Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute of Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.
How the "Ghetto Mindset" Is Harming the Mores, Attitudes and Lifestyles of Both Our Urban Communities and the Larger American Society
In the 1960s, 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 a quarter 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 is would get worse. It has. Today, among non-Hispanic blacks, the out-of-wedlock birth rate had reached 69.5 percent. Beyond this, trends he found troubling within the black community are now to be found in the larger society as well. The illegitimacy rate for Hispanics has reached 47.9 percent and the rate for non-Hispanic whites now exceeds 25 percent.
For his efforts, Moynihan was sharply criticized by liberals for "blaming the victim," a catchphrase that was coined by his critics and has now entered the lexicon. Now, however, that notion is being increasingly discredited. In an important new book, Ghetto Nation (Doubleday), Cora Daniels, an award-winning journalist who is now a contributing writer for Essence and has served as a commentator on CNN, BET, and NPR, and is the author of the widely praised book, Black Power, Inc., argues that it is the "ghetto mindset" that 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. Daniels joins a long list of thoughtful black critics of the prevailing ghetto culture, among them comedian Bill Cosby and author Juan Williams.
For Daniels, "ghetto" is a condition -- an addiction, even -- that has spread through American popular 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. It is a mind-set. . . . The jump from an impoverished physical landscape to an impoverished mental one is harder to trace. . . . there is no denying that these days ghetto, as it is used, had indeed made that leap. I did not reposition ghetto from noun to adjective -- we all did that. . . . 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, as if that makes it any different from performing such a display on a table, on a pole, on some john's lap, or on the corner. And a mindset that thinks a record deal and a phat beat in the background makes it to 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.
A number of academic studies show how this mindset has had harmful ramifications. Professors from M.I.T. and the University of Chicago wanted to see what was in a name. They answered thousands of real newspaper want ads sending in identical resumes except for the name. One group of resumes was sent to the same companies with names like Latoya, Shamika and LaShawn. The Brads and Kristens were 50 percent more likely to be called back for an interview than the Shamikas and LaShawns with the exact same resumes. Daniels writes:
The researchers thought with the results of their LaShawn and Shamika resumes they were making a statement about race [but in reality] they really uncovered the side effects of the ghetto.
Several years ago, anthropologist John Ogbu, who coined the term "acting white" to explain why some black students seemed to shun doing well in school, 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. It is Daniels' view that there is much to learn from Ogbu's efforts.
She notes that
Ogbu was invited to Shaker Heights not by school district administrators or teachers but by black parents themselves. They wanted to know why their children -- the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, judges, business execs -- were doing so much worse in school than their white classmates. Although black students in the middle-class district were some of the best students in the state, they were still lagging behind whites in the district in terms of grade point averages, standardized test scores, and enrollment in advanced-placement courses. . . . The situation sounded like my own high school experience. While my good school was approximately 60 percent black, I would typically find myself among the same small bunch of black students in all of my AP and honors classes. By the time I was a senior, when my schedule was filled with nothing but demanding classes, I had virtually no black classmates, even though I was attending a black school.
In his 2003 book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: a Study of Academic Disengagement, John Ogbu concluded that black students in Shaker Heights weren't doing as well as their white counterparts because their parents didn't stress education enough. It was disengagement of the worst kind. Not discounting other factors such as low teacher expectations and prejudiced personnel, Ogbu failed the efforts of the black students and their parents. Despite parents' obvious concerns, illustrated by the fact that they invited the anthropologist to come and have a look to begin with, Ogbu concluded that many of the same black 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 suggested that the black students suffered from what he termed "low effort syndrome," meaning that they didn't work as hard even though they knew how much work was needed to succeed in the Shaker Heights schools.
What amazed me is that these kids who come from homes of doctors and lawyers are not thinking like their parents; they don't know how their parents made it. . . . 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.
