a recent column, I discussed with a healthy amount of disdain
the marketing of a board game called GHETTOPOLY, in which
players maneuver through the traps and snares of an inner-city
replete with every stereotype in the book about such places:
filled with criminals, crack addicts, malt liquor junkies,
prostitutes and gang bangers. According to the game’s creator,
he meant no offense, of course. Indeed, David Chang thinks
GHETTOPOLY, and his planned follow-ups, including HIPHOPOPOLY
and REDNECKOPOLY could get people laughing, and thereby
help break down the very stereotypes in which his games
won’t revisit the many reasons why GHETTOPOLY and its offshoots
are offensive, racist and classist here, as that was covered
in the original commentary.
I do want to address in greater detail a few of the issues
raised in the previous piece, which apparently some readers
don’t understand. If the emails I received in response to the
previous essay, especially from a lot of white folks, are
indicative of larger opinion, then obviously some gaps in the
knowledge base of many Americans need desperately to be filled.
will discuss the ways in which persons in ghettos are largely
unable to “escape” no matter how much they might like to do
so; and in a third column, I will examine the damage done by
the stereotypes perpetuated by Chang’s game: damage that can
hardly be viewed as trivial.
my criticisms in the first column, I noted that GHETTOPOLY’s
biggest offense is reinforcing the notion of the ghetto as
a free-standing cultural space, whose residents are caught
in a tangle of pathology because of their own depravity, ignorance,
addiction, bad choices, and incompetence.
fact, as I explained with historical evidence, the ghetto is
a creation of the political and economic elites who sought
to restrict black residential mobility to the urban core, even
as whites were being subsidized to move to the suburbs. The
ghetto, in other words is not the product of the people who
live there, but those who don’t: it is the geographic detritus
of institutional racism and economic oppression.
to say, many folks didn’t like hearing that part.
stop your whining,” one writer insisted. “Even if the ghetto
was originally created the way you say it was, that’s no excuse
for people living there now. If they wanted to move and make
life better for themselves they would. The problem is, they’re
just too damned lazy to get off their asses and go where the
others echoed those sentiments, though not in terms that stark.
Frankly, this is a mantra of sorts that I have heard repeatedly
for decades, from other whites who assumed that they could
say anything to me, as a white man, when black folks weren’t
in the room, and that I would keep their secrets.
course, the “why don’t they just get up and move” faction of
white America overlooks a few things.
after all, can a person just “up and move” to somewhere else
when they don’t have any money, or when the job they have
is in the city and they don’t have a reliable car, or any car
at all, that could get them back and forth if they moved to
a “nicer” part of town, where public transportation either
doesn’t run, or runs very sporadically?
can a person just up and move if they haven’t the money to
pay for first and last month’s rent in a new apartment (as
is usually required), or if they can’t pass a credit check
for an apartment because they’ve never had any credit?
can a person just up and move when they haven’t the money to
pay the heating bill, let alone a bus ticket to greener pastures
for them and their kids?
how can a person just up and move when all the available evidence
indicates they would still likely face housing discrimination
if they attempted to move to whiter, more affluent spaces?
other words, what much of the white community overlooks in
our rush to blame the urban poor for the conditions in
which they find themselves, is the ongoing spectre of
racism itself, which contrary to white belief, has not receded,
especially in the area of housing.
laws against it, as many as two million cases of housing discrimination
take place every year against persons of color, according to
the government’s own estimates, and may occur as often as one
out of every two times that such folks are looking for a place
to live. These acts of discrimination range from outright bias
in mortgage lending, to refusing to show apartments to people
of color, to steering blacks and Latinos to mostly black and
brown neighborhoods, to showing fewer units to people of color
seeking to rent or fewer homes to those seeking to buy.
if persons from the urban core were able to save up enough
money to move, they would likely face bias. Consider first
the rental market.
have found that when white and black testers are sent to check
for housing bias on the part of apartment managers, persons
of color are far more likely to be told that there are no units
available, while the whites are shown apartments and told there
are openings. It should be noted that this racial bias is evident
even when the testers are middle-class or above, college educated,
and similarly demeanored to their white counterparts. As such,
one can only imagine how much harder it would be for persons
who were low-income, less formally educated, perhaps not as "well-spoken" in
the traditional sense, or with a spottier work record.
in mind, landlords typically want to know a renter’s last two
or three places of residence, their source of income, and references.
Do we really think that when an applicant put down an address
that was known to be in the “worst” part of town (perhaps in
public housing), or noted that their source of income was a
low-wage job, perhaps combined with public assistance, and
had no references to speak of, that they would really have
a fair shot at landing a place to live?
renting increasingly requires credit checks, which the poor
will have a harder time passing than those who are not; and
there is nothing to prevent a landlord from refusing to rent
to someone with bad or no credit.
most persons seeking to leave the so-called ghetto would
not likely be in the market for a mortgage, let’s examine the
market for buyers as well. After all, the ever-optimistic Pollyanas who
insist a person can do anything they want if they put their
mind to it, are quick to claim that persons who wanted it badly
enough could always save enough money to come up with
a down payment on a modest home.
upon entering the mortgage market, blacks in particular from
the inner-city would likely encounter still more unequal treatment.
