Ghettos are Not a Game (Part One): Making Money off the Misery of Others

Published in the Black Commentator,, Issue 59, 10/9/03

Some things just aren’t funny, and some ways of making money are pathetic. Both of these truisms apply to the entrepreneurial “humor” of David Chang, a 28-year old Pennsylvanian who apparently gets his kicks making fun of poor folks in urban America in order to make a quick buck.

Chang’s business, as it were, is producing patently offensive board games, which deliberately traffic in racist and classist stereotypes. His first creation is “GHETTOPOLY,” wherein players try and “buy stolen properties, pimp hoes, build crack houses and projects,” and avoid getting carjacked. With more than a few references to Malt Liquor addiction, loan sharking, and other things that Chang apparently believes typify “ghetto culture,” GHETTOPOLY promises hours of entertainment for people who, naturally, neither live in a ghetto nor have ever visited one, but who can now get off making fun of something they know nothing about.

Chang insists that his game, available online and in certain stores, is not meant to be degrading, but instead to “bring people together in laughter.” But which people is he speaking of? Certainly not those who live in the places he has decided to objectify. He surely knows that his game isn’t likely to sell too well in public housing projects after all, though by glancing at the “feedback” section on his website, it does seem to be a big hit with college kids. Nice: children of privilege having a laugh at the expense of those without; how utterly typical.

Chang claims, “If we can’t laugh at ourselves and how we each utilize the various stereotypes, then we’ll continue to live in blame and bitterness.” But of course he isn’t challenging the absurdity of those stereotypes, and he isn’t laughing at himself. There is no anti-Asian humor here, after all. No plans for “Kung-FuOPOLY” or FORTUNECOOKIEOPOLY, not that that would be any funnier. He is laughing at others, thus not only GHETTOPOLY, which involves almost exclusively negative references to blacks, or what Chang perceives to be black urban culture, but also the upcoming offerings, HIPHOPOPOLY, THUGOPOLY, and REDNECKOPOLY.

That the last of these makes fun of whites — but only the poorest of course (since he wouldn’t want to offend the suburban consumer demographic) — hardly redeems Chang’s venture. It only indicates that bashing low-income people, of whatever race, is considered fair game. Whereas the original MONOPOLY venerates the wealthy and encourages us to be like them (to be sure a problematic quest for other reasons), Chang’s rip-offs do not actually encourage players to identify with people who live in ghettos, or the hood, or trailer parks, or whatever.

Chang’s bio notes that he graduated from one of the “most prestigious private high schools in the U.S.” and received a degree from the University of Rochester, both of which naturally gave him a deep understanding of the subject matter in his games. Whatever details Chang may have failed to learn about the ‘hood in prep school, he was able to glean from — and these are his words, I am not making this up — “watching TV and studying the lyrics of rap and hip-hop music.” If that proved insufficient for the purposes of research, Chang had a fallback source of wisdom. As he puts it in a press release: “Video games provided him insight into the culture of the ghetto.” It matters not, one supposes, that the images of the ghetto seen on video games were produced by people who don’t live there. Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but there are also dragons and evil trolls in video games, so I guess David believes in those too.

Actually if one wants to understand “the ghetto” and the people who live there one has to spend time in such places. Even then, one’s understanding will remain limited compared to those who actually live there every day, navigating the waters of the communities that David Chang and others think it is alright to parody. If one spends any amount of time at all in such places, one immediately notices that although there are things about poor urban communities that fit the stereotypical imagery, there are also lots of things about the places and the people who live in “ghettos,” which didn’t make it into this game, but which are also typical and not the least bit funny.

Like mothers trying to work two jobs to support their kids, without childcare, without adequate health care, having to choose between buying them clothes for school or paying a heating bill. Like kids who persevere against all odds, going to schools to learn and finding not enough textbooks, or buildings that are crumbling, and yet they still show up every day, hoping to fill their minds with knowledge. Like elderly women in public housing who look out for everyone’s children, whether or not they are their own, because they see them as a treasure and vital resource in the community. Like ministers who run day care programs, and job training programs, and whose churches are involved in rehabilitating housing for low-income families. Like families that still pray, despite an environment that would make many of us wonder if there even was a God in heaven at all, let alone one who still cared about us.

Chang’s biggest offense is in reinforcing the notion of the ghetto as a freestanding entity, with an inherent culture, separate from the rest of the society. But in truth, ghettos are the product of deliberate decisions made by political and economic elites. Whatever culture springs up in such places is not some intrinsic pathology unique to the urban poor, but largely the consequence of institutional racism and economic oppression. Chang’s game allows us to continue ignoring the issue of how the ghetto became the ghetto in the first place. Answers are easy to find, though apparently Chang wasn’t interested in discovering them, seeing as how doing so might have cut into his video game and MTV viewing schedule.

Fact is, during the first “great migration” of blacks from the south, zoning laws and overt violence tightly restricted where people of color were allowed to live. As a result of limitations on black residential mobility, families often had to double-up in small apartments, which were rarely taken care of by landlords who had little incentive to improve their properties, since they knew there was nowhere else for black tenants to turn.

Then in the 1930s, the government began offering low-interest, taxpayer-guaranteed loans through the Federal Housing Administration. Millions of families took part in the new program, and the American middle-class was born. Over a thirty-year period, over $100 billion in home equity was loaned through these initiatives, but it was almost exclusively a white middle-class created by these policies. FHA lending guidelines made it clear that loans were off-limits to persons who lived in “declining” neighborhoods (and every black neighborhood was rated as declining), and that, “If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” In other words, there would be few if any loans for blacks seeking to move to mostly white areas either. So blacks were restricted to the urban core at the very time that the “American dream” was being subsidized for white families.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, local governments then began the process of “urban renewal,” which meant the elimination of low-and-moderate-income family housing, to be replaced by office buildings, shopping centers and parking lots. While hundreds of thousands of homes (one-fifth of all housing occupied at the time by people of color) were destroyed as part of this process, less than 10 percent of those displaced, three-fourths of whom were black, had new single-resident housing to go to afterwards, as cities rarely built new units to replace the old ones. Instead, displaced families often had to rely on crowded apartments, living with relatives, or living in run-down public housing projects.

Since then, most efforts to reduce crowding in public housing by spreading subsidized residences throughout working and middle-class neighborhoods have been blocked by those who didn’t persons from the “ghetto” living near them. So the ghetto has remained isolated, wracked by poverty and the problems that come with it, including higher crime rates, family dissolution, and now, apparently, the privilege of becoming the punch line in someone else’s idea of a joke.

None of the above history will matter much to David, I’m sure, or others who think making fun of “crack whores” is high comedy. But it should matter to us. And so should David’s phone number, which he gladly offers on his website. I think we should let him know what we think of his game, so by all means let’s do so. Give him a ring at 866-444-3886, or drop him an email at And then let Hasbro know about Chang’s games too. Since the layout, style and feel of GHETTOPOLY is more than a little similar to the original from which the OPOLY part of the name is taken, it shouldn’t take a particularly brilliant patent and trademark lawyer to shut his fun down for good.

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