created by economist Caroline Minter Hoxby, based on her notion that topographical barriers often serve as neighborhood boundaries. We found that metro areas with more natural boundaries — like Cleveland with the Cuyahoga River running through it — are more segregated and have worse black outcomes. The chain of causation here must run from rivers to segregation to poverty. (Rivers presumably do not cause poverty directly; and neither segregation nor poverty causes rivers.) We thus conclude that segregation — whether created by natural or man-made factors — results in poor black outcomes.


The African-American ghettos of the mid-twentieth century appear to have been much less harmful than those of today. In the most segregated cities, such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, African-Americans prospered as workers in America’s industrial centers. The fortunes of the ghettos changed, in part, as a result of downturns in manufacturing in postwar America. But the declining vigor of African-American ghettos also resulted from a pervasive feature of all immigrant ghettos. David Cutler, Jacob Vigdor, and I found that immigrant ghettos are generally beneficial, or at least not harmful, for the first generation of residents. Today, first-generation Asians, who often do not speak English, seem to be helped by living in segregated Asian communities. But when we look at later generations still living in the earlier generation’s ghetto, we see deleterious effects. This was true of Irish immigrants still living in ghettos in 1910, long after the major Irish immigration waves, or of Eastern European immigrants still living in their ghettos in 1940.

This overall pattern helps us understand why ghettos form and why they can be harmful to residents. The first generation of migrants benefits from the social networks, the cultural comforts, and the protection against native hostility. But ghettos deprive their children of contacts with the broader world and with the informational connections that make cities so strong. The negative effects of ghetto isolation are exacerbated as many of the ghetto’s most able children then leave for more integrated communities, or for more prosperous segregated communities. So thirty years after the immigrant ghetto was a vibrant community, it typically becomes an island distant from the city, whose inhabitants rarely experience the best features of U.S. urban society.


The empirical evidence clearly indicates that ghettos hurt blacks a great deal. Ghetto walls separate residents from mainstream society, from mainstream jobs, and from contact with successful whites and blacks. The suffering is real, as is the resulting crime, disorder, and social distress. The magnitude of these problems, moreover, is sufficiently large to merit significant government intervention.

While the evidence justifies action, policymakers have little idea about what should be done. In the past, many well-intentioned interventions caused more harm than good.

Perhaps the most egregious example is the large-scale housing projects of the 1950s. This generally well-intentioned policy squeezed as many minorities into as small an area as possible, increased segregation, and worsened ghetto conditions. Forced school integration, or busing, as Charles Clotfelter documents, led to a substantial outflow of white children into private schools, not to increased integration. And enterprise zones, which are currently in vogue, might slow what has been, for other ethnic groups, the process of neighborhood exodus and evolution.

It does seem crucial to lessen discrimination in the housing market. Racism in individual consumer tastes seems to be the primary problem, and government cannot legislate racism away. But government can combat discrimination in real estate marketing and finance.

Policies that generate choice and use incentives instead of controls also hold promise. Housing vouchers and magnet schools, for example, attract individual blacks and whites most willing, or eager, to live and go to school with one another. The nation can also hope that evidence showing a decline in racism over the past twenty-five years is correct, and that the trend will continue.

The damage caused by African-American ghettos reinforces the importance of the idea of the “informational city.” Ghetto residents live in cities and face most of the costs –monetary and otherwise — of urban residence. But the ghetto cuts them off from the informational connections and job markets that make city living worthwhile for so many people.

The city is an enormously positive social institution. It should be able to answer the problems of its own inner core. Breaking down ghetto walls is no small task. But it will be a great achievement to connect inner-city residents to the informational advantages of downtown America.

Nazi Ghettoes

Beginning with the invasion of Poland during World War II, the regime of Nazi Germany set up ghettos across occupied Europe in order to segregate and confine Jews, and sometimes Romani people, into small sections of towns and cities furthering their exploitation. In German documents, and signage at ghetto entrances, the Nazis usually referred to them as Jüdischer Wohnbezirkor Wohngebiet der Juden, both of which translate as the Jewish Quarter. There were several distinct types including open ghettos, closed ghettos, work, transit, and destruction ghettos, as defined by the Holocaust historians. In a number of cases, they were the place of Jewish underground resistance against the German occupation, known collectively as the ghetto uprisings.


Ghettos are formed in three ways:

  • As ports of entry where minorities, and especially immigrant minorities, voluntarily choose to live with their own kind.
  • When the majority uses compulsion — typically violence, hostility, or legal barriers — to force minorities into particular areas.
  • When the majority is willing and able to pay more than the minority to live with its own kind.

Sometimes urban realm changes into slums, or gentrification takes place.These are processes in a continuum .

An ethnoburb is a suburban residential as well as business area with a notable cluster of a particular ethnic minority population. Although the group may not constitute the majority within the region, it is a significant amount of the population.That can greatly influence the social geography within the area . these are also examples of segmentation of society.

Source(s) and Link(s):


Rural Urban Continuum


About Rashid Faridi

I am Rashid Aziz Faridi ,Writer, Teacher and a Voracious Reader.
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