Indeed, black folks face this kind of treatment even when
they are not poor, not from the ghetto, and when they are well-educated,
professionally employed, and have decent credit.
of the most comprehensive studies of mortgage bias was conducted
by the Boston Federal Reserve Bank and considered 38 different
factors (of which race was only one) that could result in disparate
lending between whites and blacks. Even with factors like collateral,
credit history and income considered and held constant, blacks
were still nearly 60 percent more likely to be rejected for a
mortgage loan compared to similarly-situated and credit-worthy
two follow-up studies which added control variables and used
an even more conservative accounting methodology to determine
lending bias, found equal or higher levels of bias than were
found in the original study.
study sent black and white “testers” to banks in Louisville,
Kentucky. The testers had equal credit ratings and financial
characteristics and requested conventional mortgages for the
very same housing. Consistently, blacks were given less information
or encouragement to apply for the loan and were subjected to
differential and unequal treatment in terms of loan pre-qualification.
For example, blacks were often told that their income and credit
was inadequate to qualify for the loans they sought, while
the whites with identical incomes and credit were told they
would qualify for the very same loans.
from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act demonstrates that while
blacks and whites with excellent credit appear to be treated
roughly equally, there is a substantial gap between the way whites
and blacks with bad credit or questionable credit are treated.
As the Wall Street Journal has reported, nearly 70 percent of
whites with poor credit are still able to receive a mortgage
loan, compared to only 16 percent of blacks with equally poor
other words, the ability to move where one wants, when one
wants, owing only to the determined will, is far from universal.
Instead it is among the most extensive of white privileges
in the U.S. That whites would believe it was only a matter
of personal desire, and perhaps saving a little money bespeaks
volumes about the way in which whites have been privileged
in this culture.
have never had to worry about how our race might work against
us in the housing market; never had to worry about a landlord
taking one look at us, or maybe just speaking with us on the
phone, discerning our likely race, and then telling us the
last unit was just rented, gee sorry.
have never had to consider that perhaps getting a place to
live might be about more than our credit, collateral, income
and good attitude. But for persons of color, they have never
had the luxury of believing that those were the only relevant
factors, for indeed they never have been.
estimate that if affordability and personal choice were the
only factors determining where people lived, there would be
no all-white or all-black neighborhoods in any major city in
the United States. Not one. But of course, there are several
only 10 percent of blacks say they prefer to live in all or
nearly-all black neighborhoods, roughly three-fourths of African
Americans actually live in such places, not because of choice
so much as unequal access to housing markets.
to several studies, blacks generally prefer well-mixed, integrated
neighborhoods. It is whites, who by preferring no more than
10-15 percent people of color in their communities, effectively
block such an arrangement from coming about. After all, if “too
many” blacks or Latinos move in, whites begin to sell en masse,
which means a net outflow of capital and thus falling property
values, which results in more low-income persons gaining
access to the area, and the eventual “tipping” of the neighborhood
from mostly white to mostly of color, and poor. It is, in many
ways, an ever-expanding, but nonetheless vicious circle of
de facto race and class segregation.
David Chang wants to create a game that “isn’t boring,” which
is why he says he developed GHETTOPOLY, so be it.
if he wants to create a game that would involve players in
navigating the inner-city, that too could be instructive.
instead of poking fun at the victims of race and class exploitation
who live there, perhaps he could focus on the white suburbanites
who historically created “Neighborhood Improvement Associations” to
keep blacks out, or the banks that redlined entire communities,
thereby depriving them of capital investment, or the predatory
lenders who set up shop in the 'hood, and charge borrowers
5-10 times the interest that a normal bank would, or the city
planners who knocked down hundreds of thousands of black homes
as part of “urban renewal” in the 50s and 60s.
kind of game would be every bit as entertaining as the one
Chang thought up, and players might actually learn something
in the process of playing it. But of course such a concept
would never make it to market. After all, the mostly white,
non-ghetto-dwelling folks who think GHETTOPOLY is so hilarious,
would never buy a game that reminded them of just how implicated
they and their families are, in the suffering of others.
that is the biggest white privilege of all: namely, the privilege
of remaining oblivious to the real world, ignorant to the workings
of your society, enraptured by the fantasy created by your
history books, teachers, preachers, parents, Boy Scout leaders
is the privilege to never have to think about the things you
don’t want to think about.
is the ability to live a lie every day, and most of all to
insist upon one’s innocence long after that innocence was delivered
still-born, and to swear that the baby, so to speak, is still
is the privilege of thinking that poverty is a game, precisely
because you and yours have rarely if ever had to play it from
the inside, have never been the chess pieces moved around by
someone else’s hand.
is the ability to say “lighten up, it’s just a joke,” precisely
because the joke is not on you or anyone you know.
David Chang, himself a person of color, had to play to white
prejudices and sensibilities in order to make money as a game-maker
is the ultimate proof of the power of whiteness in America,
and the ultimate evidence of how the sickness can spread, even
to those who ought to know better.
Wise is an antiracist essayist, educator, activist and father.
He can be reached at email@example.com