NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Ghetto, a word that originally described an isolated Jewish community, evolved in the late 20th century to mean the inner city, and its meaning has changed again. In a new book, Cora Daniels argues that it's now more than a place, it's a mindset, that we've moved from ghetto to ghettonation, an entity whose borders include all ethnicities, the suburbs as much as the inner city, Paris Hilton and Martha Stewart, as well as Snoop Dogg and Usher. Ghetto is on the train on the way to work, it's in your kids' headphones, it's on MTV, and it's coming to a theater near you. And it is, Cora Daniels says, essentially an absence of self-respect, it is aiming way too low; it is, she argues, self-hate and emphatically not fabulous.
Later in the hour, Stanley Fish tells us how to pick a good book at the airport bookstore before you miss your flight. Here's a hint: Don't bother with the blurbs.
But first, what does ghetto mean to you? What is so ghetto, good or bad, in your life? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com. You can also comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Cora Daniels is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Fortune magazine, among many other outlets. Her book is called "Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and the Home of the Shameless." She joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.
Ms. CORA DANIELS (Author, "Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and Home of the Shameless"): Oh, thank you for having me.
CONAN: And there's some pages in your book where you go, that's so ghetto. And in various parts of the book - under one that's called What We Say - that's so ghetto, adding an ed or a T to the end of a word that's already in the past tense, as in tooked, talking on your cell phone while being examined by the doctor. And another example: Using your baby's name as an opportunity to give a shot-out to your favorite luxury brand - children bearing the names Armani, Dior, Courvoisier, Hennessy and Lexis. There were, you write, actually 1,263 babies named Lexis born in the year 2000. All those things are ghetto.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DANIELS: Yeah, that's the more humorous, the easy-to-spot ghetto things. I mean I think that we are definitely in a time where ghetto is no longer where you live, but it's how you live.
Ms. DANIELS: You know, as you mentioned, even Martha Stewart boasts on her show that she can get ghetto when she needs to. In truth, ghetto is a mindset, a mindset that celebrates the worst. And the fact that it has become so widespread and it is our mainstream now I think means that our expectations of ourselves and of each other have gotten too low.
CONAN: There's an example of what you mean by the worst, or several examples in your book, but I was going to ask you about one. Two small children riding on the subway who are apparently mocking a heist, a robbery.
Ms. DANIELS: A stickup, yeah. Yeah, that happened here in New York when I was on the subway coming home from work. And these two little boys, who were only about nine years old, acted like they were sticking up the subway car, and it was just a big joke.
Ms. DANIELS: You know, so, you know, it's why would they want to sort of emulate the behavior of the corner rather than a car full of hardworking folks. But then on our side, you know, why didn't any of us speak up. I mean my subway car was completely silent. No one took them seriously, but we were all silent. And I think that it's very easy to sort of point your finger and pick out the ghetto in others without sort of recognizing the ghetto in yourself. And one of the most common ways that we're all ghetto, I think, is our silence, because our silence is an endorsement of behavior that shouldn't be acceptable.
CONAN: The kids were somewhat startled when the police actually arrived and took this seriously.
Ms. DANIELS: Oh, definitely. Yeah, when we pulled into the station, the station was filled with dozens of armed New York City's finest, who ambushed our subway car looking for the child in the red T-shirt and the kid who's job it was to scream when the other kid pretended to pull the trigger, and, you know, handcuffed them and march them out. And these kids who were - you know, they were children started to cry, as children do. I mean it was, you know, traumatizing for everyone involved...
Ms. DANIELS: ...and depressing that, you know, already at that young age they are, you know, being exposed to the system, you know, by what they thought was a joke.
CONAN: Some other things you say about the word ghetto is that ghetto is a choice.
Ms. DANIELS: I think so. I, you know, I mean - I think that there are definitely elements in everyone's community that, you know, might make it harder not to make that choice, I think. But I think that, you know, if we hold ourselves accountable and sort of raise our expectations of ourselves, then, you know, we can make better choices.
