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October 7th, 2020 12:15:22 am

Ghetto Abolitionism

Racial Justice for the 21st Century

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This essay argues that activist calls to “defund police” can be understood as normatively directed toward what Tommie Shelby calls “ghetto abolitionism,” the abolition of areas of concentrated poverty and racialized disadvantaged known colloquially as “ghettos.” In making the case for ghetto abolitionism, I distinguish it from the integrationist projects typical of 20th century racial justice movements, and present it as a form of restorative justice. With an appreciation of the reciprocal relationship between theory and practice, the goal of the essay is to link emerging forms of activism with a plausible normative framework, as well as to fortify this normative framework by demonstrating its applicability to activist work.

Ghetto Abolitionism: Racial Justice for the 21st Century

Andrew J. Pierce


In response to the question “what does an America with defunded police look like to you?” U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez answered “it looks like a suburb.” In spite of the changing demographics of suburbs, her answer remains insightful: in affluent White suburbs at least, residents are more likely to have effective access to a range of social services - mental health counseling, substance abuse rehabilitation programs, non-punitive youth intervention services – that deal with social problems in ways that don’t typically involve police. At the same time, lower rates of poverty, homelessness, and other social ills reduce the rates of petty crime and of regular, negative interactions with police. Suburban residents may go months, years, even lifetimes, without ever interacting with police, and when they do, it is more likely to be in the form of a mildly irritating traffic stop or an attempt to provide desired assistance or support.

By contrast, the residents of areas of concentrated poverty known as “ghettos,” are likely to interact with police far more frequently, often through aggressive, “broken windows” policing practices, “stop and frisk” racial profiling, and also simply as a result of living in impoverished areas with higher crime rates. The existence of ghettos is not accidental, nor is it a coincidence that they are disproportionately populated by Black and Brown Americans. Explicit government policies of redlining along with formal and informal segregation gave birth to racialized ghettos, and little has been done to dismantle them in the nearly 100 years since redlining began. To the contrary, decades of “tough on crime” policies, combined with an ineffective and racist “war” on drugs have constructed ghettos as enemy territories, policed by outsiders that behave like occupying armies, employing tactics barely distinguishable from military actions in warzones, except for the more extensive training and stricter rules of engagement involved in the latter.

The differences between ghetto and suburban life, and especially between the forms and experiences of policing in these places often lead to substantially different understandings of the Movement for Black Lives, and especially of increasing calls to “defund police.” To those who are not familiar with the Homan Square “black site” in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood or the history of Detroit’s STRESS Unit, who have no knowledge or experience of the “no-knock warrants” that took the life of Breonna Taylor, such calls might seem radical, and perhaps counterproductive to assuring public safety. Yet, as Representative Ocasio-Cortez notes, the goal of such a movement is actually something that many suburban Whites would find familiar: a well-rounded, adequately funded approach to public safety, community development, and social life.

This attempt to eradicate the unjust disadvantages that structure life in racialized ghettos can provide a positive normative vision undergirding calls to “defund police,” and guide alternative approaches to public safety, not to mention a more just social order generally. Philosopher Tommie Shelby refers to this broader normative project as “ghetto abolitionism.”[1] In this essay, I make the case for ghetto abolitionism as a useful normative framework for pursuing racial justice in the 21st century. I contrast it with the integrationism of 20th century racial justice movements, which often focused on moving folks out of disinvested Black and Brown communities, and into predominantly White schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. I also present ghetto abolitionism as a form of restorative justice - an alternative mode of reparations in lieu of individual cash payments.


What is a Ghetto? A Note on Terminology

I use the term “ghetto” with some trepidation, given the ways in which it has been co-opted by racist discourses to refer pejoratively not just to places, but also to persons and things perceived as being connected to those places. In spite of this usage, the term retains an original connotation worth preserving: a powerful moral condemnation of practices of spatial segregation and domination. Having etymological origins in the Venetian term gheto, it originally referred to the walled off parts of Venice where Jews were required to live. It retained this meaning well into the twentieth century, alongside the horrific warehousing and mass murder of Jews under Hitler’s regime. And while use of the term in the U.S. context significantly predates the Holocaust, applying the term to Black, Brown, Jewish, and other neighborhoods in the United States implies a similarly oppressive intent to segregate, dominate, and in some cases annihilate.[2] This was perhaps the intention of psychologist Kenneth Clark’s 1965 book Dark Ghetto, from which Shelby borrows the title of his own recent work. Even in its earliest uses, however, Black Americans sometimes objected to the derogatory connotation of the term – its implication that the neighborhoods in which many Black folks lived were somehow depraved, or inferior to those inhabited by Whites.

