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The ghetto culture machine

What goes wrong when stereotypes become part of the mainstream

College and high school students throw "ghetto parties," at which white kids in blackface wear diamonds around their necks and grills on their teeth. Comedian Michael Richards utters a racial epithet on a comedy stage after some black men heckle him. Radio personality Don Imus calls the black members of Rutgers University's women's basketball team "nappy-headed ho s."

The incidents seem disconnected, but in the mind of writer Cora Daniels , they exemplify a change that has slowly engulfed mainstream culture. In her new book, "Ghettonation ," she calls these acts "ghetto." The word first described sections of European cities where Jews were forced to live, and became defined as neighborhoods where people of color reside because of social or economic hardships. But Daniels says it has broken away from those original meanings to become a mindset.

"Ghetto is no longer where you live -- it's how you live," she explains during an interview. "It's a mindset that embraces and celebrates the worst. . . . Behavior that shouldn't be acceptable has become acceptable and commonplace."

While many academics share Daniels's distaste for the development, they don't like the word she chose to describe it. "I wouldn't use it," says William Jelani Cobb , a history professor at Spelman College in Atlanta. "It's a loaded term, which doesn't serve to denote anything except a stereotypical view of a certain people." Some argue that the idea of ghetto is too complicated to remove it from its racial trappings, which explains why white people are called racist when they appropriate aspects of this culture.

"There are definitely white people who live in ghettos and might have access to ghetto culture," says Daren Graves , a professor of education at Simmons College. "Where it gets complicated is that race and class are so intermeshed in this society that since there's a disproportionate amount of blacks and Latinos who live in ghettos, it gets framed as only blacks and Latinos have ownership over this."

Lately cultural critics have blamed hip-hop culture for the dominance of these negative stereotypes. But doing so, some academics say, fails to take into account the role of hip-hop consumers -- predominantly white, suburban teenagers -- and media conglomerates that capitalize on fetishizing it. MTV's car - restoration show "Pimp My Ride " and rapper Snoop Dogg , who celebrates conquering women and smoking dope, become successes. Meanwhile shows such as MTV's "Run's House ," which follows the stable family of former Run-DMC member Joseph Simmons , and the music of socially conscious rappers such as Lupe Fiasco and Common barely capture attention.

"When you think of hard - rock bands and hair bands of the '80s," says Daniels, "that didn't take over and become the face of white men in the country. The problem now is there's no balance of images, no balance of voice."

The messages in today's rap lyrics differ greatly from the ones of self-determination and Afrocentricity that dominated in the 1980s. "Hip-hop was created as an art form by people who were oppressed as a counternarrative to the way they were being framed by mainstream culture," Graves says. "Now you have the quintessential example of that experience being co-opted, repackaged, and redistributed by mainstream industry for public consumption."

The stereotypes help media conglomerates make millions. On TV, you see elements of ghetto in VH-1's "Flavor of Love," which followed Public Enemy member Flavor Flav's quest to find a girlfriend. Its season finale last year was the highest-rated show in VH-1's history. Rappers such as 50 Cent and Young Jeezy rap relentlessly about selling drugs and gun violence. On Monday hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons recommended that radio stations consistently delete the use of three words, including "ho," in hip-hop songs.

But Emmett Price , a professor of music and African - American studies at Northeastern University, says the focus on the words misses the fact that an audience still wants music with this content. "It's hard to hold people morally and socially responsible when the people with money don't have to be," he says.

Price says a joke currently going around the hip-hop industry is that you have to have been shot three times in order to get a record contract. The wisecrack underscores one of the newer meanings of ghetto: authenticity. It's a way, says Price, of claiming, " 'I'm real. I'm a real gangsta. I'm a real hoodrat.' . . . There's privilege associated with being in these downcast and downtrodden situations. You'll find middle-class people who will dress down so they won't be identified with the middle class."

Pernicious associations
The imagery and terminology is so prevalent that Don Imus and Michael Richards resurrect it without much thought. What everyone fails to understand, some academics say, is that the relentless messages stereotype all blacks.

"If you see somebody who has gold teeth," says Cobb, "you can then use this shorthand. 'This person is ghetto.' And in the list of defining characteristics of ghetto it includes wearing gold teeth and doing car jackings."

Daniels uses the reality show "The Simple Life," starring socialites Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, to show how pernicious the word "ghetto" has become. In one episode, Hilton tries to start an old truck. When the engine fails to turn over after multiple tries, an exasperated Hilton says, "This truck is so ghetto."

The comment may have been made for laughs, but Daniels says, "You can't separate that she's using a word that in this country is associated with poor communities of color to now describe something that's broken up and beaten down."

So how did it come to be this way? Price believes the fascination is a byproduct of whites abandoning cities for what they considered the safety of the suburbs and the effect the move had on future generations.

"It's the children and the children's children of those people who removed themselves from the inner city so they wouldn't have to face the 'element,' " says Price. "They're going back to the inner city to see what their parents and grandparents didn't want them to have access to."

The kids "exoticize" black urban culture, says Graves, and act out what they learn in pop culture with "ghetto parties." Daniels says she has heard of some parties where students wear prison jumpsuits or have handcuffs hanging from their wrists. Cobb likens the activities to minstrelsy, the 19th-century entertainment in which white performers dressed in blackface and depicted blacks disparagingly.

When Price brought up the subject of ghetto parties in his Northeastern classroom, he says his white students reacted by saying, "So what? " They considered ghetto parties no more harmful than toga parties, says Price. Graves believes the students' inability to understand the inherent racism reflects the fact that many whites believe the problems of race were solved in the 1960s and 1970s. It doesn't help, says Cobb, that some black people find racism an embarrassing subject to discuss.

As a result, there remains a stark contrast between those who recognize racism and those who don't.

"The people who are oppressed say, 'How can you say this?' or 'How can you do this kind of thing?' " says Graves. "The structural aspect is so obvious to them because it's holding them down every day. And the people with privilege go, 'What's the big deal? Maybe it's wrong, but let's not get upset about this because it's just one incident,' because they're not aware of the structure in place that gives them privilege in the first place."