And I think that - you know, when I started, I really wanted to find the point when this happened, when this sort of transition happened, and I couldn't find that point, you know, when things got so low. And, you know, if I could find that point, I think it would have been much easier because it would be a quick answer to sort of fix it. And I think what happened was it was just a gradual decline. So, you know, behavior that shouldn't have been acceptable, people got away with something, and then the bar got lowered again, and then it got lowered again, and it got lowered again. And now we're at the point where I think we're kind of numb to scenes that we shouldn't be numb to. You know, I have a toddler at home, and when I went to buy her a Halloween costume, I found pimp and ho Halloween costumes in newborn sizes.
CONAN: In newborn sizes.
Ms. DANIELS: In newborn sizes. I mean that's, you know, there's nothing about that that's remotely acceptable.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Our guest is Cora Daniels, the author of "Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and the Home of the Shameless." If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's see if we begin with Brian, Brian with us from Phoenix, Arizona.
BRIAN (Caller): Hi there.
BRIAN: (unintelligible) program.
CONAN: Thank you.
BRIAN: I'm an inner city teacher, actually 11th and 12th grade English in Phoenix, Arizona. And we're an inner city school, and we generally work with last-chance students. And it occurs to me that taking back the word ghetto is almost the way black people have taken back the word - the N-word. Ghetto is a way of saying we're okay. Maybe we're not as affluent, maybe we don't have as much money or power, but at the same time, the things we do and the things we have, they're okay. In fact, they're better than - I'm sorry - they're better than okay, they're acceptable.
Ms. DANIELS: I know that that can be argument. I mean I would disagree. I mean I think that, you know, that there is - you can't deny that the history of the word. And the history, you know, it's - ghetto started as the Jewish quarter in Rome, and then it was resurrected in Nazi Germany. And then in this country it has been basically poor communities of color.
Ms. DANIELS: And that's the history of the word. And so when you have folks like, you know, teenagers saying that's so ghetto or Paris Hilton on TV talking about a truck that's broken down and can't start and she's like, oh, this truck is so ghetto, you can't deny that she's using a word that's been associated with black and brown - poor black and brown people in this country to describe something that's broken down.
Ms. DANIELS: And, you know, it saddens me. It saddens me when I hear young folks embracing it, just as it saddens me when I hear young folks embrace the N-word.
Ms. DANIELS: You know, I kind of don't buy the argument that it's been transformed that much.
CONAN: Brian, though, you're saying that it's almost a kind of perverse pride from the kids that you teach.
BRIAN: That's exactly the way I perceive it. My students will come in with something that isn't necessarily, you know, expensive or what have you, but it has made in such a way by them, fashioned - jeans cut, clothing that they've painted on - and they say it's ghetto fabulous. And again, they've taken back the word in such a way where other people see it and they say I do like that. And people like Paris Hilton, celebrities, they copy these fashions because they are so great, because they are so ghetto fabulous, if you will.
CONAN: Yeah, and one of the points in your book - thanks very much for the call, Brian…
CONAN: …one of the points in your book is that this is big business, ghetto.
Ms. DANIELS: Oh, it's definitely big business. And, I mean, and, you know, I mean, there's different degrees. So, I mean, they - you know, there's - it's very easy to sort of point out that, you know, the clothing and music styles and things like that. I mean, I think what's more serious is, you know, when this mindset and attitude seep into, you know, our relationships or, you know, education or, you know, how we're raising our kids and things.
I mean, you know, there's a - Gallup did a pole recently of teenagers, and one in eight teenagers age 14 to 17 years old have a friend in an abusive relationship. You know, these are 14, 15, 16 year olds. You know, out in California, they're cracking down on what they're calling tennis-shoe pimps. And these are 14-year-old boys who don't have driver's licenses - that's why they're called tennis-shoe pimps - who are pimping out 12-year-old girls, and they're all selling sex for money so they can buy, you know iPods and cell phones.