This is a complex tension which must be navigated thoughtfully. On the one hand, it is undeniable that there is something wrong in ghetto communities: concentrated poverty, disproportionate unemployment, higher crime rates, police brutality, etc. And yet, focusing solely on problems and deficits produces an inaccurate and harmfully one-dimensional picture of complex, resilient communities with much that is worth celebrating.[3] Similarly, there is a troubling and racist tendency among politicians, scholars, and the public (especially, though not exclusively, the White public) to locate the source of these problems in ghetto residents themselves: in a culture that allegedly valorizes delinquency, in allegedly deficient child-rearing practices, etc. The “progressive” alternative to these largely right-wing analyses can be similarly harmful, sometimes assuming that the oppression that ghetto residents endure wholly corrupts their agency, and thus treating them paternalistically as objects or targets of various interventions aimed at improving their unfortunate state.[4]   

To avoid these pitfalls, ghetto abolitionism must recognize that ghetto communities are not simply spaces of disadvantage and blight, but also vibrant centers of cultural production, political activism, and social meaning-making, and that ghetto residents are not simply victims of various matrices of oppression, but also active participants in shaping their and our collective social and political lives. Accordingly, scholars, policy-makers, and activists pursuing the ideal of ghetto abolition should strive to identify and empower ghetto residents themselves, drawing upon their experience and expertise, bringing outside resources to support insider visions of community development. The alternative is ghetto saviorism – colonialism disguised as anti-racism.

This last point relates to another terminological concern. The term “abolition,” despite its historically anti-racist connotations, could be misunderstood as an attempt to destroy or eliminate ghetto communities, or even ghetto residents themselves. When historian Noel Ignatiev called for the “abolition of whiteness,” many Whites heard this incorrectly as a call for White genocide. Whether or not those interpretations were in good faith (or even informed by an actual reading of Ignatiev’s work), this does illustrate the risk of a term commonly defined as “putting an end to” something. However, ghetto abolitionism has no interest in “putting an end to” Black and Brown neighborhoods, specifically or generally. As will become clear, that goal is more in line with integrationist practice, which, taken to its logical conclusion, would leave ghetto communities empty – devoid of residents and life. Moreover, the terminological consistency with powerful anti-racist projects, from the original abolitionism that condemned American chattel slavery to 20th century prison abolitionism, is an advantage that outweighs the risk of misunderstanding. Having addressed these terminological issues, let me now turn to a more detailed specification of what ghetto abolitionism entails, and how it relates to prior visions of racial justice.


Ghetto Abolitionism: An Intersectional Approach

Research shows that Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than White Americans to be killed by police.[5] Research also shows that police-involved fatalities are highest in census tracts with the greatest concentrations of low-income residents.[6] These two statistics are related, insofar as incidents of police-involved fatality occur with greater frequency in the low-income Black neighborhoods referred to here as ghettos. This does not mean that Black Americans are not at disproportionate risk of being victimized by police violence or discriminatory enforcement regardless of income, social status, or geographical location. Nor does it mean that the risks of police violence are not born also by Whites, especially poor Whites. But it does mean that an adequate understanding of police violence must be thoroughly intersectional, paying attention to both the racial and economic dimensions of the phenomenon, and the emergent properties of their specific combination.

Critical race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to draw attention to situations where overlapping forms of disadvantage escape remediation due to the failure to conform to any single standard of redress.[7] She provides an instructive example: a company that systematically discriminated against Black women in hiring. When a Black woman attempted to sue the company for discrimination, her claim was unsuccessful, since it failed to provide sufficient evidence for either racial discrimination (the company employed Black men, largely in blue collar positions) or gender discrimination (the company employed White women, largely as clerical staff). Yet, this way of adjudicating such a discrimination claim misses the obvious fact that the client was facing discrimination not simply as Black, nor simply as a woman, but precisely as a Black woman. Her plight is reducible neither to gender nor racial discrimination, nor is it simply a matter of adding one on top of the other. Rather, the intersection of these two forms of discrimination (or, put differently, of these two aspects of one’s identity) creates a distinct form of disadvantage that non-intersectional evaluative frameworks or legal tests fail to capture.