A 2004 study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Urban Institute concluded that only 50 percent of black students graduate from high school and 53 percent of Hispanic students are doing so. For male students, the figures are even worse. Only 43 percent of black males and 48 percent of Hispanic males graduated. The reality, Daniels shows, may be even worse:
Researchers concluded that the official data on dropout rates were misleading, arguing that in reality there are actually more dropouts than schools report. The study charged that school districts and states routinely try to depress their dropout numbers by pushing out and eliminating problem students from school rosters, especially right before state tests, because higher scores translate into extra funding and certification credentials. In a study of the 100 biggest school districts in the country, in almost half the schools sampled, the size of the senior class had shrunk by more than half compared to the class size back in the ninth grade, four years earlier. In one year in Chicago, 15,653 students graduated from high school while 17,404 dropped out.
Sadly, corporate America has devoted a great deal of its resources promoting the ghetto mindset. Daniels notes that:
Madison Avenue has certainly put its cash behind the tomorrow-doesn't-matter message. . . . The "I am What I am" billboard that I saw most often . . . 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.
Middle-class blacks often claim to be from the inner city to achieve success. Rapper Russell Jones -- known by a variety of names including ODB (Ol' Dirty Bastard) -- died at the age of 35. In its multi-day coverage of his death, The New York Times reported that: "As ODB, he was also uncomfortable spinning a public mythology, saying, for example that he had grown up on welfare, or that he had not known his father." Neither was true. "Our brother looked at things as selling records," said his sister Monique Jones. "So he dismissed whatever lies he told as just a way of getting publicity."
Cora Daniels points out that:
Hip-hop is the music that trumps through black neighborhoods and encompasses the black images that are spit across the world. It is what our children are bouncing their heads to. So as a black woman living within earshot of what is coming out of the mouths of young black folks over the radio these days, I can't afford not to say something. Especially when the ho-ing of black women has become big business.
In addition to hip-hop, music is "street fiction" which has been a constant strand in black literature for decades. The first of such writers was probably Iceberg Slim, who after being released from ten months of solitary confinement in Cook County Jail penned Pimp: The Story of My Life, published in 1969. Graphic in both language and subject matter, the book broke narrative ground by capturing Slim's life as a pimp in Chicago in the 1950s. In 2003, Pimp briefly graced U.P.I.'s top ten mass-market paperback list alongside To Kill A Mockingbird, The Hobbit, and Fahrenheit 451. Donald Goines, also a pioneer in street lit, first read Iceberg Slim while doing his last stint behind bars. The result for Goines, a heroin addict who pimped and robbed to support his habit, was the birth of his first book, Dopefiend, an instant ghetto classic published in 1970 that still sells 200,000 copies a year.
James Fugate, owner of Eso Won Books, a black bookstore in South Central Los Angeles, has one word for ghetto lit: disturbing. "I'm sick of talking about it," he says.
To me people can read what they want to read. I've never been opposed to books by Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. But those books were bridges to other literature.
The ghetto lit being written today, he says, is mostly "mindless garbage about murder, killing, thuggery."
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 writes that:
It struck me just how universal Boyd's truism was when author James Frey's credibility began to shatter into a million pieces 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. The interesting things about Frey's embellishments is that he didn't lie to make his life seem better but to make it seem worse. "I am an alcoholic and I am a drug addict and I am a criminal," he wrote repeatedly. One of the most blatant lies that Frey wrote about was the criminal part. 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? Like claiming we made more money that we did, had better jobs than we had, were the hero instead of the sidekick, raised extraordinary beings instead of average ones? Now folks are lying their way downward. And why not? Frey's book was the second biggest seller of 2005 behind only the new Harry Potter. 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 had already 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. The film earned Terrence Howard an Oscar nomination for playing the pimp. Daniels writes that:
In one of the clearest signs of pimp praise, "Hustle & Flow's" title song, "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp," by Three 6 Mafia, won an Academy Award in 2006 for best song. Upon receiving their Oscar, Three 6 Mafia had to be bleeped by network censors several times during their acceptance speech.
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 that it is a culture of self-destructiveness that is holding black men back. According to Patterson, a so-called "cool-pose culture" that includes "hanging out on the street, dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music" was just too gratifying to give up. Culture was making the pull of the ghetto attractive. "Not only was living this subculture immensely fulfilling," wrote Patterson. "It also bought them a great respect from white youths."
