In the ghetto …

What is a ‘ghetto’? What could possibly be wrong with the (social) concept of integration? How might policymakers framing interventions into the lives of the ghetto poor be misguided? The following is a transcript of excerpts from Episode 23 of the UnMute Podcast, where philosopher Tommie Shelby gives us the surprising answers to these questions and more.

Writing from globalizing India, I know that social welfare allocations are being progressively slashed or thimblerigged between government budget overheads, and an ambitious plan is well underway to replace all forms of social spending with targeted, incentivized money transfers. What is the Indian equivalent of a ‘dark ghetto’? Are there fundamental problems with the ways in which we (who are not born in the ghetto) have learnt to see them (those who are)? These seem like useful questions to keep in mind while going through Shelby’s ideas.


UNMUTE PODCAST (“where philosophy and real world issues collide”) is hosted and produced by philosopher Myisha Cherry, and the episode in question is titled: ‘Tommie Shelby on Dark Ghettos’. Minor modifications have been made in the text for better reading. The pullquotes feature text from a recent interview with Shelby carried out by Alana Samuels, staffwriter at the Atlantic.

Myisha Cherry: So what is a ghetto? And what makes dark ghettos different from other sites of poverty?

Tommie Shelby: Well people define ghettos different ways. The way I define it, these are predominantly black metropolitan neighbourhoods with a higher concentration of seriously disadvantaged people …The word ghetto, it was used to refer to disadvantaged black urban neighbourhoods – [while] its been used that way for a long time … it came into use among black intellectuals and scholars around the 1940s. I take it the idea was to suggest that the treatment of urban blacks, who had recently migrated from the South to the various urban centers – [that] their treatment was very similar to the treatment that the Jews received at the [hands of] the Nazis.


Ghetto poverty is marked by racial stigma and involuntary segregation. Not all forms of poverty have those features.


So the ghetto is a site where race and socio-economic disadvantage and metropolitan space come together to form a distinctive form of black subjugation … [The various attendant phenomena such as crime, mass incarceration etc. Serve only to] concentrate the number of disadvantaged people – the people with fewer means [who are] less able to leave those environments, and that concentration of disadvantages is partly what people are talking about when they’re talking about ghettos.

Grandmaster Flash, one of ‘the people’ talking about what it means to live in a ghetto. Image Source: Trader Rock

Myisha Cherry: You are critical of the ways in which the US government has tried to address the problems of the ghetto. And one of the ways has been what you call the medical model. What is the medical model?

Tommie Shelby: [The medical model is a] standard position a lot of people take about these issues: “Okay once we’ve identified the factors, how can the government intervene into the lives of the ghetto poor?” (almost like the government is a doctor) “Now you’ve got the diagnosis, how can we intervene in a way that’s most cost effective, so you get the biggest bang for your buck?”  In my book, I identify three main pitfalls of framing things in this way:

(1) Status Quo Bias is [a concept that asks, can we critique the common] way of thinking about ghettos. Look, here’s this problem, how can we figure out how to get them to fit in with the rest of the structure, leaving the structure in the background and not giving it the kind of critical scrutiny that it might [otherwise] have.

(2) There’s also a problem of Downgraded Agency … a lot of social scientists [and policymakers] … have a tendency to think of the ghetto poor as people in need of other people’s help. There’s a tendency not to see the people who are being studied – there are exceptions obviously – as active moral and political agents.

(3) [The third problem is the Unjust Advantage Blindspot] … there’s a tendency to be blind to all the ways in which, the advantaged benefit from an unjust social structure. [Its easy to] just think – “how can we use our privilege to help them” as opposed to maybe thinking that that privilege and advantage is itself a sign that this society is unjust.


I want to move away from just – what interventions can we make into the lives of the black poor so that they’ll behave better and get better integrated into society?


Myisha Cherry: You mention integration in [your] book and it seems as if, you know integration always sounds like a great solution. According to your criticism of the medical model, what is the problem with integration?

Tommie Shelby: I think some people when they talk about integration they’re focused on so-called ‘social capital deficits’, so they think there are people who are very disadvantaged black people who could do better if they were in neighbourhoods with people who were more advantaged, because they could then find their way into their social networks and that would help them get greater access to opportunities and so on.

I find that troubling for a number of reasons. Some of the reasons just have to do with … a kind of unjust blind spot problem, because what you’re basically asking of the ghetto poor is that they work their way into the lives of the privileged, and the privileged can then dole out these privileges on them, so that they can then do better which is I think not a very tenable position from the standpoint of many people…

People might be forced into that, because maybe that’s the best they can do, to try to get an affluent person – and i don’t just mean white people, it could be an affluent black person – to see them with favour and help them. But I think that’s a degrading way of dealing with the problem.

You can listen to the full episode here.


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