Colonizing Harlem: Part 2 - A Colonized Population

By Doctor Comrade

[This is part 2 of a four-part project on collective memory, the power of place, and the pathologization of blackness in American history. Part 1 is linked here. Part 3: The Quintessential American Ghetto | Part 4: Medicalization and the Cure for Black Culture]


In a widely quoted study in the New England Journal of Medicine from 1990, the authors cynically declared that “black men in Harlem were less likely to reach the age of 65 than men in Bangladesh.”[1] In the following years, this study was reported in numerous news outlets and other academic publications.[2] In fact, the study was so widely cited that authors began referring to it without footnoting or attribution.[3] What this statistic’s acceptance suggests is how the American inner-city has been constructed as so thoroughly decayed that authors are willing to denigrate it by comparing it to a supposedly Third World country, while simultaneously maligning Bangladesh as an accepted standard by which poverty, disease, and life expectancy are measured. If Harlem is worse than Bangladesh, then it must occupy what sociologist John Hagedorn calls the “Fourth World” of extreme poverty, resentment, and brutal struggle for survival.[4] As historian Robin D. G. Kelley has argued, the enduring images of Harlem have become the images of “the underclass,” “welfare queens,” “criminals,” and dysfunction, and therefore “We have been the thing against which normality, whiteness, and functionality have been defined.”[5] Kelley helps draw the distinction here between the ideal First World of white civilization and economic prosperity against the destitute Fourth World. He goes on to contend that academics have engaged in ghetto ethnography, diagnosing the pathological character of blacks as the primary reason for their impoverishment, so “the problems facing the vast majority of black folk in today’s ghettos lie not with government policy or corporate capitalism, but with the people themselves—our criminally minded youth, our deadbeat daddies, and our welfare-dependent mamas,” misconceptions that allow “black people [to be cast] as pathological products of broken families, broken economies, and/or broken communities.”[6] These academic claims were most visibly inaugurated by the Moynihan Report and subsequent studies of the failures of black fathers and matriarchal families.

The appearance and longevity of cultural racism is due in large part to the material conditions faced by African Americans in northern cities after the Great Migration.[7] When they emigrated from the Jim Crow South prior to the Second World War, African Americans expected to find new economic opportunities in cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland. What they discovered was, as historian Thomas Sugrue has observed, “complex and pervasive racial discrimination that greeted black laborers in the ‘land of hope’ ensured that they would suffer disproportionately the effects of deindustrialization and urban decline.”[8] In his seminal study of Detroit after World War II, Sugrue argued that these structural conditions prevented African Americans from achieving economic security or political equality. Segregation so effectively forced blacks into slums that in the postwar era, living in the inner city “became a self-perpetuating stigma… [that] reinforced white stereotypes of black people, families, and communities,” so “blackness and whiteness assumed a spatial definition.”[9] From this perspective, two oppositional poles took shape in the postwar city: white areas and non-white areas, which inscribed the physical locations with meanings and values according to the dominant (white) society.

Similarly, Harlem was racialized as a black ghetto and a symbol of urban decay: a once-great haven for artists that had collapsed under the burden of black pathology that rendered its population perpetually impoverished. This reveals similarities between studies of Harlem in the 1960s and studies of the Orient conducted by European researchers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Imagining Harlem as a colonized area has several benefits: first, it uncovers the discursive links between anthropology and ethnography that legitimized claims of cultural racism; second, it underscores the power of place in the popular imagination of those who delineated Harlem’s pathology, privileging the white areas; and third, it helps elucidate structures of power functioning to define and reinforce social hierarchy. Orientalism, as defined by post-colonial scholar Edward Said, describes the relations of power between the metropole and the colonized, which function as systems of knowledge and claims to truth. For Said, Orientalism is “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’” in which the Orient is dominated by “making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it…. This flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.”[10] In short, Orientalism is a system of knowledge that creates distinct power relations between the Orient and the Occident by establishing the requisite justifications of colonial domination. From this perspective, Kelley’s assertions about anthropologists can be interpreted in this post-colonial framework: “anthropology… has played a key role in marking ‘blackness’ and defining black culture to the ‘outside’ world” in order to “get a handle on the newest internal threat to civilization… terms like nihilistic, dysfunctional, and pathological have become the most common adjectives to describe contemporary black urban culture.”[11] Creating these systems of knowledge about black families in the 1960s allowed sociologists and anthropologists to conclude that “a common, debased culture is what defines the ‘underclass.’”[12] Necessarily, an underclass emerges only alongside an “overclass,” the white (European) culture which is considered normal and correct and which therefore justifies the positionality of the underclass.[13]

Said’s definitions of the Occident and the Orient encapsulate the ways in which Western scholars have deployed the notions of Oriental inferiority to describe African Americans. The terms Occident and Orient provide convenient metaphors for the positionality and relationality of white, affluent authors to their impoverished, Otherized, African-American subjects. For example, the Moynihan Report compares the family stability of white and black communities, which clearly demonstrates which family models are preferable.[14] The very presumption that black families’ failures could be diagnosed and cured by white researchers shows that the denigration of black culture was naturalized. Like colonial subjects, blacks must be represented by benevolent (and Orientalist) scholars. Spaces like Harlem became imbued with the values of the conquerors by establishing the boundaries between white and black (good and bad, metropole and colony).[15] These “ghetto ethnographers” succeeded in establishing an academic discourse in which ghetto families are culpable for their own shortcomings, a phenomenon against which the white families were allowed to demonstrate their cultural superiority.[16] The colonial context also reveals the shift from scientific to cultural racism: blacks were no longer targeted for their biological traits, but their cultural traits, which made them susceptible to poverty.