To those who decry black spokesmen challenging ghetto mindset as washing the community's "dirty laundry" in public, comedian Bill Cosby responds:
Let me tell you something, your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it's cursing and calling each other nigger as they're walking up and down the street. They think they're hip. They can't read; they can't write. They're laughing and giggling and they're going nowhere.
Like Bill Cosby's initial, and much-discussed comments about the problems within the black community today, Cora Daniels' book should trigger widespread interest and heated debate. And it is not only the black community that is involved. She laments that, "Ghetto is also packaged in the form of music, T.V., books, and movies, and then sold around the world . . . ghetto is contagious and no one is immune."
Assessing the Role -- and the Future -- of German Jews, the Fastest Growing Jewish Community in Europe
Germany today boasts the fastest growing population of Jews in Europe. The streets of Berlin abound with signs of a revival of Jewish culture. In September, 2006, Germany ordained its first rabbis since World War II, an event hailed as a milestone in the rebirth of Jewish life in the country where the Holocaust began. German President Horst Koehler declared:
After the Holocaust many people could never have imagined that Jewish life in Germany could blossom again. That is why the first ordination of rabbis in Germany is a very special event indeed.
In an important new book, Being Jewish in the New Germany (Rutgers University Press), Professor Jeffery N. Peck of Georgetown University, who is also a senior fellow in residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, explores the diversity of contemporary Jewish life and the complex struggles within the community over history, responsibility, culture, and identity. He provides a glimpse of an emerging, if conflicted, multicultural country and examines how the development of the European Community, globalization, and the post-9/11 political climate play out in this context.
Today there are more than 100,000 registered members of the official German Jewish community and many more Jews who are not affiliated. While the Jewish population is still relatively small in relation to the total German population, its moral and political significance outweighs its size. In 1933, it was estimated that Germany had about 500,000 Jews. At the end of World War II, Germany's and Europe's Jewish population was decimated to a mere remnant of survivors.
"Now in the new millennium," writes Professor Peck:
. . . there is all the more reason to celebrate the triumph, as many see it, over Hitler's Final Solution. Germany's Jewish population has gained prominence as the fastest-growing Jewish community in Europe and the third largest overall. Jewish Berlin has become a popular tourist site and home of major international and Jewish organizations. The leaders of institutions, like the American Jewish Committee (AJC), understand the importance of a sustained Jewish life in Germany. Far ahead of the Jewish public, they have established positive relations with Germany for decades. Yet, American Jews are often unable to overcome old stereotypes and prejudices. Many American Jews still feel uncomfortable traveling to Germany or even buying German products. In their minds, all Germans, even those born after the war, are tainted by genocide.
Today, Peck argues:
Being "German" and being "Jewish," separated identities that have a long history, especially since the Holocaust, are no longer mutually exclusive. Before the Second World War, most German Jews thought of themselves as Germans. . . . After the war, the terminology separating Germans and Jews connoted the alienation and separation for those Jews remaining, most of whom were not "German" but displaced persons from Eastern Europe who came to be known by those ignominious initials as DPs. Then, it was simple, the Germans were the perpetrators and the Jews were the victims. As a postwar Jewish community took shape, albeit until recently very small, the term "Jews in Germany" became the dominant description of a people who were not fully comfortable or integrated into the society around them. My own prognosis looks toward a potentially new categorization, a "new" German Jewry that will represent a different status in both historical and contemporary terms.
At the end of the war, about 6,500 Jews survived through marriage to non-Jews, living underground, and other means. About 2,000 returned to Berlin from the concentration camps. Most importantly, approximately 200,000 Jews came to Germany as DPs. Housed in camps established by the U.S. military authority, most of these people did not want to stay in Germany. They were only in transit on their way to Israel, the U.S., or Canada. The few thousand who remained formed the basis of the postwar Jewish community.
In January 1991, after German reunification, Soviet Jews were admitted under the quota refugee law granting them rights ironically only accorded to the so-called ethnic Germans, whose relationship to contemporary Germany after many generations of living in remote areas of the Soviet Union was more imagined than real. This legislation was a turning point for Soviet Jewish immigration since it allowed masses of Jews to enter Germany as immigrants rather than on tourist visas as had previously been the informal practice.
