Colonizing Harlem: Part 3 - The Quintessential American Ghetto

By Doctor Comrade

[This is part 3 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 2: A Colonized Population | Part 4: Medicalization and the Cure for Black Culture]


Harlem became the metonymic American ghetto because it was “linguistically asserted and historically elaborated” by clasping together the material conditions of the Harlem ghetto with the cultural attributions from white narratives about black lives more generally, embodying the epistemological strategy Said articulated in his analysis of the West’s construction of the Orient.[1] The significance of Harlem in the American imagination was further elaborated by social science that claimed legitimate knowledge of Harlem and its people by conveying a discourse legitimized by objective scientific expertise. Constructing this vision of Harlem and its inhabitants drew on decades of statistical research that posited an essential character endemic to black ghettos, a static and measurable behavior that proved that blacks occupied broken spaces and bred broken children.[2] This anthropological view facilitated flattening African-American culture into a single typology, which produces a coherent “underclass” while at the same time “render[ing] invisible a wide array of complex cultural forms and practices.”[3] These scientific practices then translated geographically demarcated places into ghettos, placing them apart from white spaces by distinguishing their itinerant cultural systems.

As much as the Moynihan Report typified the complete replacement of scientific with cultural racism, it was produced within a scientific discourse that had existed since the late-nineteenth century. Historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad argued that publication of crime and population statistics in 1890 inaugurated the objective scientific study of black criminality. For the first time, statistical data, particularly about prisons and crime in black areas, became the “basis of a national discussion about blacks as a distinct and dangerous criminal population.”[4] Progressive-Era theorists, under the guise of “objective, color-blind, and incontrovertible” social science, established “the fundamental racial and cultural differences between African Americans and native-born whites and European immigrants.”[5] Muhammad contends that because statistics appeared to be color-blind, they became potent indicators of racial difference and objective measures of the black pathology that marked blacks as culturally inferior. In addition to fueling white anxieties about black populations during the Great Migration, these crime statistics also encouraged black elites to distance themselves from “criminally inclined” poor blacks, and they chose to engage in discourses of racial uplift and respectability politics that defined black criminality as part of street culture.[6] In later decades, black elites would document ghetto pathologies in endeavors to improve black neighborhoods, such as the mayor of Harlem declaring that “These groups, by street speeches, infiltration and subversion, have managed to instill their viewpoint into a certain element of the people of Harlem, namely: the immature youth, the unthinking adult, the neurotic and the opportunistic individual who already have anti-social leanings.”[7]

The systems of knowledge represented by social scientific data reflect the discourses of inferiority articulated by colonial administrators and European researchers in the imperial age. Said argued that Orientalist discourse continually referred to rhetorical figures like the “mysterious East,” the “African [or Indian or Irish or Jamaican or Chinese] mind,” and “barbaric peoples.”[8] Attempting to know the ghetto as an academic exercise as well as articulations of black pathology fit neatly into this kind of Orientalist discourse. For this reason, viewing Harlem as a colonial possession helps historians contextualize the characterization of black culture as a political project, reinforcing structures of power and hierarchy, and how Harlem’s essential character could be translated and applied to American ghettos in general (which is perhaps why social researchers studied Harlem so intently while making pronouncements about black families in every northern city).

Viewed from this perspective, racial discourses about Harlem and the ghetto construct blackness as an attribute of the ghetto, which marks ghettos as racialized spaces. This demonstrates that race does not precede racism; rather, race is constructed during specific political and intellectual projects as the justification for structures of power.[9] Academic research on black cultural pathology undoubtedly infiltrated journalism and the way journalists broadcast these kinds of racial ideologies to predominantly white audiences. Not only did headlines from the 1960s declare that “Harlem [is the] Crater of Violence in the North” or “Residents of East Harlem Found to Have Ingredients for Violence,” but even optimistic portrayals of Harlem entreated audiences to images of dysfunction. For example, one journalist insinuated in 1974 that despite positive developments, America’s most famous black community had experienced worsening conditions since the 1960s because more people were on welfare and “only one of every three families in central Harlem has both the husband and wife.”[10] He continued, saying “While optimism centers on 125th street, just around the corner on Eighth Avenue, the addicts stand around in bunches, waiting for the connections. Down a few blocks away from Main Street, there are still rows of houses that resemble the bombed out areas of Europe after World War II,” and even Harlem’s success stories exist in a “disaster area.”

