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Ghettos and Anti-Ghettos:
An Anatomy of the New Urban Poverty*

Loïc Wacquant
Interview by Peter Beilharz
The Racial Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology,
an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions
(which are psychologically and socially functional),
producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand
the world they themselves have made. i)
The claim above, which Charles W. Mills had been referring to race relations system in the US, recalls a key tool for the task of governing, shaping, and planning the future of any society.
Public policies rise from and rely on both drawing an ontology and anticipating a fate. The ascension of neoliberalism – roughly, market deregulation, state decentralization, reduced political intervention in national economies, although there is no convergence toward a common set of neoliberal institutionsii)– which marked the last quarter century was made possible by the shared belief into a vision and a diagnosis that convincingly reframed the world as we knew it. Conservative rhetoric of multiculturalism and progressive refutation of welfare were the two bipartisan axesiii)that held up a new governance engaged in both denying the asymmetrically group-based consequences of the economic policies implemented, and pointing out the persistent racial and subcultural disadvantages as residual and contrasting traces of an obsolete, albeit resistant, world.
The most visible marks of this complex discursive politics are in the inner cities of the United States and other wealthy countries, due to the profound effect that neoliberal policies are having on the nature and direction of urbanization, and – adversely, in a striking perception and representation – the relative, surrounding and supporting arguments aimed at dissimulating such material and cultural shift. While recent economic strategies, state agendas and spatial logics produce urban landscapes marked by impressive levels of inequality and social exclusion – in a macropolitical realignment that makes urban governance one of the strategic sites for fundamental transformations of national statehoodiv) – a rudimentary yet coherent system of discursive strategies disguises the causal relations network underlying a project of economic restructuring as the randomly fragmented constellation of a diverse logical stage deemed to be overcome or left behind.
Any public policy is involved in a circle of decision-making and narrative-sharing that fuels legitimation and trust. Policy design consists of blueprints, architecture, discourses, and aesthetics of policy in both its instrumental and symbolic forms, and its several components include target populations, goals or problems to be solved, rules of engagement for the policy, rationales to legitimate the policy, and assumptions about the components of the design and how they work together to solve problems. But the self-reproductiveness of policy – its capacity to become a plan – is internally linked to the properties of groups it affects or ignores: in other words, government has great motivation to pass laws and create policies that are supportive of those who have social and/or economic power, therefore policies are largely designed to help those who are already advantaged (rich or middle class) and to exclude the deviants (poor or criminals). In the neoliberal era public policy in the United States (and in the most part of western countries) is marked by a contradiction between the ideal of equality and the reality of an underclass of marginalized and disadvantaged people who are widely viewed as undeserving and incapable. The use of power and the manipulation of images have made it appear both natural and appropriate that some target populations benefit from policy, while others do not. These social constructions of deservedness and entitlement, unless challenged, become amplified over time and institutionalized into permanent lines of social, economic, and political cleavage. Public policy sends messages harmful to democracy and contributes significantly to the pattern of uneven political participation in the United Statesv).
Yet cities also are key arenas for contesting neoliberal politics and proposing alternative imaginaries. As any identity isintrinsically open (it is posited by entailing something different from it), the path to a strengthened democracy starts from the reconfiguration of dominant discursive structures (the articulatory practices which constitute and organize social relations) towards a renewed meaningful system organized around new signifiers able to institute common projects from a variety of dispersed elements: as self-identities are made of otherness, neoliberal policies harbor and nurture a different logic in their embodied meanings. This means that the downfall of liberalism will happen when its diverse and numerous contestations – such as antiprivatization struggles in Bolivia and South Africa, or antisweatshop and living wage initiatives – will get condensed in a new historical block of interests incarnated into epistemes and practices crossing and tightening subjectivities currently isolated or loosely connected: «Revolution often occurs when least expected, suggesting that we should be wary of predictions that neoliberalism as we have known it is here to stay»vi).
(Massimo Gelardi)
* * *
In Urban Outcasts, you draw a methodical comparison between the evolution of the black American ghetto and the French popular periphery or banlieue over the past three decades. Why did you undertake this comparison and what does it reveal about the changing face of poverty in the city?
This book was born of the confluence of two shocks, the first personal and the second political. The personal shock was the first-hand discovery of the black American ghetto – or what remains of it – when I moved to Chicago and lived for six years on the edge of the city’s South Side. Coming from France, I was appalled by the intensity of the urban desolation, racial segregation, social deprivation, and street violence concentrated in this terra non grata that was universally feared, shunned, and denigrated by outsiders, including by many scholars.
