Ghettos are Not a Game (Part Two): Racism and the Perpetuation of the Urban Poor

Published in the Black Commentator,, Issue 61, 10/23/03

In a recent column, I discussed with a healthy amount of disdain the marketing of a board game called GHETTOPOLY, in which players maneuver through the traps and snares of an inner-city community, replete with every stereotype in the book about such places: filled with criminals, crack addicts, malt liquor junkies, prostitutes and gang-bangers. According to the game’s creator, he meant no offense of course. Indeed, David Chang thinks GHETTOPOLY, and his planned follow-ups, including HIPHOPOPOLY and REDNECKOPOLY could get people laughing and thereby help break down the very stereotypes in which his games traffic.

I won’t revisit the many reasons why GHETTOPOLY and its offshoots are offensive, racist and classist here, as that was covered in the original commentary. But I do want to address in greater detail a few of the issues raised in the previous piece, which apparently some readers don’t understand. If the e-mails I received in response to the previous essay, particularly from many whites, are indicative of larger opinion, then obviously some gaps in the knowledge base of many Americans need desperately to be filled. Herein, I will discuss the ways in which persons in ghettos are largely unable to “escape” no matter how much they might like to do so; and in a third column, I will examine the damage done by the stereotypes perpetuated by Chang’s game: damage that can hardly be viewed as trivial.

Among my criticisms in the first piece, I noted that GHETTOPOLY’s biggest offense is reinforcing the notion of the ghetto as a free-standing cultural space, whose residents are caught in a tangle of pathology because of their own depravity, ignorance, addiction, bad choices, and incompetence. In truth, as I explained with historical evidence, the ghetto is a creation of political and economic elites who sought to restrict black residential mobility to the urban core, even as whites were being subsidized to move to the suburbs. The ghetto, in other words, is not the product of the people who live there, but those who don’t: it is the geographic detritus of institutional racism and economic oppression. Needless to say, some didn’t like hearing that part.

“Aw, stop your whining,” one writer insisted. “Even if the ghetto was created the way you say it was, that’s no excuse for people living there now. If they wanted to move and make life better for themselves they would. The problem is, they’re just too damned lazy to get off their asses and go where the jobs are.”

Several others echoed those sentiments, though not in terms that stark. Frankly, this is a mantra of sorts that I have heard repeatedly for decades, from other whites who assumed they could say anything to me, as a white man, when black folks weren’t in the room, and that I would keep their secrets.

Of course, the “why don’t they just get up and move” faction of white America overlooks a few things. How, after all, can a person just up and move to somewhere else, when they don’t have any money, or when the job they have is in the city and they don’t have a reliable car, or any car at all, that could get them back and forth if they moved to a “nicer” part of town, where public transportation either doesn’t run, or runs very sporadically? How can a person just up and move if they haven’t the money to pay for first and last month’s rent in a new apartment (as is usually required), or if they can’t pass a credit check for an apartment because they’ve never had any credit? How can a person just up and move when they haven’t the money to pay the heating bill, let alone a bus ticket to greener pastures for them and their kids? And how can a person just up and move when all the available evidence indicates they would still likely face housing discrimination if they attempted to move to whiter, more affluent spaces?

In other words, what much of the white community overlooks in our desire to blame the urban poor for the conditions in which they find themselves, is the ongoing specter of racism itself, which contrary to white belief has not receded, especially in the area of housing. Despite laws against it, as many as two million cases of housing discrimination take place every year against persons of color, according to the government’s own estimates, and may occur as often as one out of every two times that such folks are looking for a place to live. These acts of discrimination range from outright bias in mortgage lending, to refusing to show apartments to people of color, to steering blacks and Latinos to mostly black and brown neighborhoods, to showing fewer units to people of color seeking to rent or fewer homes to those seeking to buy.

Even if persons from the urban core were able to save up enough money to move, they would likely face bias. Consider first the rental market. Studies have found that when white and black testers are sent to check for housing bias on the part of apartment managers, persons of color are far more likely to be told that there are no units available, while the whites are shown apartments and told there are openings. It should be noted that this racial bias is evident even when the testers are middle-class or above, college educated, and similarly demeanored to their white counterparts. As such, one can only imagine how much harder it would be for persons who were low-income, less formally educated, perhaps not as “well-spoken” in the traditional sense, or with a spottier work record. Keep in mind, landlords typically want to know a renter’s last two or three places of residence, their source of income, and references. Do we really think that when an applicant put down an address that was known to be in the “worst” part of town (perhaps in public housing), or noted that their source of income was a low-wage job, perhaps combined with public assistance, and had no references to speak of, that they would really have a fair shot at landing a place to live? Likewise, renting increasingly requires credit checks, which the poor will have a harder time passing than those who are not; and there is nothing to prevent a landlord from refusing to rent to someone with bad or no credit.