And these are white, middle-class kids. And when they are questioned by police officers, they're like, oh, we didn't do anything wrong. We're not selling drugs. You know, this is an example of how the bar has gotten too low and how things - how it sort of permeated every single nook and cranny of our existence now.
CONAN: So from exactly what you're saying, by definition, ghetto does not equal African-American.
Ms. DANIELS: No, not at all. This is not a black thing. This is an American thing.
CONAN: And does ghetto equal hip-hop?
Ms. DANIELS: I think that, no. I think that hip-hop doesn't have to be ghetto, but I think it surely sells when it is.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is James, James with us from San Antonio.
JAMES (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.
JAMES: Basically, my comment that I wanted to make was that I grew up in, you know, kind of an older inner city part of San Antonio, Texas, and it's a very Hispanic area. And it - when we first moved there, it was very nice, and then there was several Air Force base closings, and it kind of did turn into a ghetto. And we had a bullet come into our living room while everybody was sleeping, and my dad basically worked whatever jobs he could to get us out of there.
And we moved to a more affluent area, and I heard kids saying, you know, the multiplex that was more than a year old was ghetto or that shopping center is ghetto. And I just remember thinking the absurdity of it because my version of ghetto is bullets coming in - or a bullet coming into our house, so.
CONAN: And it's not exactly the strip mall in the suburb, yeah.
Ms. DANIELS: Right, exactly. I mean, I live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, so, yeah, I think I'm along the same lines as you in terms of the reality of what ghetto can really mean. And, you know, and that's why it's worrisome when it becomes something that folks take pride in.
JAMES: Yes. And the other thing I just wanted to say was it's - I think that cultural pride is great, but I don't think that whatever color you are, anyone wants to live in a situation where their life is in danger at basically a daily basis. And I'll take the rest of the comments off the air.
CONAN: All right, James, thanks very much. Well, we're up against the break, so we'll be back with Cora Daniels when we return. Again, if you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
We're talking today about the word ghetto and why, according to author Cora Daniels, we've become a ghettonation. Her book is called "Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and the Home of the Shameless." We've linked you to an excerpt from the book from our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And, of course, you're welcome to join the conversation. What does so ghetto mean to you? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cora Daniels with us with from our bureau in New York. And I wanted to ask you about another anecdote you tell in your book, and this about one of the neighborhood kids there in Bed-Stuy, a kid who doesn't quite dress the same way the other kids do, a kid you thought was named Muhammad at first.
Ms. DANIELS: Yeah, that's what he's called around my way. And, you know, I think that one of the reasons why he stood out to me, my adult eyes - because I can't really tell, you know, who's sporting the latest style or not - was it occurred to me during our conversations over a couple of months that his family was actually living within his mean - within their means, so…
CONAN: He looked at your watching "Law and Order" on cable TV one day and he said, is that cable TV?
Ms. DANIELS: Right.
CONAN: You realized he didn't have it.
Ms. DANIELS: Yeah, that's when it occurred to me that he didn't have that in his household and that - you know, Bedford-Stuyvesant is a very dynamic community, so you have very poor and you have working-class and you have middle class moving in, and you have all different dynamics living side-by-side, because that's how neighborhoods in New York are. And, you know, so his, you know, his family was, you know, was a poor family living on a poor income and living within their means, and it's something that you actually rarely see now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DANIELS: You know, and it's - it made him stand out, and I think that that, you know, that is part of, you know, the mindset, that tomorrow doesn't - that, you know…
CONAN: Exactly, there's not…
Ms. DANIELS: …let's live for today, because tomorrow doesn't matter or tomorrow may never come or tomorrow could be worse.
CONAN: So it doesn't matter if you max-out your credit cards, because then live for today.
Ms. DANIELS: Right. I mean, I talked - for this book I talked to a lot of teenagers. I stood on a lot of corners in a lot of cities. And in the suburbs I stood in, you know, darkened parking lots, because - and went to malls, and I talked to a lot of teenagers. And the first questions I always asked - and I always started out the same. I said, what does ghetto mean? When you say that's so ghetto, what does that mean to you? And young folks loved it.
