Ghettos are Not a Game (Part Three): Examining the Consequences of Racial Stereotypes

Published in the Black Commentator,, Issue 63, 11/06/03

It’s just a game.

Thus speaks David Chang, creator of GHETTOPOLY, which uses the traditional MONOPOLY board game formula to steer players through life in an inner-city community: or at least what Chang presumes such a place looks like. Though he has never spent time in a ghetto himself, Chang explains that watching MTV and playing video games (which occasionally depict gritty urban spaces as backdrops) taught him all he needed to know in order to create an authentic gaming experience.

As such, GHETTOPOLY includes game pieces shaped like rocks of crack, guns, and 40 oz. bottles of Malt Liquor, and involves players trying to avoid getting carjacked, selling drugs, and doing all the other things that naturally typify, to Chang at least, the culture of urban America. The visuals in his game include grotesque, thick-lipped, Uzi-toting, black gang-bangers, and even a tasteless mocking of Martin Luther King Jr., scratching his crotch and saying “I have an itch,” instead of the more historically accurate line with which we’re all familiar.

Racist? Well of course. What else can one call a game that quite deliberately plays upon and reinforces negative racial and ethnic stereotypes? And classist too, since GHETTOPOLY gets its laughs at the expense of poor people, as will Chang’s planned follow-up, REDNECKOPOLY, which the intrepid young entrepreneur seems to think insulates him from the racism charge since it shows his willingness to bash poor crackers along with their melanin-enriched brethren.

In two previous columns, I discussed the ways in which this game reinforces historically inaccurate understandings of urban poverty and overlooks the most important fact of ghetto existence: namely, that ghettos were created and have been maintained specifically as holding pens, as virtual concentration camps for low-income persons of color, who were blocked from suburban housing and continue to face substantial discrimination. Given this history, to make money off the enforced misery of those who live in ghettos is especially disgusting. To stack paper (a term I’m sure Chang has heard on MTV) by trafficking in imagery that portrays poor folks of color as pathological, without providing the context for the many problems that exist in ghettos, is to further the process of “othering” that has long kept such persons in “their place,” unable to escape dysfunctional spaces no matter how hard they try.

And let me make this clear, since many defenders of the game have brought it up as a way to change the subject, the imagery in GHETTOPOLY is indeed worse than whatever negative and stereotypical imagery might appear from time to time in rap videos or as a part of the larger hip-hop culture. After all, for all of its faults, both real and imagined, hip-hop is a comprehensive cultural form, which includes both stereotype-reinforcing and potentially damaging imagery on the one hand, alongside positive, political, and liberatory expressions on the other. Though Chang hasn’t seen many radical rap artists on MTV (because the white consumers on whom the network relies don’t buy a lot of music calling for the overthrow of the established order), it does indeed exist. And even the artists whose emphasis on bling overrides their social concerns, typically still write rhymes about overcoming adversity, strong and influential mothers, and life in the ‘hood that is far more complex, and not nearly as atomistically negative as that depicted by Chang.

On the other hand, GHETTOPOLY is not a complex, many-faceted art form or culture, as with hip-hop. It is a closed circle, a one-dimensional game that portrays ghetto-dwellers in completely and exclusively negative terms. Even the “worst” rap artist doesn’t do this as the entirety of their artistic expression, to say nothing of the typical MC, who, contrary to widespread misperception does not in fact make a living by spittin’ about drive-by shootings, pimpin’ “bitches” or bustin’ caps in the asses of their enemies.

That Chang and lots of others conceive of hip hop in such constricted terms — and indeed the 28-year old has the nerve to express his affinity for hip-hop as a defense of his game — speaks more to their status as cultural tourists than real aficionados. Hip-hop, after all, is not a single art form (rap, for example), but includes the decidedly non-gangsta’ genres of spoken word poetry, political essay, and dance.

Chang’s defense of GHETTOPOLY, in fact, serves as a textbook example of how stereotypes can be damaging to critical thought. On his website, which was temporarily shut down for business but is now back up, despite the fact that Hasbro is suing him for trademark infringement, Chang explains that his game is realistic because indeed the images therein can be found in ghettos. In other words, the stereotypes, while perhaps unflattering, are true.

Well sure, and lots of rich people eat caviar, but that is not the essence of their daily routine. Many South Asian Indians eat curry and Mexicans eat tortillas, but so what? That stereotypes are sometimes confirmed does not make it alright to assume that such stereotypes are synonymous with the people themselves. But that is what Chang has done, in ways that are far more offensive than stereotypes about cuisine of course, and that is why his game, and stereotypes in general, are more than mere harmless images.