While most persons seeking to leave the so-called ghetto would not likely be in the market for a mortgage, let’s examine the housing market for buyers as well. After all, according to the ever-optimistic Pollyanas who insist a person can do anything they want if they put their mind to it, those who want it badly enough should be able to save enough money to come with a down payment on a modest home. Yet upon entering the mortgage market, folks from the inner-city, especially who were black, would likely encounter still more unequal treatment. Indeed, blacks face this kind of treatment even when they are not poor, not from the ghetto, and when they are well-educated, professionally employed, and have decent credit.

One of the most comprehensive studies of mortgage bias was conducted by the Boston Federal Reserve Bank and considered 38 different factors (of which race was only one) that could result in disparate lending between whites and blacks. Even with factors like collateral, credit history and income considered and held constant, blacks were still nearly 60 percent more likely to be rejected for a mortgage loan compared to similarly-situated and credit-worthy whites. Indeed, two follow-up studies which added control variables and used an even more conservative accounting methodology to determine lending bias, found equal or higher levels of bias than were found in the original study.

Another study sent black and white testers to banks in Louisville, Kentucky. The testers had equal credit ratings and financial characteristics and requested conventional mortgages for the very same housing. Consistently, blacks were given less information or encouragement to apply for the loan and were subjected to differential and unequal treatment in terms of loan prequalification. For example, blacks were often told that their income and credit was inadequate to qualify for the loans they sought, while the whites with identical incomes and credit were told they would qualify for the very same loans.

Data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act demonstrates that while blacks and whites with excellent credit appear to be treated roughly equally, there is a substantial gap between the way whites and blacks with bad credit or questionable credit are treated. As the Wall Street Journal has reported, nearly 70 percent of whites with poor credit are still able to receive a mortgage loan, compared to only 16 percent of blacks with equally poor credit.

In other words, the ability to move where one wants, when one wants, owing only to the determined will, is far from universal. Instead it is among the most extensive of white privileges in the U.S. That whites would believe it was only a matter of personal desire, and perhaps saving a little money bespeaks volumes about the way in which whites have been privileged in this culture. We have never had to worry about how our race might work against us in the housing market; never had to worry about a landlord taking one look at us, or maybe just speaking with us on the phone, discerning our likely race, and then telling us the last unit was just rented, gee sorry. We have never had to consider that perhaps getting a place to live might be about more than our credit, collateral, income and good attitude. But for persons of color, they have never had the luxury of believing that those were the only relevant factors, for indeed they never have been.

Researchers estimate that if affordability and personal choice were the only factors determining where people lived, there would be no all-white or all-black neighborhoods in any major city in the United States. Not one. But of course, there are several of each. While only 10 percent of blacks say they prefer to live in all or nearly-all black neighborhoods, roughly three-fourths of African Americans actually live in such places, not because of choice so much as unequal access to housing markets. According to several studies, most blacks prefer well-mixed, integrated neighborhoods. It is whites, who by preferring no more than 10-15 percent people of color in our communities, effectively block such an arrangement from coming about. After all, if “too many” blacks or Latinos move in, whites begin to sell en masse, which results in a net capital outflow, thereby lowering property values, paving the way for more low-income persons to gain access to the area, and the eventual “tipping” of the neighborhood from mostly white to mostly of color, and poor. It is, in many ways, an ever-expanding, but nonetheless vicious circle of de facto race and class segregation.

If David Chang wants to create a game that “isn’t boring,” which is why he says he developed GHETTOPOLY, so be it. Indeed, if he wants to create a game that would involve players in navigating the inner city, that too could be instructive. But instead of poking fun at the victims of race and class exploitation who live there, perhaps he could focus on the white suburbanites who historically created “Neighborhood Improvement Associations” to keep blacks out, or the banks that redlined entire communities, thereby depriving them of capital investment, or the predatory lenders who set up shop in the hood, and charge borrowers 5-10 times the interest that a normal bank would, or the city planners who knocked down tens of thousands of black homes as part of “urban renewal” in the 50s and 60s. That kind of game would be every bit as entertaining as the one Chang thought up, and players might actually learn something in the process of playing it.

But of course such a concept would never make it to market. After all, the mostly white, non-ghetto-dwelling folks who think GHETTOPOLY is so hilarious, would never buy a game that reminded them of just how implicated they and their families are in the suffering of others. For that is the biggest white privilege of all: namely, the privilege of remaining oblivious to the real world, ignorant to the workings of your society, enraptured by the fantasy created by your history books, teachers, preachers, parents, Boy Scout leaders and politicians. It is the privilege to never have to think about the things you don’t want to think about. It is the ability to live a lie every day, and to insist upon one’s innocence long after that innocence was delivered still-born, and to swear that the baby, so to speak, is still breathing despite all evidence to the contrary.

It is the privilege of thinking that poverty is a game, precisely because you and yours have rarely if ever had to play it from the inside; have never been the chess pieces moved around by someone else’s hand. It is the ability to say “lighten up, it’s just a joke,” precisely because the joke is not on you or anyone you know.

That David Chang, himself a person of color, had to play to white prejudices and sensibilities in order to make money as a game-maker is the ultimate proof of the power of whiteness in America, and the ultimate evidence of how the sickness can spread, even to those who in theory ought to know better.

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