They loved to give me examples. They loved to mock friends of theirs. They loved to point things out, sing songs. And then I would ask them, what does success mean? What does success mean to you? And granted, that's a hard question to answer because, you know, success should mean something different for each of us. But, you know, a lot of the young folks that I talked to couldn't really answer me. And, you know, I got a really deep, long pause, and they couldn't really answer. And the problem is if, you know, if our young folks can't, you know, define or visualize what success means for them, you know, how are they ever supposed to get there?
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Patrick, Patrick calling us from Jacksonville, Florida.
PATRICK (Caller): Hey, how you doing? I just wanted to say one thing. I believe ghetto - I grew up in the ghetto. I'm from Miami and currently living in Duval County in Jacksonville. And due to my line of work, I'm in different - lower-income housing, things like that. To me I think ghetto is a generational curse. You mentioned, Ms. Daniels, that when you was on the subway, no one wanted to say anything when the kids was, you know, joking about sticking up the subway car.
Ms. DANIELS: Right, mm-hmm.
PATRICK: I think when I was growing up, when you was walking down the street or playing in the neighborhood, you know, parents came out and got involved. And I think here in like, say, for instance, Duval County, for example, you know, with the murder rate, we practically got one murder per day. And I think it's more of a generational curse, and the reason why I say that is due to the fact that it's the way you bring up your children. When you have children having children and they don't know about success, about morals and things like that, obviously they can't teach it no one else.
Ms. DANIELS: Mm-hmm.
PATRICK: And the music industry, for example, is benefiting from it because they're glorifying it, but they're saying it's OK. And no one is - if you want to stop the violence, you go ahead and you focus on instilling values in the kids, into the school system. I mean, you bring things back. Bring back church, you know, get people involved. That's what it's about. You got to - because once you turn 13 years old or 12 years old, whatever that child has learned from that point, they're no longer - I mean, you can't teach it to him. You can't. At that point, they're considered, in their minds, an adult.
So at that time, you got to instill it in them when they're kids. Like my daughter, which is 12 years old, you know, I'm teaching her about, you know, going out going to college and why she should go to college so she can be successful - corporate America. I grew up in, you know, crime, drugs, death, and all that stuff like that, and, you know, it took me a long time to really get to that point. Now I'm in corporate America, so…
CONAN: Yeah, you...
PATRICK: ...you know, if I can do it, anybody else can.
CONAN: Cora Daniels, you write a lot about your dad and your parents and what they were like growing up. And again, you might have thought you were an adult at 12 or 13, too, but they made sure you didn't think that for very long.
Ms. DANIELS: Well, I think people do what they think they can get away with, so I think boundaries are definitely important. And I think that, you know, if we're talking about a mindset, that that can affect everyone. So, yes, I think that, you know, I, too am going to struggle with these same issues, and I think that our caller, you know, makes a wonderful point when he says talking about getting involved.
I mean, that's what I'm talking about when I say that we need to raise our expectations, because if each of us raise it, you know, just a little bit, you know, then this behavior - we've set a boundary, because then, you know, behavior that isn't acceptable won't - you can't get away with it. So I think that, you know, just as there was a gradual decline, we have to gradually start to try to raise the bar.
CONAN: Patrick, best of luck to you.
PATRICK: Thank you.
CONAN: Good luck, bye-bye. Let's talk now with - let's see, three. Erin - Erin with us from Vancouver in Washington.
ERIN (Caller): Hi.
ERIN: I'm wondering if the guest sees a correlation between - she said she tried to find a cause in this rise in ghetto culture - if she sees a correlation at all between the rise of secularism in our culture and this rise of ghetto culture…
ERIN: …in our nation? And just also as a quick side note, it hasn't been too long since I was a teenager or pre-teen. I'm only 23. And even I'm shocked at some of the things that are popular nowadays that kids - toys that kids play with and things, for example, like the Bratz dolls that are sold in stores. And I'll take my comment off the air, thanks.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Erin.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DANIELS: I think that most people in their gut feel that there has been some sort of breakdown in our homes, in our families. And, you know, whether - you know, we've had now two callers who've brought up, you know, the church and religion and spirituality. I think that - you know, I mean, I think everyone's household is different, so I think that it's safe to say across the board there's been some sort of breakdown.
