Historically, ghetto referred to a low-income section of a city entirely or nearly entirely occupied by a racial or ethnic minority. The earliest uses of the term (in the 16th century) referred to sections of cities in Italy where Jews lived. In the 20th century, the term became widely associated with Nazi-era forced relocations of Jewish populations in occupied Europe, particularly in Poland, as well as with largely African American and Black neighborhoods in US cities, where they quickly became linked to a lower socioeconomic status, generalized poverty, and a state of disrepair. “Ghetto” is also used as slang, with elements of reclamation in some avenues of Black popular music (e.g., Jay-Z’s “So Ghetto”).
While the term has historical resonance, there is plenty of less pejorative terminology, such as section, district, neighborhood, or low-income housing developments as applicable. And simply describing the specific demographics of a particular part of a city is helpful for clarity.
- Is the word ‘ghetto’ racist? (BBC)
- How America’s Ugly History of Segregation Changed the Meaning of the Word ‘Ghetto’ (Time)
- ‘Ghetto:’ Five Reasons to Rethink the Word | DCentric (WAMU)
- Is It Offensive to Use the Dictionary Definition of Ghetto? (New York Magazine)
Historically, ghetto referred to a section of a city entirely or nearly entirely occupied by a racial or ethnic minority. In contemporary use, it often has negative connotations and associations with high rates of poverty and crime. While the term could be used with historical resonance or if an interview subject is quoted using it, in general, it’s clearer to use terminology such as section, district, neighborhood, or low-income housing developments as applicable, or, more simply, describe the specific demographics of a particular part of a city.