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The Conservative Curmudgeon
July 22, 2008

Ghetto Mindset: Harmful to Urban Communities and American Society
by Allan C. Brownfeld

[Breaker: No One Is Immune]

In the l960s, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), then Assistant Secretary of Labor, produced a report entitled The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. He found that twenty-five percent of all black children were born to unmarried women, and the percentage was rising. The tangle of poverty and despair was bleak, and Moynihan predicted that it would get worse. It has. Today, among non-Hispanic blacks, the out-of-wedlock birth rate has reached 69.5 percent.

Beyond this, troubling trends he found within the black community are now seen in the larger society. The illegitimacy rate for Hispanics has reached 47.9 percent, and the rate for non-Hispanic whites now exceeds 25 percent.

Moynihan was sharply criticized by liberals for "blaming the victim." Now, however, that criticism is increasingly discredited. Cora Daniels is an award-winning journalist; a contributing editor to Essence; a commentator on CNN, BET, and NPR; and the author of the widely praised book, Black Power, Inc. In an important book, Ghetto Nation (Doubleday), Daniels argues that the "ghetto mindset" is harming the future of residents of the nation's inner cities, and that corporate America bears a share of the responsibility for promoting this destructive mindset.

For Daniels, "ghetto" is a condition -- an addiction, even -- that has spread throughout American culture. It is an impoverished mindset defined by conspicuous consumption and irresponsibility. She writes that, "Ghetto no longer refers to where you live; it is how you live.... The jump from an impoverished physical landscape to an impoverished mental one is harder to trace… [T]here is no denying that these days ghetto, as it is used, had indeed made that leap.”

She continues, “As a black woman surviving and drowning in Ghettonation, I am defining ghetto as a mindset... A mindset that thinks it is fine to bounce, baby, bounce in some video…. And a mindset that thinks a record deal and a phat beat in the background makes it okay to say... well, I do know what bad language is, so I won't say. Most of all, ghetto is a mindset that embraces the worst. It is the embodiment of expectations that have gotten dangerously too low."

Anthropologist John Ogbu coined the term "acting white" to explain why some black students seemed to shun doing well in school. Several years ago, he released an even more explosive study about black middle-class students in suburban Shaker Heights, Ohio, outside of Cleveland. In pointing the finger for poor performance in school back at parents instead of at "the system," the late scholar drew criticism from both his colleagues and the community. Daniels finds there is much to learn from Ogbu's efforts.

In his 2003 book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, Ogbu concludes that black students were not doing as well as their white counterparts because their parents did not emphasize education. He notes that many of these parents did not stress homework, attend teacher conferences, or push their children to enroll in the most challenging classes as much as their white counterparts did. In addition, he suggests that the black students suffered from what he termed "low effort syndrome."

Ogbu writes, "What amazed me is that these kids who come from homes of doctors and lawyers are not thinking like their parents…. They are looking at rappers in ghettos as their role models; they are looking at entertainers. The parents work two jobs, three jobs, to give their children everything, but they are not guiding their children."

Sadly, corporate America has devoted a great deal of its resources to promoting the ghetto mindset. Cora Daniels notes that, "Madison Avenue has certainly put its cash behind the tomorrow-doesn't-matter message... The 'I am what I am' billboard... featured 50 Cent with his stale...frown. His quote, displayed against a police fingerprint sheet, read, 'Where I'm from, there is no Plan B. So take advantage of today because tomorrow is not promised.'... In Ghettonation, living within your means just isn't done. There is no need to when you think tomorrow doesn't matter."

In addition to hip-hop music is "street fiction," a constant strand in black literature for decades. The first of such writers was probably Iceberg Slim. Following his release from 10 months of solitary confinement in Cook County Jail, he penned Pimp: The Story of My Life, published in l969. In 2003, Pimp graced UPI's top 10 mass-market paperback list alongside To Kill A Mockingbird, The Hobbit, and Fahrenheit 45l.

Dr. Todd Boyd, a member of the faculty at the School of Cinema and Television at the University of Southern California, was asked why ghetto lit is the fantasy so many readers are choosing. "The ghetto is drama," he said. "The ills of poverty are far more
dramatic than the angst of middle-class life."

Daniels was struck with the truth of Boyd’s statement when author James Frey's credibility shattered in the winter of 2006 when his best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, about his drug addiction and rehab struggles, was found to be soaked with untruths. She writes, “The interesting things about Frey's embellishments is that he did not lie to make his life seem better but to make it seem worse... He claimed he did a three-month stint in jail for beating up a cop. It never happened... Remember when folks used to lie their way up?... Now folks are lying their way downward. And why not? Frey's book was the second biggest seller of 2005. Being a ‘criminal’ sells. Ghetto."

All too often the black establishment has embraced those who promote this ghetto mentality. The NAACP, for example, nominated rapper R. Kelly for an Image award after the singer already bad been charged with child pornography. In 2005, one of the most celebrated independent films was Hustle & Flow, a movie about a pimp turned rapper in Memphis. Hustle & Flow's title song by Three 6 Mafia won the Academy Award for 2006 for best song.

Fortunately, Daniels reports, more and more prominent black figures are beginning to speak out against the ghetto mindset. Professor Orlando Patterson, a sociologist at Harvard, says it is a culture of self-destructiveness that is holding black men back.

Like comedian Bill Cosby's comments about the problems within the black community, Cora Daniels' book should trigger widespread interest. And it is not only the black community that is affected. She laments that, "Ghetto is also packaged in the form of music, t.v., books and movies, and then sold around the world.... [G]hetto is contagious, and no one is immune."

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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