Whatever that glue or that barometer that held every family together, which I think is going to be different glue, you know, it - I think that it just depends. And I think that, you know, families, you know, whether that is we got too comfortable, you know, after struggling and fighting and trying to make things easier for our kids, then we sort of relaxed and got too comfortable. Whether that is, you know, folks sort of relaxing and, you know, not being the disciplinarians that they once were, whether in some families that was the church - I think it's different for every family, but I think that there was a general - there is - there was a breakdown.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Dale in Kansas City, Missouri.
Your guest spoke about the costumes she saw. Does anyone else remember the Abercrombie & Fitch line of thongs for prepubescent girls that read: hot stuff and lookie lookie? I agree that our society has coarsened, and we do not see enough people resisting this trend. Let's see if we can another caller on the line. This is Abraham - Abraham with us from Salt Lake City.
ABRAHAM (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.
ABRAHAM: I just have a quick comment about Mrs. Daniels, like her perception of ghetto. When she was talking about the two kids on the train doing the hijacking, or mocking hijacking, I don't necessarily see that as ghetto. I mean, I'd see that as more just really - just horrible. You know, that's something that's beyond ghetto. And the way that she keeps talking about ghetto, it seems like something that's so demoralizing to American culture. But at the same time, I mean, people that are ghetto, they can have really good values and morals, you know.
It doesn't mean that, you know, they're doing bad things, I mean, because I mean things that are ghetto I'd see as like she said, naming your child Lexis or, you know, eating baloney sandwiches, like fried baloney sandwiches or things like that, you know. But there are certain things that you do that are just beyond ghetto, and that's just pure stupidity, you know.
And I think there really is a difference and that some people, they're taking it too far, you know. Because, really, ghetto - it's not something that's so demoralizing to society, it's just a way that some people live. And I know plenty of ghetto people that have great values, you know, and that are willing to share what they have, the little bit that they do have, even though they're ghetto, you know, and it doesn't necessarily make them bad people, and they contribute to our society so much.
Ms. DANIELS: See, I would think that you're using - you know, I disagree, because I think that you're using ghetto to replace poor, so there's definitely, you know, many working-class folks and many poor folks and, yeah, this is how I grew up, you know, poor and working-class. And I don't necessarily think that those folks are ghetto. I think that when you use the word ghetto, that is a negative term. It is a mindset that celebrates the worst and we should stop interchanging ghetto for poor or working class or black.
ABRAHAM: I definitely can agree with you, but I'm sure you've heard the saying - like out of all your research - you can take me out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of me.
CONAN: Well, that's something you address particularly in your own life, Cora Daniels.
Ms. DANIELS: Yeah. I mean, I think that, yeah, we hear these terms and that phrase and, you know, I want to - you know, I try to examine what are we really saying when we use that phrase. You know, is that something really that we should be proud of? And, you know, I can - you know, after, you know, examining this and talking folks and really dissecting what that was, you know, I have to conclude that, no, that's not something we should be proud of.
CONAN: Abraham, thanks very much.
ABRAHAM: Thank you.
CONAN: One of the things you talk about at the end or your book, and that is some of the other people who've engaged in this conversation, including Bill Cosby, who caused tremendous ruckus by addressing the issue of self-responsibility. And you say the way he did it was not necessarily - but at least he opened a conversation.
Ms. DANIELS: I think that he did reveal that there is this gap in the black community of, you know, there's sort of middle class - there's an anger of black middle class folks. And I think that the problem when, you know, he was on his tirade is that he was attributing all these issues to the black poor. You know, just as our caller before was saying, well, there's people in, you know, in the ghetto who are not bad and not this and not that.
