The N word will always be hateful and inappropriate, no matter who uses it. But this word of animosity and fallacy has, over the last two centuries of usage, become too blatant and easily discredited. Today the term which has a far more disempowering effect on people of color in America is the word “ghetto,” which historically connotes a section of a city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic constraints, stresses, or privations.
As I see it, there are no bad neighborhoods; there are just neighborhoods with bad opportunities. Going further, I think that one of the biggest reasons certain inner city neighborhoods face so many challenges is because they are constantly referred to as challenged. Without needing to veer from the coded language of our discourse- across the class and race spectrum- everyone knows who is being talked about when the terms “ghetto” and “hood” comes up in conversation. Don’t go there. Don’t walk around there. Certainly don’t move there. Like a mantra, these slurs pervade the airwaves. With time, a cemented notion of inferiority, poverty, brokenness, lack of intelligence, immobility, and despair begins to leave an impression that is ultimately founded in lies and bigotry but becomes a living truth in the minds of the masses.
Calling a neighborhood ghetto essential implies that the people who live in these communities are bad or ghetto. What business will want to set up shop there? What school will want to expand services there? What police officer will want to go there and serve beyond the call of duty? Don’t move there. Don’t shop there. Don’t have anything to do with these places. This chorus of cynicism becomes a siren song of heartache and self- loathing for those who call these places home. What about the babies? What about the teenage children? What about the young mothers and hardworking young men? What about the teachers, postal workers, nurses, construction workers, and others who call these places home? Are they bad? Are they ghetto? Are they hood? These labels, always super-imposed, become self- fulfilling prophecies that retard growth and sterilize prosperity. They are profoundly unfair.
As is so often the case, Dr. Martin Luther King reminds us how to see what is really happening to our spiritual condition when we allow our humanity to be sectioned off, broken apart, segregated, and disenfranchised. In the vernacular of his time, King once wrote:
“When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also declare that the white man does not abide by law in the ghettos. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions of civil services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them, but they do not make them, any more than a prisoner makes a prison.”
George Cassidy Payne is a writer, domestic violence counselor, SUNY adjunct professor of philosophy, and the founder of Gandhi Earth Keepers International. He contributes frequently to a wide variety of local and national publications.