Empty Days

Friday, February 06, 2004

Ghetto - in black and white

Watched America Beyond the Color Line on PBS the other day. It's in 4 parts and I especially liked the one called "South: the Black Belt" (how professional blacks are now returning to the southern states) and the other side of the coin, called "Chicago: Streets of Heaven", about those horrific housing projects - of which I have more or less vivid recollections of my own because a friend of mine once lived in such a housing in Lower East Side NYC - though of course it wasn't nowhere near as bad as the sights in similar places in Harlem and Brooklyne.

Of course it was the housing projects that really stirred my interest (and a visit to jail that went with it). Because the maker of the documentary is a well-respected and affable black activist he was able to take an insider's peek at the mentality underlining this kind of living. So the picture that emerged was much more realistic than the stale politico talk you mostly hear on these issues - not surprisingly, the people themselves have a much more sane view of it than the activists (including the filmmaker himself).

For instance there is this comment a girl from the projects made and it's really something crucial. She said: when I tried to tear myself away from this environment I realized that I had no skills at all to deal with the "outside" world. So she joined a support group to get her first "baby-steps". And if this doesn't sound like a convict coming out of a long prison term, I wonder what does. And it's worse than prison: people are born into these huge jails, generation after generation. That's the whole point - that these housing-projects are like huge prisons, where a different mentality exists, and it is this mentality that keeps you from getting out. Not the lack of jobs on the country and crap like that.

The word for this is ghetto. But in the politico talk ghetto primarily means an enclosure that is built to keep people outside of a larger community. Initially that's what it is. But shortly after a ghetto mentality is born, and after that you don't need to put up the fence: it's already installed in the mind. After that - if you want to pull someone out of the ghetto - you have to go in and take that person by the hand and lead him out, and show him the way.

All this is very similar to the immigrant community thing. It's basically also a ghetto - people have no clue whatsoever about how things really are on the outside. They have tremendously distorted ideas. And it takes some serious personal effort to tear yourself away from this. And by walking out on the community, you essentially forsake all support - you are not even an immigrant anymore, you're a total exile.

Which is why the project-housing part squares so nicely with the return-to-the-South movement - those are exiles returning to their horrible homeland, a few generations later. And what homeland will the project-exiles want to return to?

***

Throughout the documentary I kept thinking of those very similar high-rise project-housings in France - for the Arabs, and in Germany - for the Turks. I have a friend who is a German Turk (she was 4 years old when her parents went to work in Germany, and her Turkish is really bad - she's German-educated throughout). The way she was able to break with the ghetto was by running away with a boyfriend. Which demolished her relationship with her traditionalist family. So her biggest struck of luck was when she found a German-Turk women's support group. These people essentially became her second family and helped her get over the mentality that lingered despite all the breaking away. Which confirms my idea: it's really hard to get out on your own. And it goes without saying that racism towards Turks in Germany is a fact of life.





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