The political shock was the diffusion of a moral panic about ghettoization in France and through much of Western Europe. In the 1990s, the media, politicians, and even some researchers came to believe that working-class neighborhoods at the periphery of European cities were turning into “ghettos” on the pattern of the United States. And so public debate and state policy were reoriented toward fighting the growth of these so-called ghettos, based on the premise that urban poverty was being “Americanized,” that is, stamped by deepening ethnic division, rising segregation and rampant criminality.
Bring these two shocks together and you have the question that animated a decade of research: are the US ghetto and the European lower-class districts with concentrations of immigrants converging and, if not, what is happening to them? And what is driving their transformation? To answer these questions, I gathered statistical data and carried out field observation in a dilapidated section of Chicago’s “Black Belt” and in a deindustrializing suburb of the “Red Belt” of Paris located between Roissy airport and the capital. I also reconstructed their historical trajectory, because you cannot understand what happened to these declining neighborhoods in the 1990s without considering the full sweep of the twentieth century, stamped by the bloom and then the demise of Fordist industrialism and the Keynesian welfare state.
So what happened to the American Black Belt and the French Red Belt, and are they converging?
On the American side, I show that, after the riots of the 1960s, the black ghetto imploded, or collapsed onto itself if you wish, due to the concurrent retraction of the market economy and retrenchment of the social state. The result was a new urban form that I call the hyperghetto, characterized by double exclusion on the basis of race and class and reinforced by a state policy of welfare withdrawal and urban abandonment. So when we speak about the American ghetto we must imperatively historicize it and not confound the “communal ghetto” of the 1950s with its fin-de-siècle descendant. The communal ghetto was a parallel world, a “black city inside the white,” as the African-American sociologists St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton put it in their master-book Black Metropolis. It served as reservoir of unskilled labor for factories and its dense web of organizations offered a buffer against white domination. With deindustrialization and the shift to financial capitalism, the hyperghetto does not have an economic function and it is stripped of communal organizations, which have been replaced by state institutions of social control. It is an instrument of naked exclusion, a mere receptacle for the stigmatized and surplufluous fractions of the black proletariat: the unemployed, welfare recipients, criminals and participants in the booming informal economy.
On the French side, the reigning media and policy perception turns out to be dead wrong: lower-class boroughs have undergone a process of pauperization and gradual decomposition that has taken them away from the pattern of the ghetto. A ghetto is an ethnically homogenous enclave that contains all the members of a subordinate category and their institutions, and prevents them from fanning into the city. Now, declining banlieues are very mixed and have become more diverse in terms of ethnic recruitment over the past three decades; they typically contain a majority of French citizens and immigrants from two to three dozen nationalities. The growing presence of these postcolonial migrants results from a decrease in their spatial separation: they used to be barred from public housing and thus more segregated. And the residents who rise in the class structure through the school, the labor market or entrepreneurship quickly leave these degraded areas.
The Red Belt banlieues have also lost most of the local institutions tied to the Communist Party (to which they owed their moniker) that used to organize life around the triad of factory, union, and neighborhood, and give people collective pride in their class and city. Their ethnic heterogeneity, porous boundaries, decreasing institutional density and incapacity to create a shared cultural identity make these areas the opposite of ghettos: they are anti-ghettos.
This goes against the grain of the image painted by the French media, politicians of both Right and Left, and activists mobilized around issues of immigration, race and citizenship, especially after the wave of riots that swept the lower-class banlieues in November 2005.
This is a good illustration of a key contribution of sociology to civic debate: through precise conceptualization and systematic observation, it discloses the yawning gaps – in this case a total contradiction – between public perception and social reality. Immigrants and their children in the French city have become more mixed, not more separated; their social profile and opportunities are becoming more similar to those of native French people, not more different, even as they suffer higher rates of unemployment. They are become more diffused in space, not more concentrated. It is precisely because they are now more “integrated” in the mainstream of national life and compete for collective goods that they are seen as a menace, and that xenophobia has surged forth among the native fractions of the working class threatened by downward mobility.
What the urban peripheries of Western Europe suffer from is not ghettoization but the dissolution of the traditional working class caused by the normalization of mass unemployment and the spread of unstable and part-time jobs, as well as vilification in public debate. In effect, the discourse of “ghettoization” partakes of the symbolic demonization of lower-class districts, which weakens them socially and marginalizes them politically.
