Many people may find the term “ghetto” to be offensive when discussing the inner-city poor. “A ghetto is a place where a certain minority group lives, whether by choice or force, and is subject to economic and political discrimination.” One must wonder, however, what

psychological and sociological theories apply to these people. I will focus on the black ghetto rather than the Hispanic ghetto, since the plight of African-Americans seems to be more publicized.

We must first establish that a black ghetto does exist in America. Many people may cite the facts and try to pretend that a ghetto does not exist, though the facts are certainly misleading. In total number, white poor outnumber the amount of black poor. We must look at more than just these facts. Even if the percentage of white poor was higher, which it is not, the poor whites are still spread throughout the country, whereas blacks tend to live in certain sections of large cities. These blacks do tend to suffer inequalities, but many people disagree to what extent blacks are discriminated against. Almost all people think that the way to end said discrimination is for the ghetto dwellers to get out of the inner city. Why don’t more people get out then? Many programs such as Head Start and Affirmative Action have tried to help blacks toward a new direction, but with how much success? I will attempt to prove that the existence of numerous psychological and sociological factors help to keep the blacks in the ghettos.



Operant Conditioning


Could simple conditioning keep an entire race of people down? I believe that conditioning, in one form or another, has helped to keep blacks in the ghetto. When one race of people has the power over another, what statements are broadcast to the lower class depend almost entirely upon what the upper class wants them to hear. A ruling class will not voluntarily relinquish power. However, they will instruct the minority how to behave in order to gain power. This may sound simple enough, but instructing people how to act not only increases the majority’s power, it also sets the minority up for new instruction. Take the forty acres and a mule bit after the Civil War. The blacks were coaxed into behaving on the promise of free land. New promises were made, and broken, for the next hundred some years. The main flaw to the conditioning is that eventually the subject must be rewarded or they will lose interest, and in a human’s case probably rebel. So why no rebellion? Fear could be the answer. The whites may have used conditioning that involved punishing bad behavior instead of rewarding good behavior. Since whites, the ruling class, could not use electric shocks or loud noises to condition the blacks, they may have used police and mob force in order to cause a conditioned response. The KKK has always used fear and the threat of physical harm to get compliance.

The main problem with a theory of operant conditioning is that it simply has not worked as effectively as one might think it would. Instead of fear and compliance, blacks tend more toward anger and deviance. This response would most likely not occur in ideal conditioning environments, which America was, besides the government would never try to brainwash part of the population, would it?


Learned Helplessness


Instead of directing the blame for the plight of inner-city blacks upon the whites, we may try to identify blacks as at least somewhat responsible for their situation. Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon that take place when a subject, through conditioning, feels as if they cannot escape. The fact that separates this theory from that of simple conditioning is that a subject will not even try to escape a situation. In conditioning the people, all means of escape would have to be eliminated, or at least discouraged effectively. After a long enough period of this sort of conditioning, a person would lose all hope of getting out, but not necessarily comply with all the rules, which is essentially what one may call “ghetto mentality”. Blacks in the inner-city are taught by their peers and elders, not to mention many whites, how hopeless their situation is. Even when presented with good opportunities, blacks may shy away because they may not trust the whites who provide many of the chances. The whites see this lack of initiative and think of it as laziness, which results in more dislike towards blacks and their work habits.


Social Stratification


Regardless of which means whites have used to hold onto power, the fact remains that whites in America have had better lives than blacks. Whether or not social stratification plays a very big role psychologically is uncertain, but it does affect the success of blacks in society.

The [social] rewards could be in the form of wealth, power, prestige, or whatever is highly valued by the society. All over the world, however, these rewards are distributed unequally… called social stratification.


Wealth, power, and prestige are the three bases of stratification regarded as important in the United States. People with these attributes from birth right, or life chances, tend to stay that way. Since whites have historically been the ruling class in our country, they have attained the power. Blacks have certainly taken steps to catch up in political power, but wealth and prestige seem to be even more elusive. Blacks can only hope to get higher paying, more prestigious jobs that whites do not want to forfeit.


Although social mobility in the United States is generally considered fairly easy and frequent, blacks still suffer from lack of social mobility.We do not have a caste system here, but blacks and whites are certainly divided, with whites on top a good deal of the time. Getting a more prestigious job may not be impossible for blacks, but how far they may reach in prestige or status still remains low as compared to whites. Jobs that allow social mobility to occur often appear to be almost too easily given away to blacks, which causes jealousy or simple dislike by whites. This again leads to what happens when whites feel they are not in control. Whites may once again use means to try to regain control through discrimination and use of their wealth, power, and prestige.




Although religion is generally considered good for guidance and one’s soul, another

perspective shows it as a means of keeping the lower classes down. ” Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people.” I do not know to what extent religion does keep minorities down today, but it has appeared to do so in the past. Religion usually does not cause the oppression, though it may aid the oppressors.




The only real non-violent solution to the problems of blacks in ghettos is education. A minority that can outsmart the majority will quickly gain acceptance, along with wealth, power, and prestige. Cubans and Jews, along with various white ethnic groups have excelled because of education. In order to avoid getting conditioned by a ruling class or to get the real good jobs, education must be obtained. Only .6% of all men with a high school education live below the poverty level. Even a high school education will allow blacks to earn enough to live decent lives, but a college education could give them true social mobility.(See chart) Although education cannot get rid of what is known as institutionalized discrimination, it is still the single most important means of escape from the ghetto.

No solution can be perfect. We do not live in a world where perfection exists. We must,

however, strive toward our high goals with education as the weapon. If blacks do not heed the call to arm themselves with knowledge, they simply will not succeed. Blacks must look past injustice and discrimination toward their future, which can be salvaged.



A Selected Bibliography


Academic American Encyclopedia. Grolier Electronic Publishing, 1994


Blauner, Robert.  Racial Oppression in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1972


Seligman, Ben.  Permanent Poverty. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968


Thio, Alex. “Social Inequalities.”  Sociology, an Introduction.  2nd. Ed.  New York: Harper and


Row, 1989.


”Ghetto: Non-Jewish Ghettos. Academic American Encyclopedia.   Grolier Electronic Publishing, 1994

Alex Thio. “Social Stratification.”  Sociology, An Introduction. 2nd Ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1989.) pg. 210.

Sociology, An Introduction pg. 376