The fact is,Ýthe routinized dissing of poor folks of color has real consequences. That GHETTOPOLY is only one offender in this regard, and perhaps not even the biggest, misses the point. It contributes to the process of othering in an especially harmful way, in a way that seeks to make ghetto-dwellers the butt of someone else’s joke. That deep down, Chang knows it isn’t harmless is incontestable. After all, he isn’t going to go door-to-door in the actual ghetto selling it, and the reason is that he knows how offended the people whose lives he spoofs would be.

They would be offended because they know, even if Chang and others do not, how the stereotypes held about their community harm the residents there. How they constantly have to battle to convince employers that they aren’t lazy, aren’t unreliable, aren’t criminals, and aren’t crackheads. How they constantly have to try and convince social workers that they aren’t bad parents. How they constantly have to try and convince police that they aren’t drug dealers. How they constantly have to try and convince teachers that they want to learn.

These stereotypes damage lives because they serve as mechanisms of justification for those who discriminate. The employer who believes poor folks of color don’t make good employees can rationalize his or her refusal to hire them as merely being good business, and not being in the last bit racial. The landlord who refuses to rent an apartment to someone whose last address was in the ghetto could rationalize such mistreatment on the grounds that such a tenant is likely not to take care of the property. And he or she could do this, all the while insisting that the decision had nothing to do with race, but merely the concern that “You can take the family out of the ghetto but you can’t take the ghetto out of the family,” as I have heard said more often than I care to count.

An educator charged with teaching poor urban kids in school can justify tracking them into remedial classes because they honestly believe those children are not going to attend college, and aren’t capable of more advanced work. Better to get them ready for the world of low-wage employment, they can tell themselves, thereby setting youth of color up for the very mediocrity they assumed typified them all along.

In fact, the mere knowledge that negative views about one’s group are prevalent has been shown to adversely impact the academic performance of blacks, by creating the added stress of trying not to confirm the stereotype when one takes a standardized test, for example. The added burden of having to disprove a negative stereotype is enough in many cases to fully explain the scoring gaps between blacks and whites on tests like the SAT, according to groundbreaking research by Claude Steele, chair of the Psychology Department at Stanford, who has studied the phenomenon of “stereotype threat” for years, and whose research remains unrefuted.

A few years ago, sociologist William Julius Wilson, who had long peddled the line that race and racism were of declining significance in the U.S., partially reversed course when he discovered that employers in and around Chicago were openly reluctant to hire people of color because of a collection of negative stereotypes about their work effort, home environment and character: the same kinds of stereotypes that form the backbone of GHETTOPOLY.

The Russell Sage Foundation likewise conducted studies in four large urban centers, all of which found the same thing: employers who steered persons of color into the lowest-paying jobs despite their skills, or refused to hire them at all, and were quite frank about their views that such persons would make bad workers.

That the residents of low income black and brown communities are regularly seen and treated as criminals would seem unarguable. But for those who need proof, and who aren’t willing to accept the word of those who experience the treatment as sufficient, data from New York City makes the point quite nicely. Specifically, even after controlling for neighborhood demographics and actual crime rate differences, blacks and Latinos there are twice as likely to be stopped and searched by police as would be expected by random chance. And this profiling continues, despite the fact that those black and brown folks who get harassed are actually less likely to be found with drugs, guns, or other contraband than the whites who face such treatment far less often. In other words, the stereotype of blacks and Latinos as criminals is strong enough to actually trump hard facts. Whites can be equally or more likely than people of color to use, possess, or sell drugs, and yet the latter continue to be the ones getting pulled over and patted down.

That is far from harmless.

Make no mistake: David Chang did not create these stereotypes about the intelligence of poor people, especially those of color, nor those about their character or law-abidingness. But that is no reason not to hold him accountable for perpetuating them. To argue, as Chang attempts to do, that his game is no more offensive than the racist jokes told by comedians is the ultimate non-sequitur, no more responsive than if he were to have broken a window playing ball as a kid, and upon being confronted with the fact of his misdeed by his mother, insisted that “Billy did it too.” Just as his momma wouldn’t have much cared what Billy did, and would have instead insisted that he take personal responsibility for his own actions, so too must Chang now take responsibility for the harm he does by way of such a vehicle as GHETTOPOLY.

And one does not duck that responsibility by hiding behind one’s First Amendment rights, as Chang also does on his website, calling himself a “defender of free speech.” After all, just because one has the right to say something, doesn’t mean that one is right to say it.

And just because speech is free doesn’t mean that it should be worthless.

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