Similarly, an intersectional approach to police violence must recognize the distinct forms it takes in low-income communities of color, and the way in which the problems of ghetto policing arise from broader socio-economic injustices. To provide an analysis of this sort is beyond the scope of this essay, and at any rate would need to be informed by a detailed understanding of the particular histories of individual cities and individual police departments; the sort of understanding that activists and community leaders will be more likely than scholars to possess. Still, a few general comments may be appropriate.

First, a sufficient understanding of the link between police violence and broader socio-economic injustice reveals the limits of measures that frame police misconduct in terms of “bias” and thereby prioritize interventions aiming to reduce such bias. Implicit bias trainings, cultural competency programs and the like are unlikely to override departmental cultures and training programs that attempt to inculcate a warrior mentality in law enforcement officers, one which primes them to approach all civilian interactions as potential threats. Nor are such programs likely to override the effects of regular interactions with civilians who do pose a threat to officers, as one might assume would be more common in the policing of high crime areas with histories of hostile police-community relations. Bias reduction programs fail to appreciate the extent to which this sort of experience – policing high crime Black and Brown communities – might actually produce (or reproduce) racial biases, rather than merely provide an opportunity to express them. The lack of evidence for the effectiveness of such measures supports this observation, and suggests that the additional funding required to implement these training programs would be better allocated to addressing other community needs: the core meaning of the demand to “defund police.”[8]

Shelby emphasizes this point, locating the roots of ghetto abolitionism in the Black Power movement’s attempt to secure the political empowerment and economic autonomy of Black communities, and arguing that the Black Lives Matter movement may be the heir to this legacy, provided that it “move beyond a focus on racism and the police to a broader campaign focused on economic justice.”[9] This recommendation may mislead, if it is taken to mean that activists should ignore the racial dimensions of police brutality, mass incarceration, and the like, in favor of a reductive, purely economic analysis. Such an analysis would fail to appreciate that the militarized forms of policing that plague Black and Brown ghettos are largely absent not only in wealthy White suburbs, but in poor White communities as well. It would also fail to grasp the racial disproportionality in the enforcement of laws that Whites are at least as likely to violate as other racial groups, as is the case for most drug crimes, for example. In short, a purely economic analysis would also fail to be sufficiently intersectional.

But that is not, ultimately, the sort of approach that Shelby recommends. In directing attention to the economic dimensions of racial injustice, he does not ignore that these are in fact dimensions of racial injustice. The intersectional understanding that emerges is of a form of racism – I would say racial oppression – that, while manifesting most starkly in racialized ghettos, is actually enmeshed in the structure of society as a whole, not least in an economic system that enriches a largely White minority through the exploitation of racialized and other disadvantaged groups. In Shelby’s words, “the ghetto is a sign that our social order is profoundly unjust,” and accordingly, ghetto abolitionism must be understood as “an aggressive attempt at fundamental reform of the basic structure of our society.”[10] This distinguishes it from movements that view racial injustice as a narrowly legal or political problem, as some 20th century versions of integrationism have.


Ghetto Abolitionism and the “One-Way Street” of Racial Integration

Since segregation played a significant role in the creation of ghettos, it is not implausible to think that racial integration might be a crucial piece of the abolition of ghettos. However, a measure of caution is warranted here. Advocates for racial justice are sometimes critical of integration efforts due to the disproportionate burdens such efforts place on people of color. In their classic text Black Power, for example, Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton­ denounce a “one-way street” model of integration in which “in order to have a decent house or education, black people must move into a white neighborhood or send their children to a white school.”[11] For those inspired by this tradition, community development and autonomy is often viewed as an alternative to integration. Instead of moving people out of the ghetto, they aim to address its issues directly, improving the lives of its residents without displacing them.