Urban Outcasts demonstrates that the thesis of “convergence” between Europe and America on the model of the black ghetto is wrong empirically and misleading policy wise. Then it goes on to reveal the “emergence” of a new regime of urban poverty on both sides of the Atlantic, distinct from the regime of the preceding half-century anchored in stable industrial work and the safety net of the Keynesian state. This advanced marginality is fed by the fragmentation of wage labor, the reorientation of state policy away from social protection and in favor of market compulsion, and the generalized resurgence of inequality – that is, it is marginality spawned by the neoliberal revolution. This means that it is not behind us, but ahead of us. It is bound to persist and grow as governments implement policies of economic deregulation and commodification of public goods. But this new social reality, generated by the scarcity and instability of work and the changing role of the state, is obfuscated by the ethnicized idiom of immigration, discrimination, and “diversity.” The latter are real issues, to be sure, but they are not the driving force behind the marginalization of Europe’s urban periphery. Worse, they serve to hide the new social question of insecure work and its consequences for the formation of the new urban proletariat of the twenty-first century.
In the book, you stress the collective indignity felt by people stuck in the hyperghetto and the deindustrialized banlieue. The residents of the Black Belt have lost race pride and their counterparts of the Red Belt have lost class pride. You argue that “territorial stigmatization” is a novel dimension of urban marginality in both America and Europe on the brink of the new century.
Indeed, one of the distinctive features of advanced marginality is the suffusive spatial stigma that discredits people trapped in neighborhoods of relegation. In every advanced society, a number of urban districts or towns have become national symbols and namesakes for all the ills of the city: Clichy-sous-Bois (where the November 2005 riots started) in France, Moss Side in Manchester for England, Berlin-Neuköln for Germany, the South Bronx for New York, etc. This growing defamation of the bottom districts of the metropolis is a direct consequence of the political weakening of African Americans on the US political scene and of the working class on the European political scene. When a district is widely perceived as an urban “hellhole” where only the detritus of society would tolerate living, when its name is synonymous with vice and violence in journalistic and political discussion, a taint of place becomes superimposed onto the stigmata of poverty and ethnicity (meaning “race” in the United State and colonial origin in Europe). Here I draw on the theories of Erving Goffman and of my teacher Pierre Bourdieu to highlight how the public disgrace afflicting these areas devalues the sense of self of their residents and corrodes their social ties. In response to spatial defamation, residents engage in strategies of mutual distancing and lateral denigration; they retreat into the private sphere of the family; and they exit from the neighborhood (whenever they have the option). These practices of symbolic self-protection set off a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby negative representations of the place end up producing in it the very cultural anomie and social atomism that these representations claim were already there.
Territorial stigmatization not only undermines the capacity for collective identification and action of lower-class families; it also triggers prejudice and discrimination among outsiders such as employers and public bureaucracies. The young men from La Courneuve, the stigmatized Red Belt town outside of Paris I studied, constantly complained that they must hide their address when they apply for jobs, meet girls or attend the university outside their city, to avoid negative reactions of fear and rejection. The police are particularly susceptible to treating them more severely when officers find out that they come from this tainted town widely seen as a fearsome “ghetto.” Territorial stigma is one more obstacle on the path to socioeconomic integration and civic participation.
Note that the same phenomenon is observed in Latin America, among dwellers of the ill-reputed favelas of Brazil, the poblaciones of Chile, and the villas miserias of Argentina. I suspect that the residents of Villa del Bajo Flores, La Cava or Villa de Retiro in Buenos Aires know too well what “address discrimination” is. This territorial stigma attaches to these lower districts of the Argentine city for the same reason that it coalesces around the hyperghetto of the United States and the anti-ghettos of Europe: the concentration in them of the jobless, the homeless, and paperless migrants, as well the lower fractions of the new urban proletariat employed in the deregulated service economy. And the tendency of state elites to use space as a “screen” to avoid facing problems rooted in the transformation of work.
Does not this territorial stigma facilitate the turn to the penal state and the implementation of the policy of “zero tolerance,” whose global spread you analyzed in your previous book Les Prisons de la misère[1]?
