by Peter Zelchenko March 3, 2010
I awoke last night in a cold sweat, with only the word "ghetto" on my lips.
Where did that come from? All I could remember was an offhand reference to it recently by Nola, my friend and fellow Whitney Young High alum. She'd been referring to an apartment building in Woodlawn that she'd recently moved out of. "That place is ghetto. It's got these huge water bugs and shit."
The proximate cause that recalled the word was that last night I'd been browsing Ytasha L. Womack's new book, Post-Black, available in bookstores in the next few days. Ytasha's thesis is that there is a new black culture emerging since Obama took office. (Ytasha is another Whitney Young alum.)
America is "post-black," Black Enterprise editor Derek Dingle writes in the book's foreword, since it "started discarding its limited view of the definition and capabilities of blacks in our society and in the world." I think America and the world has long recognized these capabilities -- at least among certain blacks with certain attributes.
Ytasha tells us a lot about herself in the book -- about her schooling, about her work at the Chicago Defender, about her likes and dislikes.
Where I think Ytasha stumbles is that she clearly identifies primarily with that "in" part of black culture to which she herself, through her own life's fortunes, has managed to attain. Despite her connections with and dedication to understanding black culture, Ytasha's life may today have more elements of white culture -- in which I include middle-class Asians and of course other middle-class blacks -- than of poor black culture, the culture of food stamps, crack cocaine, evictions, and shootings of children in the street.
Ytasha may be into hip-hop, which irked her Defender colleagues, and she may incorporate other aspects of black culture into her life if she so chooses. But "in" black culture will gleefully extract that fascinating part of the poor ghetto vibe that may now be socially palatable to middle-class America, as they leave the neighborhoods behind. As I wrote recently (here and here), blues and jazz enjoyed a similar status of acceptability to whites in the decades before, so acceptable they were taken away from blacks.
Even black folks who live in poverty will segregate being poor and black, and being poor and black with serious issues. as being the local crackhead arouses no sympathy, but rather such great contempt that this person is othered, reduced to animal status. (That essay, by the way, comes from Sister Toldja -- yet another Whitney Young alum).
Yes, we Whitney Young alumni are all over. We grew up in the cracked test tube of desegregation. We are among the many, black and white and brown as well, helped out of the slums of Chicago through making it into an elite school (and it's often not been stellar academics that got you into Whitney Young). The status alone as alumni of the archetype of the school-choice movement helps pull us emotionally up and away from those reviled neighborhoods. Decades before Whitney Young entered the national consciousness with Michelle Obama, the two words carried street cred in Chicago. But Ytasha objects when a colleague at the Defender tells her Whitney Young is not a "real black school."
Whitney Young is not a "real black school" because, Ytasha, white people like me (28%), and lots of other races (43%), attend it. It is not a real black school because some of the wealthiest families in Chicago attend it. (Only 34% of its students are "low income," compared to a fairly typical 99.9% in all-black schools. Also, see comparative incomes of blacks and other races.) It is a school set far away from the social problems of the world. Whitney Young students spend more time with Latin, Parker, and Lab students than with those in other public schools.
You want a real black school, Ytasha, you need to go deep into the urban jungle, to places where white people and wealthy people would not dare to drive. You need to go to places where school closings and their effects abound. But be quick: Mayor Daley's shell-game of school closures causes their pathetic datapoints to vanish, giving the false impression that the problem does not exist. Visit Crane, only a few blocks west of Whitney Young on Jackson Boulevard. Of 650 Illinois high schools, Crane still ranks dead last academically, after two decades of Daley's school reform efforts.
Ytasha herself tells us she refuses to define the word "ghetto" in her book. Yet Nola's use of the word to describe an apartment building in Woodlawn comes closer to hitting the bullseye of the separation of black culture into "in" and "out" groups.
The subject of social layers, and of Ytasha's new book, merits more space than this column allows, but while Ytasha has identified a stratum at one end of black culture, Nola clearly alludes to the stratum at the other end. And what Nola is saying is that none of us -- nor others of our illustrious co-alumni, including First Lady Michelle Obama and actress Tonya Pinkins -- should ever have to spend another night in the ghetto end.
No offense, guys. But we (black and white) can take up what we like about the African diaspora and decorate ourselves in it, and we can leave the ghetto behind -- all but the word itself, that is, which we retain as a clever shorthand, so that we can pull it out and employ it when we need an arch word to describe the most miserable parts of our city.
We have an obligation not to forget the millions who remain. To perpetuate these strata is to raise the issue, and perhaps to accept the challenge of spending our lives actually working to solve it, assuming it can be solved. I am concerned that celebrating the strata will be inspiring to those who have arrived and discouraging to others who are a long way off.
(c) 2003-2010, Peter Zelchenko and Gapers Block