Question 9/19

In Baldwin’s third essay, he claims “A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence” (65). In his third essay he also claims that the three realities of the western fabric are “religion, tradition, and imperialism, and in none of these realities had the lives of black men been taken into account” (45). How does this idea of the ghetto as a social and physical construct relate to the idea of America as an imperialist nation? Is America, in effect, attempting to colonize itself? Are ghettos a perpetuation of White imperialist thought? How does this relate to city living today, as well as concepts such as redlining?

  • Conor Amrien

6 Responses to Question 9/19

  1. Abigail Gardener says:

    I do believe in a sense that relegating the majority of the black population to housing projects like those in Harlem could be seen as America trying to “colonize” itself. Although it is not an active colonization and no one openly calls it that, it is clear to all parties involved that white people forcing black people to live in an isolated area of a city is white society’s attempt to assert their dominance. Baldwin says the projects “are hated almost as much as policemen, and that is saying a great deal. And they are hated for the same reason: both reveal, unbearably, the real attitude of the white world, no matter how many liberal speeches are made, no matter how many lofty editorials are written, no matter how many civil-rights commissions are set up” (63). As long as ghettos like Harlem still exist, it is clear that any attempts to improve them or advocate for the people living there are just for show. As Baldwin writes, “The people in Harlem know they are living there because white people do not think they are good enough to live anywhere else. No amount of ‘improvement’ can sweeten this fact” (65). One of the things that struck me the most while reading this essay was how many of the comments Baldwin made were still relevant today. So many of the practices Baldwin describes are still used today in cities to isolate minorities who are viewed as “not good enough” to live anywhere else.

    • Julie Landy says:

      I was also struck by how many of the situations Baldwin described in the book resonated with the situation in the U.S. today. Particularly, regarding the country’s current struggle with police brutality—especially in black communities and other communities of color—I was struck by Baldwin’s description of the police in ghettos. He explains that the police force is necessarily oppressive, by its very nature, because they “represent the force of the white world” (65).

      Interestingly, Baldwin also gives something of a psychological analysis of the white policeman in the ghetto: “He is exposed, as few white people, are to the anguish of the black people around him” (67). This exposure, and the unease caused by it, are what, in Baldwin’s opinion, causes the “callousness” with which white police officers deal with black communities. I’m not sure what the state of police brutality was when Baldwin was writing, but due to the lack of specific mention of it in this section, it seems that it was not at the fore as it is now, so this section, at least, perhaps has less direct relevance to the state of affairs today.

  2. Siobhan McKenna says:

    I agree with Abigail that the ghettos could be seen as America attempting to colonize itself, even if it’s not overtly referred to as colonizing. There is a blatant attempt at segregation as a way to give whites more power and control.

    The part of this essay that stood out to me the most, and a part that I feel is still relevant today, is when Baldwin points out this constant attempt to “console me for the wretchedness of blacks” by “pointing out to me the wretchedness of whites” (60). As Baldwin continues he states that “an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, in effect, no better than the ‘niggers’ is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by this fact is of the bitterest, most terrifying kind” (60-61). This passage reminds me of the Black Lives Matter protests today, and how people try to downplay them by highlighting that “all lives matter”. In both cases, it seems that people who really have no idea or experience with what it’s like to live as an African American in The United States are trying, as always, to nullify the voices of the African Americans by telling them that their problems really aren’t as bad as they’re making them out to be. As Baldwin points out, it’s not comforting at all to know that “you’re not the only one with this problem”, because the fact of the matter is that this, the conditions of living as an African American in this country, is still a problem that needs to be addressed and solved. And as for whites vs blacks living in ghettos, as Baldwin points out, “All other slum dwellers, when the bank account permits it, can move out of the slum and vanish altogether from the eye of persecution. No Negro in this country has ever made that much money and it will be a long time before any Negro does” (62). Therefore although blacks and whites may seem to have the same issues, society almost always favors the whites, giving them a way out, but trapping the blacks inside. Even if “all lives matter”, we cannot deny the fact that black lives are never given the same opportunities as any other life in this country, and that we have locked the black community in an endless cycle of moving from ghetto to ghetto, while we give whites, even if they, too, end up in a ghetto, a free ride out. Therefore, these ghettos do definitely seem to be a perpetuation of white imperialist thought by giving all power and leverage to the whites.

  3. Sarah Terrazano says:

    It is an interesting comparison to relate the ghettos in Harlem to America’s history of imperialism. The sectioning off of places like Harlem, in which the black population is removed from white society, is similar to Imperialist attitudes that regard colonized people as the “other.” Further supporting this colonizer/colonized relationship, Baldwin discusses how moving from the South to the North is not a complete solution. Much like how life in a colonized country will not drastically improve due to the forces of an imperialist nation, he writes how when moving to the North, “[Negroes] do not escape Jim Crow: they merely encounter another, not-less-deadly variety. They do not move to Chicago, they move to the South Side; they do not move to New York, they move to Harlem” (68). The segregation and “otherness” persists even when moving to the North.

    Thinking about this Imperialism aspect, I’m also struck by the idea of Imperialism within one’s own borders, and how it manifests differently — even more directly — than between two separate nations. Imperialism between two nations involves the colonizer acting more powerful, morally superior, and exploitative of the colonized country. Within a nation’s borders, imperialism on a domestic level also allows for the perpetuation of systemic racism, which Baldwin discusses in the ghettoization of New York.

  4. Alex Bordona says:

    I definitely believe ghettos and ghettoization are a result of white American imperialist thought. The end result of both colonizing and ghettoization is to subjugate a people to the colonizer’s benefit. Both ghettoization and imperialism have the result of silencing the oppressed or the colonized. Ghettoization creates a world in which Black Americans have no upward mobility, no voice, and no freedom. Colonized peoples experience somewhat of the same fate. The exploitation of labor that often happens in colonizer-colonized dynamics is also seen in American ghettoization. White America’s economy was built off of Black slave labor (and continues to survive in similar ways) and the slave labor of colonized peoples.

  5. Mia Edelstein says:

    I agree with what Abigail wrote about how any improvements made to ghettos are mere lip service because ghettoization is an inherently flawed concept that can’t be improved, just dismantled. Baldwin writes that the “only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive” because policing here is an act of domination, not of community aid (61). Like Alex wrote, ghettoization is a way to silence and oppress a population, so the state’s way of ensuring this control is to be as aggressive as possible. Looking at the essay again through the lens of imperialism, I noticed that Baldwin wrote, “He [the police] moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is” (62). Baldwin identifies Harlem as a foreign nation, and in using “occupying soldier,” he makes the police the aggressor, the agent of an imperialist agenda.

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