Encouraged by the awareness of Harlem’s destitution, journalists also explained that its ills could be cured by medicine. In an article titled “Curing Violence” from 1990, one journalist praised Dr. Peter Stringham, a black doctor from Harlem, who was “one of a growing number of doctors who treat violence as a disease.”[11] The article praises medical professionals who have learned to treat white and black patients differently because they are aware that black adolescents are predisposed to violence; Stringham is quoted as saying that they are “violent because that’s just the way it is for a lot of young guys.” Comparing violence to disease, the author concludes that Stringham hopes that “if he can treat enough families, avoiding violence will make as much sense as getting shots against diphtheria.” The use of the word “families,” rather than “patients,” is significant in this instance: clearly, both doctor and journalist believe, like Moynihan had argued three decades before, that family structure was the root cause of violence. Additionally, they believe that treating violence as a disease should be a normal part of medical practice, which in turn naturalizes the presumption that black people must be treated differently because their culture predilections demand increased scrutiny from educated elites.

In a New York Times article from 1994, a journalist observed that “With the collapse of so many families, and with conditions having deteriorated in so many cities, it is right and probably inevitable that the public schools would take a heightened role in raising the urban young.”[12] He quotes Dr. Lorraine Monroe, the principal of the prestigious Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, who explained that schools should play a larger role in training black students to be better citizens. In essence, the school system could vaccinate the community, “a vivid example of how to solve a problem by preventing it.” Not only does this rhetoric invoke a medical view of black pathology, but it also further denigrates black parents by blaming inner-city violence and decay on insufficient parenting. Mirroring Moynihan, these quotations suggest that the absence of black fathers and the inability of black mothers to impart correct cultural norms to black children remain the fundamental cause of urban poverty. And where parents had failed, the state should intervene to correct their mistakes, reminiscent of re-education campaigns carried out by colonial administrators in Kenya, Australia, and the western United States.[13]

The publication dates of these articles are instructive as well: both appeared in the 1990s, almost three decades after the controversy surrounding the Moynihan Report. Not only does this illustrate the resilience of the conception of black pathology, but it also demonstrates how assertions of black cultural inferiority had become normal by the end of the twentieth century. Here again, viewing Harlem as a colonized space is helpful for historians to understand the pervasive racial imagery of discourses about urban decay: Said argued that “Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with domination.”[14] Authors, from Muhammad’s demographers to Moynihan and 1960s sociologists to journalists and public health officials in the 1990s, are always articulating the inferiorities of black culture, justifying cultural racism and the normality of the resultant social hierarchy. This was historically achieved by attacking black families and drawing scientific links between family structure, crime, violence, and urban decay.

When scholars or journalists write about Harlem, they are also always writing about black America. Appealing to Harlem as both the hub of black culture and the center of northern, urban, black violence illustrates that problems with Harlem are discursively connected to every other urban community. In many instances, journalists and scholars begin their pieces by stating that Harlem is America’s most (in)famous black community, which empowers them to speak to the universality of black pathology because its most representative community experiences all of black pathology’s most visible manifestations: poverty, violence, family decay, and crime.

Disease metaphors pervade literature about black crime, likening criminality to a disease that spreads by cultural osmosis. As journalists explored the terrain of Harlem’s ghetto culture, they relied on experts to diagnose and explain the genesis of black crime. In a New York Times article from 1989, one journalist attempted to reveal the “grim seeds” of a serious assault in Harlem, observing that “anthropologists and sociologists who have studied East Harlem outline a chilling picture of how the street culture there could have fostered a rampage that otherwise appears senseless…. [In] a neighborhood where extreme violence is common… sociologists and anthropologists say the attack may have emerged from several underlying currents in the community.”[15] The explanation offered by these experts, many of whom were quoted in the article despite never having studied Harlem, testified that “even children of working-class parents who are trying to enforce discipline and morality can be affected by the norms of the culture.” Using the term “norms” here is especially instructive because it asserts that violence, and the culture that creates it, is completely normal in urban communities like Harlem. More importantly, citing scholars who have never researched Harlem illustrates how discourses about Harlem always implicitly indict other black communities, allowing Harlem to stand in as the quintessential example of American ghettos and black pathology.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: A Colonized Population
Part 4: Medicalization and the Cure for Black Culture


[1] Terry Cochran, “The Matter of Language,” Boundary 2 25, no. 2 (July 1, 1998): 78.
[2] Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!, 9.
[3] Ibid., 17.
[4] Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness, 3.
[5] Ibid., 4.
[6] Ibid., 9–10.
[7] “‘Mayor’ Of Harlem Denounces Violence,” New Pittsburgh Courier, May 9, 1964; cf. Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Youth in the Ghetto.
[8] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994), xi.
[9] Bethencourt, Racisms, 4–6.
[10] Joel Dreyfuss, “Optimism Comes to Harlem: 10 Years After Riots, the Future Is Discussed,” The Washington Post, July 21, 1974.
[11] Alan Lupo, “Curing Violence,” Boston Globe, June 9, 1990.
[12] Bob Herbert, “Jewels in Harlem,” New York Times, February 16, 1994.
[13] Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2005); Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).
[14] Said, Culture and Imperialism, 9–10.
[15] Gina Kolata, “Grim Seeds of Park Rampage Found in East Harlem Streets,” New York Times, May 2, 1989.