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This Column Gets 'So Ghetto'

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON-Somebody should have warned Newt Gingrich to stay away from the "ghetto."

The word, I mean. If so, the former speaker of the House, who is weighing a presidential bid, could have avoided the embarrassment for which he is apologizing in Spanish in a video posted on YouTube with English subtitles.

In a video statement read in Spanish and subtitled in English, the Georgia Republican says his "word choice was poor" in a recent speech when he equated bilingual education with "the language of living in a ghetto."

What he meant to say, he says, is that, "In the United States it is important to speak the English language well in order to advance and have success."

Alas, poor Newt. As a journalist who occasionally has had the G-word stricken from my copy by cautious editors, I could have warned him. "Ghetto" means so many things to so many different people, that it is best avoided as a metaphor in mixed company unless you're trying to be, say, Grand Master Newt the rap artist.

Gingrich fell into an unexpected culture gap similar to the one that Sen. Joe Biden opened up by complimenting Sen. Barack Obama as "clean" and "articulate." On the bright side, such political gaffes offer rare opportunities for the rest of us to see how different cultures can draw vastly different meanings from the same words.

Gingrich didn't know it, but his G-bomb stepped into a bubbling black community controversy that has boiled over into mainstream American culture.

"Ghetto" originally referred to the areas of Venice, Warsaw and some other European cities into which Jews once were confined. Black activists in 1960s America embraced the word to label impoverished urban areas into which blacks had long been segregated.

But in recent years, the word increasingly has come to mean simply "low class," sometimes with irony, sometimes not.

Gingrich's gaffe coincides with the publication of a book he would have found helpful: "Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and the Home of the Shameless" by Cora Daniels, a contributing writer for Essence, Fortune, the New York Times and O: The Oprah Magazine, among others.

Her "journey" began, she says, with the sight of Paris Hilton on the reality TV show "The Simple Life" trying in vain to start up an old rusted pickup truck and observing, "This truck is so ghetto." At that moment, Daniels says she realized that "ghetto" is no longer a "black thing," but "an American thing."

Martha Stewart helped to confirm that when Daniels saw her boast on TV that she can "get ghetto" when she needs to. Not a good thing, Martha.

Daniels is not radical chic. She comes courageously to vilify "ghetto," not to praise it. With wit and wisdom, she explores and exposes the ghetto "mindset" that demeans women ("ho's," "bee-yatches"), devalues education ("acting white"), ridicules proper English ("talking white"), celebrates criminality ("gangsta love"), discards traditional parenthood ("babydaddies," etc.) and celebrates tacky fashion and behavior ("ghettofabulous").

She knew things had gone off the rails when, shopping for Halloween, she found "pimp" and "ho" costumes in pre-school sizes.

Or when she discovered that more than 1,200 babies were named Lexus in 2006, she reports.

Yet, Daniels writes with an undertone of love. She softens the inevitable "elitist" label that some critics have pinned on Bill Cosby by spreading the blame. Cosby famously chastised poor people three years ago for "not holding up their end in this deal." Daniels quite properly includes black middle-class Americans, like her and me, in her critique, too.

Daniels does not quite pin down the precise moment when the most self-destructive values took hold, if there is one. I would put it at the point when, as black novelist-journalist Jill Nelson tells her, "We lost hope." Our generation saw Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy and other great leaders rise, only to be violently snatched away from us. Then, Nelson recalls, "We smothered our kids in material stuff to insulate them from the pain."

We also saw the poorest of the black poor increasingly isolated in the economic ghettoes from which their more fortunate neighbors escaped. Like impoverished societies everywhere, our black poor created a new music and fashions from the resources they had available. Their art, as such, was then exploited ironically by better-off entertainment executives when they found big profits to be made, often in white suburbia.

At a time of great national argument over which is to blame for poverty - racism or bad habits - Daniels reveals how both share some blame. The first step toward improving our predicament, as Daniels tells us, is to improve the way we think about it.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

© 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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