Most of the newcomers, an estimated 80 percent, are not "Jewish" by Orthodox law, meaning they do not have Jewish mothers or do not fulfill other requirements, such as Orthodox conversion. The intolerance of Germany's organized Jewish community is something that Professor Peck laments and finds counterproductive:
Religion, which defines the Jewish Community, allows little diversity; Orthodoxy dominates, some Liberal (Conservative) synagogues fill out the picture, and no official Reform offerings are available, except for the controversial World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) still fighting for recognition. . . . I know of one story of an esteemed young Jew who was dismissed from a religious Jewish institution in Berlin when it was discovered that his mother's conversion was not properly Orthodox. Whatever the reasons . . . halakhic (Orthodox) regulation remains . . . powerful in a community that some might say can ill afford to be so conservative.
Peck is clearly optimistic about the future of Jewish life in Germany. He writes of the symbolism involved in the official opening of the Jewish Museum of Berlin in September 2001, under the directorship of Michael Blumenthal, an American Jew who escaped Germany through Shanghai as a child, and served as Secretary of the Treasury in the Carter Administration. In his "Welcome" printed in the book Stories of an Exhibition: Two Millennia of German Jewish History, the official documentation of the museum, Blumenthal states:
The Jewish Museum of Berlin is no ordinary museum. As a major institution supported by the Federal Government, the State of Berlin, all political parties, and a broad cross-section of the public, its mission has sociopolitical meaning that far transcends the story it tells of the 2000-year history of German Jewry. It symbolizes, in fact, a widely-shared determination to confront the past and to apply its lessons to societal problems of today and tomorrow.
By presenting a chronological history of the Jews from their earliest settlement in the areas that became the German-speaking lands through the present, it reminds the visitor, especially non-Jewish Germans, Peck points out:
. . . that the Jew is not an "other," an exoticized foreigner who does not belong, but an integral part of a historical German identity. While the urge to harmonize German-Jewish identity is understandable, I would suggest that this exhibition is also a contentious site for definitions of what it means to be German as well as Jewish.
Throughout the exhibition, Jews in their many historical and religious incarnations are presented as an integral part of the German tradition, one that stretches back thousands of years to the time, where the exhibition begins, when the "Children of Israel were expelled from the Holy Land and first came to the Germanic lands." One sees how Jews not only tried to participate in German society that would create the so-called German-Jewish symbiosis that was destroyed by the Nazis, but also that this interrelationship was longstanding. The exhibit declares that, "From the beginning, the history of what is now Germany was a German-Jewish history" and "Jewish merchants were among the first inhabitants of medieval German cities. Often they were among their founders."
Germany's Jewish community, Peck believes,
. . . has a symbolic value beyond the numbers. Although the new community may not be enough to guarantee that Jews will never be the targets of prejudice or attack . . . its mere presence carries weight and makes a powerful statement. It represents the defeat of Hitler's Final Solution, and hope for acceptance of diversity in a country that, unlike the U.S., defined itself for a long time as only white and Christian.
On a January 1996 visit to Germany, Israeli President Ezer Weizman declared that he "cannot understand how 40,000 Jews can live in Germany," and asserted that "The only place for Jews is in Israel. Only in Israel can Jews live full Jewish lives."
Professor Peck rejects such a notion, and shows how German Jews reacted to it. Ignatz Bubis, then head of Germany's main Jewish organization, responded, "I have lived here since 1945 and have met two new generations who simply do not identify with the Nazis. This is a new generation."
Arguing that a Jewish presence in Germany prevents Hitler from achieving his posthumous victory of a "Judenrein" Germany, Bubis declared:
The full revival of the Jewish community in post-war Germany is important. . . . There is no reason to say that Jews cannot live in Germany.
While a proud Jew, he was also proud to be as the title of his memoir emphasizes, "A German citizen of the Jewish faith." Peck Writes:
As Israelis like Weizman tried to isolate German Jews Bubis often had to remind non-Jewish Germans that he did not want to be turned from a German into an Israeli simply because he was Jewish.
