Rethinking America’s ‘Dark Ghettos’

A Harvard professor argues that fixing America’s urban poverty will require a dramatically different approach.

Patrick Semansky / AP

Poor, black neighborhoods have persisted in America for decades. And despite a few public-policy efforts to make things better—which include helping families move to other neighborhoods, getting better jobs for parents, and placing children in better schools—there are some signs that poverty is becoming even more concentrated in American ghettos.

Yet the government’s interventions have amounted to policy tweaks, and haven’t focused enough on the unjust system that created these areas in the first place, argues Tommie Shelby, a Harvard professor of African-American Studies and Philosophy, in his recent book, Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform. Instead of discussing the actual end game of addressing concentrated poverty, Shelby comes up with a set of principles that he says should inform any movement to eradicate modern ghettos. I talked with Shelby about his book and what role the black poor have in redesigning their future. The interview that below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Alana Semuels: Why write this book now?

Tommie Shelby: Here at Harvard I have lots of colleagues who work on ghetto poverty. Being around them, I have noticed certain patterns in the way they approach the topic. I think there's a tendency to be pretty technocratic about social policy. There’s a medical model: Here are these manifest problems or symptoms, and here are some underlying causes to try to act on.

There's a tendency to think that all you really need is the empirical facts, and you don't have to engage in any sophisticated way with questions of political morality, questions of justice and rights and opportunities and liberties. But those are questions you have to tackle head on. You have to ask questions about, what are the principles that should govern our association together?

I want to take focus away from just how to solve the problems of the ghetto, and think more broadly about the society that we're all participating in and sharing, and how that ought to be structured for us all to live as equals. 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.

Semuels: What is different about addressing ghetto poverty and addressing other forms of  poverty, including rural and white poverty?

Shelby: Ghetto poverty is marked by racial stigma and involuntary segregation. Not all forms of poverty have those features. It's also true that the ghetto poor live in and around cities, and there are things that go along with that. There's a point that Martin Luther King always would make about being humiliated by living in poverty in the midst of all this opulence that's surrounding you every day, and how that adds to the stress and strain of living under poverty. I think also living in and around cities, people tend to feel a threatening presence of police in their daily lives in a way in which people who may be living in more rural areas may not. It's easy to feel that you're under siege and that people don't care about you.

Semuels: Some successful government programs, such as Moving to Opportunity, help move black families from poor and dangerous neighborhoods to wealthier, white areas. Yet you argue that residential integration and programs such as these are not a fair solution. Could you explain your reasoning?

Shelby: I think first you have to distinguish integration from desegregation. The civil rights movement was very focused on desegregation, which had to do with ending the white privileges that went along with that regime.

What I find troubling is that in an attempt to deal with the problem of ghetto poverty, the government makes needed resources and services available only on condition that poor black people join predominantly white communities. I regard it as almost insulting to put the economic fate of the ghetto poor in the hands of more affluent whites, who then get to decide whether to allow blacks into their social networks and on what terms. Then you're sort of putting disadvantaged blacks in a supplicant position in relation to people who often have contempt for them and who often possess privileges and ill-gotten gains.

There's nothing wrong with black people wanting to live with people who share their interests and values and historical experiences. The solution becomes, how can they participate in privileges that some whites possess. It's important for people to have both economic justice and certain liberties, including the freedom to choose the communities that they want to live in.

Semuels: Another argument you make is that it is sometimes morally acceptable for the poor to refuse to participate in the labor market. What is it about the construction of modern ghettos that makes you argue that the jobless there should not necessarily seek out legitimate work?

Shelby: In a just society I believe that each of us has a civic duty, to contribute something to the maintenance of our society. But I think if economic deprivation is severe enough, and if the only jobs available are low-paying, menial, and stigmatizing, then it can be justified to refuse to contribute as a form of dissent, as a form of registering your dissatisfaction with the way economic relations are structured.

I don't mean to suggest that everybody that refuses to work has any high-minded principles in mind. They may or may not. I think that probably some do, and that's something that can be signaled to others who might feel similarly. You could certainly imagine other economic regimes where we would think that if people refused to work it wouldn't be unjustified, such as the cases of slavery and serfdom.

Semuels: Exploitative conditions, you argue, make permissible actions that otherwise would not be permissible. I think that you talk about shoplifting or joining a gang. In what types of conditions are lawless activities acceptable?