The movement to defund police and shift funding to community development initiatives reflects this approach. Yet the reversal of 20th century patterns of “White flight” means that the needs of divested Black and Brown communities cannot be addressed in isolation from broader questions of social justice, if they ever could. The return of White residents, followed closely by White-controlled capital, to the very communities from which they previously fled – a phenomenon known as “gentrification” – makes clear that ghetto communities are not simply marginalized, but actively exploited. The attempt to abolish the ghetto must thus contend with this phenomenon, by finding ways to effectively resist the exploitative forces of what Samuel Stein calls “real estate capital.”[12] This further corroborates Shelby’s claim that the concerns of the ghetto cannot be divorced from the question of the justice of our society as a whole.

This doesn’t mean that a more just society would not be far less segregated – residentially, educationally, occupationally, etc. – than is now typical. But for ghetto abolitionists, this sort of integration is at best a byproduct of just social relations, not an end in itself, nor the primary means by which to achieve justice. Its desirability would depend, in part, on whether the burdens of integration could be shared in an equitable way – whether the “one way street” of integration could become multidirectional.[13] Still, contrary to integrationist ideals, the goal of abolishing ghettos does not preclude that neighborhoods and communities might remain somewhat racially homogenous, for reasons other than compulsion, enforced segregation, or lack of opportunity.


Ghetto Abolitionism as Restorative Justice

If ghetto abolitionism is not an integrationist project, then what sort of normative ideals animate and ground it? Though having its roots in indigenous practices older than the United States itself, restorative justice has, in recent years, experienced a resurgence in the world of criminal justice reform. In that context, restorative justice aims to repair the harm causes by criminal and otherwise disruptive behavior, often through mediation outside of regular criminal courts and procedures. On a broader scale however, restorative justice encompasses attempts to respond to immense social and historical injustice as well as individual wrongdoing, from the transatlantic slave trade and de jure racial discrimination to the attempted genocide of indigenous peoples and more recent war crimes.[14] Insofar as restorative justice aims to address the contemporary manifestations of historical legacies of injustice, it provides an appropriate and useful framework for thinking about racial justice generally, and the abolition of ghettos as a critical step toward it. While a comprehensive history of ghettos could surely trace their existence to forms of disadvantage rooted in slavery, doing so would require establishing a complex chain of causation from slavery, through de jure discrimination, to de facto disadvantage. In fact, however, the harms associated with the latter are more than sufficient to establish the imperative of ghetto abolition, given that the very existence of racialized ghettos are traceable to unjust practices of redlining, housing discrimination, restrictive and exploitative lending practices, and other forms of discrimination.[15]

Political theorist Sharon Stanley agrees, arguing that, while slavery is surely part of the broader historical narrative explaining the rise of racialized ghettos, “it is useful to foreground the more recent (and largely ignored) history of housing and lending discrimination in order to ground the case for reparations.”[16] As illustrated here, in the context of the United States’ particular history of racial injustice, the question of restorative justice often takes the more concrete form of the question of reparations – economic compensation for slavery and/or consequent injustices. And while reparations are often conceived in terms of individual payments, reparations proposals have also called for other forms of compensation, including college scholarships, debt forgiveness, down payment grants to expand Black homeownership, and other measures targeting the descendants of slaves and victims of anti-Black racism. Measures aimed to eliminate ghetto disadvantage – to bring the resources of the suburbs to racialized, especially Black ghettos – are an equally plausible candidate for reparations, an especially fitting one if the case for reparations is made based on the proximate injustice of housing discrimination and segregation, rather than the ultimate injustice of slavery. Stanley makes a similar case, arguing that “at a material minimum, reparations must be sufficient to dismantle the urban ghetto and to narrow significantly the racial wealth gap.”[17] Insofar as reparations are an essential part of a broader project of restorative justice, this makes ghetto abolitionism an essentially restorative project as well.  


