Is Ghettopoly Racist? - March 2004
I asked my Urban Sociology students if they knew the definition of the term ghetto. One student gave an accurate sociological definition: "a place in the city where an ethnic group lives, because they are restricted from living elsewhere in the city." I asked if they knew the term ghetto booty. After much laughter, they all acknowledged that they had a pretty good idea of the meaning of the term. The terms and phrases often used as humorous depictions of a place such as ghetto booty or that's ghetto are evoking historical stereotypical images of people whose homes are in a ghetto. Ghettopoly is a game that plays on the popular (and negative) uses of the term and characteristics of the ghetto as part of "hip hop culture" with no connection to the historical realities of ghettos.
David Chang, the creator of Ghettopoly, claims that the game is a multiethnic portrayal of life in the ghetto, and does not single out African Americans in a racist manner. Yet, the references to playas, pimps, hos, crack addicts and thugs as the ghetto inhabitants are references to many Americans' imagined urban and black experience. These images are certainly found elsewhere in the society and are in fact pervasive in the popular culture of young people. Although young people may claim these images are not racist and are in fact new they must be compared to historic stereotypical imagery of the Coon, the Brute and Jezebel, etc. People who play Ghettopoly often used so-called Black English or black dialect while playing the game. They "become" blacks -- pretend blacks, pretend gangsters.
Chang correctly claims that his game is "not so different from what's already out there in the entertainment media in America." Unfortunately, black ghettoes are defamed and demonized in movies, music videos, magazines, and everyday conversations. The images and beliefs that the public has of these "black spaces" have tremendous negative consequences for those that live in the actual ghetto. Ghetto has become an adjective (a style or behavior) and/or a condition (slum, poor, unkempt). Places exist and have histories. The ghetto-as-place has always been one that denied its inhabitants the full possibilities of citizenship and humanity.
Ghettos were created in European cities to limit the movement of and facilitate the oppression of Jewish communities. In the United States ghettos refer to the segregated communities that African Americans have lived in since the "Great Migrations" of the early 20th Century. These communities should in no way be perceived as equivalent to the "ethnic enclaves" of other immigrant groups, especially those of European immigrants. Ethnic enclaves were often transformed into places that offered autonomous power for their residents, and served to assist in the assimilation of the immigrant group. Ghettos on the other hand were designed to do the opposite. Kenneth B. Clark explained "the dark ghetto's invisible walls have been erected by the white society, by those who have power, both to confine those who have no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness." They are "...social, political, educational, and -- above all-economic colonies." 1 The images that are portrayed in popular references to the ghetto, such as Ghettopoly, perpetuate the powerlessness and isolation of ghetto residents.
I am reluctant to tell young people that their language and ideas about racial experiences are simply racist. Nevertheless, I recognize that the dominant society has "creatively" taught generations of young people derogatory and quite harmful beliefs regarding African Americans. Often these stereotypical beliefs are reflected in popular culture -- movies, books, television, music -- and other items of material culture, including, toys, video games, movie posters, and board games. Stereotypical beliefs and material imagery routinely portray blacks as incapable of a work ethic -- coons ("sipping on a 40"); cultural parasites ("welfare queens", "living in projects"); sexual perverts (bucks - "pimps"); drug fiends ("crack hos"); and criminal threats (brutes - "car jackers"). Ghettopoly pulls all of these images together to market itself as a game with an "urban edge" for young people or the "hip hop generation".
Young people should be encouraged to create images of the society they experience. They should be critical of the world they see and "flip" negative imagery into messages of power, as other generations have done. This must be done with an awareness of the historical relationships of race and culture in this society. Educators of this generation must assure that young people have this awareness.
Educators, of all disciplines, should ground their lessons with solid, top-flight historical analysis. Too many Americans, especially young students, are woefully ignorant of historical patterns of racial segregation. They do not understand Jim Crow segregation -- its origins, manifestations, or legacy. If young students are taught well they will fashion new representations of society that will truly challenge all of us to be more honest. If they are taught poorly, they will revive and perpetuate the ugly mistakes of the past -- and accuse their critics of being prudish adults who don't understand "how to have fun." (See David Chang's response to his critics).
Recently, I had the opportunity to lecture at the Association of African American
Historical Research and Preservation (AAAHRP) Conference, in Seattle. We spoke about
the images portrayed in the Jim Crow Museum and, more specifically, Ghettopoly. I invited the conference participants to help me answer this month's question. The
following three statements summarize the sentiments felt at this conference.
- "Ghettopoly is not racist. It is a reinforcement of the culture that makes racism psychologically possible. Injustice and suffering would upset us, unless we consider those who suffer to not be human, to be degraded, to deserve what happens to them. Like all the prejudicial images before it, this game serves that purpose -- degrading a people in their minds, so that we will tolerate their institutional mistreatment."
- "Individuals might argue that the creator of the game is simply trying to make a living -- that it is only a game -- but the content is explicitly racist. The spaces of the game are negative interpretations of places within ethnic minorities' neighborhoods. Moreover, the images of individuals on the board game draw upon earlier, existing negative stereotypes of black people. Even positive role models, such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are trivialized."
- "'It is just a game' reinforces and gives permission, that has yet to be denied, but lives like a vampire, to play a game of death with black lives."
Images and cultural representations of groups, specifically African Americans, do have consequences. The images of African Americans and their communities that young people see are not new -- they are simply modern. Old anti-Black caricatures and stereotypes resurface and influence the ways citizens experience daily life. Anti-Black images matter. W.I. Thomas, a sociologist in the early 20th century wrote "If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." When considering current issues that affect the lives of all Americans, such as the resegregation of our public schools, disinvestment from our central cities and the environmental consequences of suburban sprawl, we must be aware of the cultural definitions of race that influence our individual decisions.
Perpetuating cultural images that "caricature" black living spaces without a critical analysis of these images has consequences for us all. Stereotypical depictions of blacks as pimps, gangsters, and whores both reflect and shape perceptions that Americans -- blacks and whites -- have about blacks. The extension of racist depictions through games is especially pernicious. We must challenge these definitions if we want to change the consequences of race in this society. Yes, Ghettopoly is a game, but it is a game that perpetuates centuries-old negative stereotypes of African Americans.
Tony Baker, Ph.D.
Department of Social Sciences
Ferris State University
1 Kenneth B. Clark, Dark Ghetto, 1965. As quoted in Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, 1993.
For Further Reading
Conley, Dalton. 1999. Being Black, Living in the Red. Berkeley: University of California Press. Analysis of long terms economic consequences of ghettos.
Hirsch, Arnold. 1983. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kelley, Robin D.G. 1997. Yo' Mama's Dysfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. Beacon Press. (Excellent analysis of the commoditization of Ghetto culture).
Massey, Douglas S. and Denton, Nancy A. 1993. American Apartheid. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Wilson, William Julius. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Winant, Howard. 2001. The World is a Ghetto. New York: Basic Books.