After the Moynihan Report’s initial publication in 1965, the editors of the journal Social Service Review declared that reading the report revealed nothing that sociologists did not already know, which suggests that black families were well-established scapegoats for urban poverty.[17] This is perhaps also demonstrated by the prevalence of media accounts that also blamed Harlem’s culture for its violence, poverty, and decay. One account published by the New York Times in 1964 declared that “considerable instability” in families accounted for Harlem’s violence, especially given that its declining population probably exiled its leadership class.[18] The article cites how “Only 75 per cent of central Harlemites live in families, as against 90 percent of the city’s residents. Among males 14 years and older, 19.1 per cent are separated from their wives, as against 3.3 percent citywide. The figures show females separated from husbands at 29.7 per cent, as against 6.2. Only half of central Harlem children under 18 live with both parents.” In an aptly titled article “Harlem: Crater of Violence in the North,” the Los Angeles Times declared that Harlem’s violence could be attributed to how “The infant mortality rate is double that of the city as a whole. There is three to eight times as much narcotics addiction, six times as many reported cases of venereal disease for those under 21 and nearly six times as many murders…. Harlem is such an ideal example of urban squalor that in 1962 a group of 90 Peace Corps members were trained there in preparation for their work in South America.”[19] Just a couple years later, a different New York Times article contended that residents of Harlem possessed the necessary ingredients for violence: “Mix deep frustration and idleness... and, according to residents of one block in the ghetto, one has the brew of the summer violence in East Harlem.”[20]

In each case, the authors asserted that moral decay from family instability was the cultural factor that catalyzed violence and crime. In totality, these discourses normalize the specter of violence in urban communities by assigning culpability to the people themselves rather than structural factors of racism, segregation, and political inequality. This epistemological formulation mirrors colonialist discourse by diagnosing the inherent inferiorities of black Americans in which elite institutions claim to possess the correct knowledge for why black people suffer.[21] In essence, positing culture rather than racism as the cause of urban decay allows whites to appear as though they are benevolent and objective purveyors of truth rather than complicit in constructions that reify inequality in collective imaginations of place.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 3: The Quintessential American Ghetto
Part 4: Medicalization and the Cure for Black Culture


[1] Colin McCord and Harold P. Freeman, “Excess Mortality in Harlem,” New England Journal of Medicine 322, no. 3 (January 18, 1990): 173.
[2] For example, Daniel Goleman, “Black Scientists Study the ‘Pose’ Of the Inner City,” The New York Times, April 21, 1992; Robin McKie, “Lifespan Crisis Hits Supersize America,” The Guardian, September 18, 2004; James A. Morone and Lawrence R. Jacobs, eds., Healthy, Wealthy, and Fair: Health Care and the Good Society, 1st edition (London: Oxford University Press, 2005); Josefina Figueira-McDonough, The Welfare State and Social Work: Pursuing Social Justice (Sage, 2007); Peter Conrad, ed., The Sociology of Health and Illness (Macmillan, 2008); Jonathan A Carr and Alessandro Di Rocco, “Letter to the Editor Concerning ‘Excess Mortality in Harlem,’” New England Journal of Medicine 322, no. 22 (May 31, 1990): 1606–7.
[3] For example, Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam, 1993), xvi; George Lipsitz, “We Know What Time It Is: Race, Class and Youth Culture in the Nineties,” in Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture, ed. Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose (New York: Routledge, 1994), 18.
[4] John M. Hagedorn, A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), xxvi.
[5] Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!, 3; cf. Harris, Little White Houses.
[6] Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!, 8–10.
[7] Segregation and pathologization in other urban areas has had similar effects on constructing racism towards other ethnic groups. For example, Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
[8] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 8.
[9] Ibid., 8–9.
[10] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Princeton, NJ: Vintage, 1979), 2–7.
[11] Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!, 16.
[12] Ibid., 18.
[13] Nicholas Owen, “‘Facts Are Sacred’: The Manchester Guardian and Colonial Violence, 1930–1932,” The Journal of Modern History 84, no. 3 (September 1, 2012): 645.
[14] Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, 5, 8, 9, 25.
[15] Edward W. Said, “Invention, Memory, and Place,” Critical Inquiry 26, no. 2 (2000): 177–182.
[16] Francisco Bethencourt, Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014), 4.
[17] “Notes and Comments: The Moynihan Report,” 84.
[18] Peter Kihss, “Harlem Riots Spread Over 3 Decades,” New York Times, July 20, 1964.
[19] Humbert Tosi, “Harlem: Crater of Violence in the North,” Los Angeles Times, July 26, 1964.
[20] McCandlish Phillips, “Residents of East Harlem Found To Have Ingredients for Violence,” New York Times, July 27, 1967.
[21] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 277.