Conclusion: Racial Justice for the 21st Century

Calls to “defund police” may sound radical to the ears of suburban Whites who see policing as serving a critical social function: ensuring public safety and reducing crime. But as Ocasio-Cortez’ provocative response makes clear, the call to “defund police” is really a call for racial equity: for ghetto residents to enjoy the same resources, protection, and treatment as the denizens of middle and upper-class White communities. That is, it is more than just a call for specific policing-related reforms, or even for a new, more holistic approach to public safety. It is, in fact, a renewed call for racial justice – an acknowledgement that the experiences of violence, mistreatment, and abuse so common in low-income Black and Brown communities are symptoms of a broader social injustice with roots spreading far beyond the ghetto. Some of those roots are extractive. As mentioned above, today’s ghettos are not merely forgotten, neglected, or marginalized spaces, but sites of active, lucrative exploitation. Other roots are metastatic. As racial justice advocates have often noted, the injustices of the ghetto have a tendency to spread to other regions. Martin Luther King famously observed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Fannie Lou Hamer proclaimed that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Lani Guiner and Gerald Torres argue that racially disadvantaged groups are the canary in the coal mine, alerting the broader society to problems that, left unchecked, expand and intensify.[18] These observations, and many others, imply that racial justice is not something that the racially advantaged support selflessly, or primarily out of a sense of moral imperative. It is in (almost) all of our interests to eradicate the kinds of social injustice that give rise to racialized ghettos.

In spite of the increasing polarization around the issue of policing practices, it seems to me that the project of eliminating ghettos and their underlying causes is also in the best interest of the officers that patrol them. Insofar as policing high-crime, high-tension ghettos involves greater risk and higher stress for law enforcement officers, it would seem reasonable to expect that these officers and their advocates would support initiatives that develop these areas, making them safer and more rewarding places to work. Where law enforcement officers do not support such measures, one suspects there is misunderstanding, or something more nefarious at work.

Finally, while understanding the movement to “defund police” in light of a broader normative project of ghetto abolitionism in some ways complicates a putatively simple demand, it also provides some concrete direction for activists and policy-makers. It suggests that no amount of policing-related policy reform, diversity training, or reconstitution of personnel will eliminate the structural violence faced by communities of color until the fundamental injustices of the American ghetto are addressed head on. Reallocating funds toward programs that address housing, employment, mental health, substance abuse, and other community development needs are steps in this direction. Meeting these needs adequately would mean the end of ghettos and the structural disadvantages that concentrate there. This abolitionist project deserves to be at the center of any strategy of racial justice adequate to the challenges of the 21st century. It is also integral to the broader social transformations necessary to sustain a functional democracy, and perhaps even to sustain our existence as a species, goals that all should appreciate and support, from the suburbs to the city, and everywhere else.


[1] Tommie Shelby, Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform (Harvard UP, 2016).

[2] See

[3] See Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79 (3), 409-428, 2009

[4] Shelby refers to this sort of approach as a “medical model” of ghetto intervention.


[6] An important caveat here: this research also revealed that Black Americans in particular are actually more likely to be killed by police in predominantly white neighborhoods, regardless of income-level. This suggests that police killings of Black Americans may have as much to do with “protecting” White communities than from policing ghetto neighborhoods.

[7] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review. Vol. 43, No. 6 (Jul., 1991), 1241-1299.

[8] C.K. Lai et al. (2016) “Reducing Implicit Racial Preferences II: Intervention Effectiveness Across Time. Journal of Experimental Psychology 145(8), 1001-16; P.S. Forscher et al. (2019) “A Meta-analysis of Procedures to Change Implicit Measures,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(3), 522–559.

[9] Shelby, Dark Ghettos, 277.

[10] Shelby, Dark Ghettos, 275.

[11] Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (New York: Vintage Books, 1967): 54.

[12] Samuel Stein, Capital City: Gentrification and the Rise of the Real Estate State (London: Verso, 2019).

[13] See Andrew Pierce, “Integration without Gentrification,” forthcoming in Public Affairs Quarterly.

[14] Shelby and other philosophers sometimes refer to the broader social type of restorative justice as “corrective” justice, or “transitional” justice when it arises in the context of societies that are emerging from periods of conflict and social transformation. I have chosen the language of restorative justice in order to be consistent with the communities of practice that understand their work in this way.

[15] See Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright, 2017); Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014. Available at

[16] Sharon Stanley. An Impossible Dream? Racial Integration in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017): 82.

[17] Ibid, 86.

[18] Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).




    Andrew J. Pierce, "Ghetto Abolitionism: Racial Justice for the 21st Century"



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