When I first wrote about the ghetto as I began the research for my Master’s thesis, it was pointed out by Dr. C., my committee chair, that the use of the word “ghetto” by a white person might be considered offensive.
To bolster my right to use the word “ghetto” in 2015, I decided to visit one. Armed with the knowledge that the vast majority of the 60,000 who rioted in Detroit of 1967—the subject of my thesis—were black males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, I set out to talk with black men in Detroit close to the age of seventy.
I didn’t mess around, either. My first stop was the epicenter of the riot on Twelfth Street. What had once been a thriving business district was now an odd collection of a few remaining buildings; some still occupied, others collapsing in on themselves. The after-hours bar that had been raided by police, triggering the riot, was no longer there. In its place was a small park with a playground. As I wandered around what was left of the surrounding neighborhood, I approached three men sitting on the porch of a row house that was no longer in a row because all the other houses had been removed. Indeed, much of the area around the narrow dwelling was grassy and park-like. It was hard to imagine that this had once been the most densely populated area of Detroit which, by the way, has a way of making people a bit testy during a long, hot summer.
With camera and notebook in hand, I stepped out of my Jeep and walked toward the house with a big white smile on my face. The youngest of the three men stepped off the porch and stood quietly while shaking his head at me. When I asked if anyone was interested in talking about 1967, he said, “This ain’t no [bleep]ing zoo.” It was a short interview, but I learned a lot.
Not all those who hailed from the ghetto refused to talk with me. Dr. Luke Tripp grew up in Detroit of the 1950s. Although he didn’t participate in the riot, he was actively involved in the intense drumbeat of civil rights activity in the city which gave rise to the violence. Dr. C. suggested that Dr. Tripp might counsel me on the language I should and should not use in my thesis. Since Dr. C. and Dr. Tripp have the same letters after their names, I assumed it was something else about Dr. Tripp that qualified him to advise me on the subject of a scholarly white guy using the word “ghetto.”
You should know that Dr. Tripp is a Marxist, which, in many circles is about as popular as tooth extraction. His resume includes a trip to Cuba in 1963 in violation of the State Department’s travel ban. It turns out that our government didn’t want our Marxists hanging out with their Marxists; understandable in a Cold War, I suppose. Tripp had also been arrested and put on trial for improper behavior during the playing of the national anthem and we all know the trouble some of us have with that.
Part of Tripp’s radicalism was borne of his treatment at the hands of the Detroit Police whose idea of “to protect and to serve” was limited to those they deemed worthy of protection and service; which didn’t include many black Marxists. This is one of the reasons there was a riot, by the way.
In the end, Dr. Tripp gave me the black Marxist seal of approval to use the word “ghetto” which I unflinchingly included in the title of my thesis.
I think of all this now because a handful of white Major League Baseball players have recently been put under the microscope for racist Tweets they published when they were younger; almost all of them were teenagers at the time.
When the Tweets are shown on the TV news, all the nasty words are blacked out; even though everyone knows what they are. Sometimes the news guys push the limits a bit and say things like “rhymes with bigger,” showing just how far we have all come in talking about race in America.
As to the baseball players and the racist Tweets, their defense appears to center around the tribulations of youth which, if taken into account, means that they are hoping their fans believe that the 18-year-old racist is completely reformed by the age of 26.
My sarcasm is a bit hypocritical here. You see—when I was maybe eight or nine, probably older, too, but my confessional mood has its limits—I remember listening to and retelling jokes about black people that reinforced all the worst stereotypes. I am not sure what this says about me, but it’s true. It was the late 1960s and black people were rather prominent in the news so, I guess I was just making fun of the people in the news.
It was, I now understand, much more than that. I suppose I should feel bad about it, but I don’t; possibly because I didn’t have any black neighbors who would certainly have taught me the proper way to tell a joke, after kicking my butt, of course. (It’s OK to say “butt,” isn’t it?)
Part of my guiltlessness comes from being pretty sure that if you are a late-middle-aged American white guy, you probably heard and told the same jokes in your youth. This is the thing about racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and all the rest; if everyone is doing it, what can be the harm?
The answer, of course, is the Holocaust; ghettos were part of that one, too.