Alice Brauner, one of a group called "The Young Jews of Berlin" exemplifies this positive attitude: "I won't emigrate. On the contrary, our roots in this country cannot be broken." The daughter of film producer Arthur Brauner who returned to Germany after the war calls herself a "Jewish Berliner with German citizenship." Brauner calls Germany home: "We stay because we are at home here and feel at home here."
The optimism of those who are working to enhance Jewish life in today's Germany is reported through the many people with whom Jeffrey Peck spoke in the preparation of this book. The Lauder Foundation, now housed in its own Lehrhaus (learning center) -- named after an institution founded by Franz Rosenweig in the 1920s -- is headed by a young rabbi, Josh Spinner, who was born in Baltimore and grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. Peck reports that:
He was lively, engaged, energetic, and clearly committed to the future of Jewish life in Germany. He felt that God had brought the Jews to Germany, and it was his job to do what he could to make a Jewish life possible, no matter where it might be.
Another rabbi active in Berlin is Yehuda Teichtel, a native of Brooklyn who heads Chabad Lubavitch. Teichtel's plans for an enlarged Chabad Center in a new building testify to the future he sees for a flourishing Jewish life in Germany. He believes that the greatest service to the six million killed is the establishment of Jewish life on German soil to prove Hitler wrong.
Interviews with prominent leaders of the Jewish community in Germany and with American directors of important Jewish institutions now located in Berlin convince Peck that:
Jewish life, even with its many problems . . . offers optimism and potentially a vehicle for improving transatlantic relations. The sheer presence of a Jewish population with a variety of religious orientations . . . paints a picture of a thriving and vibrant community.
Transatlantic relations might be improved if more Americans, especially Jewish Americans, know more about the complexities of Jewish life in Germany and the role of German politics and culture in European-wide relations. During the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) 2004 conference in Berlin on anti-Semitism, the fact that Berlin was the capital of Nazi Germany and now the location of such a meeting, was cited by almost all of the prominent participants. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer welcomed the guests with these words:
The German government has invited you all to this conference in Berlin -- in our capital, in the city that almost seventy years ago, not far from here, the destruction of European Jewry was decided, planned and instituted. We, as hosts, want to acknowledge the historical and moral responsibility of Germany for the Shoa. The memory of this monstrous crime against humanity will also influence German politics in the future.
Dr. Peck laments that:
Unfortunately, Germany is still often identified in the U.S. exclusively with past Nazi horrors rather than with its postwar democratic and liberal successes. The site of the OSCE Conference was to demonstrate dramatically Germany's commitment to combating anti-Semitism.
In his description of the rebirth of the German Jewish community, Jeffrey Peck argues that there is, indeed, a vibrant and significant future for Jews in Germany. He also speculates that contemporary European Jewry can transform Judaism to be more inclusive, which he feels would be an important step forward. It is essential, Peck declares, that Americans in general and American Jews in particular see today's Germans and contemporary Germany as they really are, and not as reflected in memories of the Nazi era. It is also essential, he believes, that Israelis abandon the idea that Jews living outside of its borders are, somehow, in "exile," and that genuine Jewish life cannot exist in the larger world and, in particular, in a country so burdened with history as Germany.
Sharing the idea that a thriving and growing Jewish community in Germany is, indeed, a final defeat for Hitler, Jeffrey Peck is optimistic about the future. His book deserves widespread attention. *
"Many a time I have wanted to stop talking and find out what I really believed." --Walter Lippmann
We would like to thank the following people for their generous support of this journal (from 5/11/07 to 6/9/07): Nancy M. Bannick, Reid S. Barker, James M. Broz, David G. Budinger, D. J. Cahill, Robert T. Cristensen, Michael D. Detmer, Nicholas Falco, John B. Gardner, Robert W. Garhwait, Joyce Griffin, Daniel J. Haley, Weston N. Hammel, Mrs. Thomas E. Heatley, Mr. & Mrs. Ken E. Kampfe, Gloria Knoblauch, Daniel Maher, Paul Maxwell, Thomas J. McGreevy, Delbert H. Meyer, Clark Palmer, David Renkert, Patrick L. Risch, Heidi Schumache, Frank T. Street, Thomas H. Webster, Gaylord T. Willett.