Shelby: It may seem radical, but I do think some transgressions of legal property claims can be a justified form of political dissent. We construct a set of economic entitlements and property claims in a way that's fair to everybody that's participating in this society. But there are ways of constructing those entitlements that are unfair. If they're sufficiently unfair, then refusing to respect people's conventional claims to those resources might be justified.

I don't think that people should do it out of spite or do it just to gain status and leisure items for themselves. But if they refuse to participate in a labor market, then there's still going to be the question of how to make a living. Often that means participating in an underground economy. They might do that simply out of economic need, but they might do that partly as a transgressive, politically-motivated act.

That might make permissible some economic crimes, some economic lawlessness in the ways that don't impact the already unjustly disadvantaged.

Semuels: Kind of like Robin Hood.

Shelby: Yeah, it could be that. I suppose you might be doing it to help others, but you might be doing it to help yourself. You might be doing it just as a way to communicate something about how you regard the prevailing economic relations, a way of kind of denouncing them.

Semuels: What’s the role of poor residents in rethinking their surroundings? What should they be doing?

Shelby: During the turn from the mainstream civil-rights movement to black power in the late ‘60s, I think there was a fair amount of agreement on the importance of regarding the black urban poor as political agents in their own right, as people to work with in changing things. It's a belief that ordinary people can participate in changing their society.  We've really moved away from that picture of engagement.

What we do mostly now, even in the liberal policy community, is figure out ways to intervene in their lives to get them to adapt themselves more to their circumstances or trying to meet their material needs without fundamentally changing our relations to each other. It’s important to take seriously the moral and political agency of even the most disadvantaged people in our society, and it's important that political elites, who maybe think of themselves as liberal or progressive, respect that moral and political agency. They need to think of the people they're trying to help as people who they can work with in solidarity to make things better. That was a big commitment, I think, during the civil rights/black power phase of the black freedom struggle, and it's something that, I'm not exactly sure why, we've certainly moved very far away from.

Semuels: You spend much of the book talking about how the poor may behave to protest an unjust system. What's the argument for the people that aren't disadvantaged to heed your call and address this?

Shelby: We should be appealing to a broader sense of justice and reciprocity among citizens. I don't want to make that seem like it's a simple matter, because it's hard to get people to overcome too much investment and self-regard. During the Civil Rights movement against Jim Crow, moral appeals were joined with various forms of political pressure, not only to draw attention to the injustices, but also to make people feel some sort of the burdens that people who are unjustly burdened already feel. This was sometimes through boycotts or refusal to go along with things, or just being disruptive of actions that other people take. Sometimes it was trying to make the comfortable less comfortable so that they could take more seriously the claims of those who claim to be unjustly treated and disadvantaged.

You have to combine those moral appeals to justice and the sense of reciprocity with various forms of social pressure: organizing and solidarity and individual acts of dissent to get them to turn their attention to those moral concerns. That was, I think, a very successful strategy during the civil rights movement, and I think similar approaches could work under our current circumstances.

Semuels: I think it's also interesting to think about the current political climate and whether it's going to be harder to move forward in a more equitable way. It seems like the urban poor might turn out to be the big losers in the upcoming four years.

Shelby: I think that's right. It's interesting that Trump has spoken sometimes about ghettos. He's mostly focused on problems of crime and violence in those communities when he's talked about it at all, and he tended to generalize talking about black people in a very general way of, all black people live in the ghetto, which only a minority do. But he hasn't really said that much about racial and economic injustice when talking about the black poor. He's mostly just talked about law and order.  He really hasn't been responsive to pretty loud and persistent demands for a fairer criminal justice system and the need to end unnecessary use of police violence. In fact, he has suggested a greater use of stop and frisk, which suggests that he doesn't really understand the problem of racial profiling, or doesn't really take seriously worries about police harassment of innocent citizens. I certainly haven't heard him say anything about problems of mass incarceration, so it's a huge setback there.

On the other hand, there's already mobilization on the ground around criminal justice issues from policing, prosecution, prisons, releasing decisions, and so on. So that mobilization will obviously continue, I like to think. It's not like ghettos were going to go away in the next four to eight years if Hillary Clinton had been elected. It's a long-term project, so I don't think in that sense—it's a setback, but I don't think it really changes fundamentally how I'll think about the problem and ways to move forward.