Definitions of the Ghetto


Louis Wirth wrote the definitive study of the Jewish ghetto: The Ghetto

For Wirth the ghetto is an institution which "represents a prolonged case of social isolation" (4)

Wirth says the word "gueto" from Hebrew "get" meaning divorce or the German "gitter" or bars on a cage. It might also come from the Italian "borgheto" or "little quarter."

Richard Sennett says “ghetto” comes from “foundry” in Italian, from gettare, to pour, The original Venetian ghetto was in the foundry district, far from the ceremonial and official areas.

Allan Spear, in Black Chicago, described the history of the black ghetto.

"By 1915, on the other hand, the physical ghetto had taken shape; a large, almost all-Negro enclave on the South Side, with a similar offshoot on the West Side, housed most of Chicago's Negroes." (11)...

"The development of a physical ghetto in Chicago, then, was not the result chiefly of poverty; nor did Negroes cluster out of choice. The ghetto was primarily the product of white hostility." (26)

"The most striking feature of Negro housing, however, was not the existence of slum condition, but the difficulty of escaping the slum. European immigrants needed only to prosper to be able to move to a more desirable neighborhood. Negroes, on the other hand, suffered from both economic deprivation and systematic racial discrimination." (26)

Spear describes the transformation of the physical ghetto into an "institutional ghetto," a place where alternate Black institutions arise to accomodate to conditions of segregation.

Gilbert Osoksky, in his classic Harlem: the Making of a Ghetto, defines the ghetto thus:

"The term "ghetto" is most commonly applied to racially restricted housing patterns. It is meant to have broader connotations in this essay; as an impressionistic and interpretive phrase which meaningfully summarizes the social, economic and psychological positions of black people in the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and also symbolizes the ton e of urban race relations in those years."

Kenneth B. Clark, in Dark Ghetto stresses the dual aspect of the ghetto. Clark's work is the most complete discription of the psychological and sociological impact of the ghetto on African Americans.


"The ghetto is ferment, paradox, conflict, and dilemma. Yet within its pervasive pathology exists a surprising human resilience.  The ghetto is hope, it is despair, it is churches and bars.  It is aspiration for change, and it is apathy.  It is vibrancy, it is stagnation.  It is courage, and it is defeatism. It is cooperation and concern, and it is suspicion, competitiveness, and rejection.  It is the surge toward assimilation, and it is alienation and withdrawl within the  protective walls of the ghetto" (11-12)


William Julius Wilson, in The Truly Disadvantaged, agrees with Clark, but argues that before 1960, the ghetto

"exhibited features of social organization — including a sense of community, positive neighborhood identification, and explicit norms and sanctions against aberrant behavior."

Wilson, and many poverty scholars, imperceptively replaced the term "ghetto" with "underclass," "truly disadvantaged," "marginalized poor" or some such term. For Wilson, class is a more explanatory framework than race to describe Black oppression. The word "ghetto" has gone out of fashion.

Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, in American Apartheid, disagree with Wilson's change in emphasis.

"The urban ghetto, constructed during the first half of the twentieth century and successively reinforced thereafter, represents the key institutional arrangement ensuring the continued subordination of blacks in the United States." (18)

"For urban blacks, the ghetto has been the paradigmatic residential configuration for at least eighty years." (19)

Loic J.D. Wacquant has returned the concept of the ghetto to social science discourse.

Wacquant argues that African Americans have gone through three stages of oppression and are not entering a fourth. Slavery was succeeded by Jim Crow laws which were followed by the creation of northern ghettoes. The social upsurge in the 1960s was followed by a "white backlash" that led to the expansion of the prison. The merging of the prison and the ghetto represent the fourth stage of oppression. Wacquant's complex definition reflects this movement:

“In ideal-typical terms, a ghetto may be characterized as a bounded, racially and/or culturally uniform socio-spatial formation based on 91) the forcible relegation of (2) a ‘negatively-typed’ population…, such as Jews in medieval Europe and African-Americans in the United States, to (3) a reserved, ‘frontier territory’ in which this population (4) develops under duress a set of parallel institutions that serve both as a functional substitte for, and as a protective buffer against, the dominant institutions of the encompassing socity…but (5) duplicate the latter only at an incomplete and inferior level while (6) maintaining those who rely on them in a state of structural dependency” (343)

More concisely, he argues “The ghetto, in short, operates as an ethnoracial prison” (383).

Peter Marcuse differentiates the ghetto of the past from:

"An outcast ghetto is a ghetto in which ethnicity is combined with class in a spatially concentrated area with residents who are excluded from the mainstream of the economic life of the surrounding society, which dos not profit significantly from its existence."

I typically develop a working definition as I sort through the literature and do research:

Hagedorn's working definition:

"The ghetto is the product of repeated acts of violence which result in the persistent social isolation of an ethnic, religious, or other identifiable group. This isolation creates conditions for resistance, resignation, and accommodation."