Spatial taint grants the state increased latitude to engage in aggressive policies of control of the new marginality that can take the form of dispersal or containment, or better yet combine the two approaches. Dispersal aims at scattering the poor in space and recapturing the territories that they traditionally occupy, under the pretext that their neighborhoods are devilish “no-go areas” that simply cannot be salvaged. It is currently at work in the mass demolition of public housing at the heart of the historic ghetto of the US metropolis and in the pauperized peripheries of many European cities. Thousands of housing units are destroyed overnight and their occupants are disseminated in adjacent areas or poor districts further out, creating the appearance that “the problem has been resolved”. But dispersing the urban poor only makes them less visible and less disruptive politically; it does not give them work and grant them a viable social status.
The second technique for dealing with the rise of advanced marginality takes the opposite tack: it seeks to concentrate and contain the disorders generated by the fragmentation of work and the destabilization of ethnic (racial or national) hierarchy by throwing a tight police dragnet around neighborhood of relegation and by expanding the jails and prisons in which their more unruly elements are chronically exiled. This punitive containment is typically accompanied on the social welfare front by measures designed to force recipients of public aid into the substandard slots of the deregulated service economy, under the name of “workfare” (I describe the invention in the United States of this new politics of poverty wedding restrictive “workfare” and expansive “prisonfare” in my next book, Punishing the Poor[2]). But the policy of mano dura or “zero tolerance” is also self-defeating. Throwing the jobless, the marginally employed and petty criminals behind bars makes them even less employable and further destabilizes lower-class families and neighborhoods. Deploying the police, the courts, and the prison to curb marginality is not only enormously costly and inefficient; its aggravates the very ills it is supposed to cure. And thus we reenter the vicious circle pointed out long ago by Michel Foucault: the very failure of the prison to solve the problem of marginality serves as justification for its continued expansion.
Moreover, in Argentina and neighboring countries which went trough decades of authoritarian rule in the twentieth century, the police is itself a vector of violence and the judicial apparatus is rife with inequity. So rolling out the penal state at the bottom of the order of classes and places is tantamount to reestablishing a dictatorship over the marginal fractions of the working class. It violates in practice the ideal of democratic citizenship that theoretically guides the authorities. What the state needs to fight is not the symptom, criminal insecurity, but the cause of urban disorder: namely, the social insecurity that the state itself has spawned by becoming the diligent handmaiden to the despotism of the market.


[*]The interview was published on “Thesis Eleven”, n. 94, 2008, pp. 113-118.
i) C.W. MILLS, The Racial Contract, Cornell University Press, Ithaca (NY) 1997, p. 18. Now see S. SULLIVAN, N. TUANA (eds.), Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, State University of New York Press, New York (NY) 2007.
ii) J.L. CAMPBELL, O.K. PEDERSEN (eds.), The Rise of Neoliberalism and Institutional Analysis, Princeton University Press, Princeton (NJ) 2001.
iii) See L. DUGGAN, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, Beacon Press, Boston (MA) 2004.
iv) N. BRENNER, New Urban Spaces: Urban Governance and the Rescaling of Statehood, Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York (NY) 2004. See also E.W. SOJA, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, Verso, New York (NY) & London 1989; M. LAGUERRE, Minoritized Space. An Inquiry into the Spatial Order of Things, Institute of Governmental Studies University of California Press, Berkeley (CA)/Los Angeles (CA)/London 1999; N. BRENNER-N. THEODORE (eds.), Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford & Malden (MA) 2003; S. LOW, N. SMITH, The Politics of Public Space, Routledge, New York (NY) & London 2005; P. DREIER, J. MOLLENKOPF, T. SWANSTROM, Place Matters: Metropolitics For The Twenty-First Century, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence (KS) 2005, 2nd edition revised.
v) A.L. SCHNEIDER, H.M. INGRAM (eds.), Deserving and Entitled: Social Constructions and Public Policy, State University of New York Press, New York (NY) 2005. See also F. FISCHER, Reframing Public Policy: Discursive Politics and Deliberative Practices, Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York (NY) 2003.
vi) H. LEITNER, E.S. SHEPPARD, K. SZIARTO, A. MARINGANTI, Contesting Urban Futures: Decentering Neoliberalism, in H. LEITNER, J. PECK, E.S. SHEPPARD (eds.), Contesting Neoliberalism: Urban Frontiers, Guilford Press, New York (NY) 2006, p. 22.
[1] Italian translation: Parola d’ordine: tolleranza zero. La trasformazione dello stato penale nella società neoliberale, Feltrinelli, Milano 2000 (enlarged edition, with a postface).
[2] Italian translation: Punire i poveri: il nuovo governo dell’insicurezza sociale, DeriveApprodi, Roma 2006.
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