And I think we're diffusing and mixing up the issues, because I think that the bottom line, what Cosby was upset about wasn't stuff that, you know, was with poor black people. It was with ghetto people. And I think that he was really upset with the issue of ghetto and what I'm defining as ghetto.
And, you know, that should never be confused with race or class, because you can be just as ghetto at every notch on the totem pole of income, every wallet size. I mean, we have celebrities on the red carpet who are talking about that, you know, every woman should learn how to pole dance. You know, to me, that's ghetto. I mean…
CONAN: The pole dance workout. Yeah.
Ms. DANIELS: …I have a daughter. I would hope that she would never want to learn how to pole dance, you know. And, you know, the fact that they now sell miniature poles with fake little garters, you know, in the children's section. I find that sad.
CONAN: Cora Daniels is the author of "Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and Home of the Shameless." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Brian. Brian calling from Kansas City.
BRIAN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thank you.
BRIAN: Good. I don't know where this quote came from - I heard it from somebody else, maybe your guest knows the source - but one of the signs of a society in decay, in decline is when the upper classes start to emulate the lower classes. And, to me, this all corresponds with such a gradual degrading of the quality of public education.
And you know what I have been seeing going on for a long time also is this growing mistrust of the intellectual, which I think at one time was really respected in our society. And now it's not. There's a real genuine distrust of the intellectual, that that's not what you want to be like. And I can listen to the comment off the air.
CONAN: All right. Brian, thanks very much.
BRIAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Any comment, Cora?
Ms. DANIELS: Yeah. I mean, I think that his point with the distrust of the intellectual - I think that that's very valid. I mean, I think that when your expectations get so low, you know, it's - you know, I was hanging around high schools, you know, the question that was asked of students was did you pass. You know, that should be expected. You know, I would like you to get A's, B's, and, you know, as best as you can. Did you pass is the minimum.
CONAN: Here's a comment from Ann via our blog.
I think this conversation and this idea is pretty elitist. As an English teacher and sometime linguist, I think that examples of speech like tooked exhibit a playfulness in language and don't necessarily require prescription for correction and definitely don't mean that someone is ghetto.
As for the term ghetto itself, I think that in many cases it can be a positive. It's working with what you have, even if those means are reduced, reused, recycled. If I can only afford a seven-dollar manicure in order to look pretty, am I going to get some bling and my initials in gold on those index fingers? Damn right I am, she writes.
Ms. DANIELS: Yeah. I definitely see her point. And I think that that, you know, that's the problem. You know, I tried to - I put a lot of myself in this book and I put, you know, a lot of how I felt that I myself was being ghetto as well. Because I think this is something that can very dangerously cross the line and sort of be elitist and be very judgmental.
And I think that this problem is much larger than that. So I think the problem is much larger than nails or than tooked. I mean, sometimes you have to use humor to sort of prove a point. And, you know, the point that I'm trying to prove is a larger societal issue and mindset. And, you know, I just - you know, I just think that we can do better.
CONAN: I wonder - as you mentioned, you grew up poor in an area of New York City which has since become gentrified, but nevertheless it certainly wasn't when you grew up there. And is there some confusion in your mind as to why role models in society aren't necessarily you? You, who've made a great success of your life.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DANIELS: You know, I think that that's - I think that that's at the core of - I mean, I think - I just find that this - I just think that we're just not reaching as high as we could. You know, and I think that you can find role models, you know, on every aspect of society. And, you know, I found role models in my neighborhood growing up. I found, you know, role models in, you know, when I looked larger than that.
But, you know, I would hope - you know, going back to those kids on the subway, you know. What was troublesome about that is that their role models, you know, were obviously, you know, behind bars. I mean, if you're thinking that, you know, it's fun to have, you know, a gun on the subway and, you know, pretend that you're doing a stickup, you know, I'd rather, you know, have you pretend that you're, you know, president of the United States for a day, you know.
CONAN: Cora Daniels, stay with us. We've got to take a short break. We'll take a couple of more calls when we get back. We're also going to talk about the mystery at the airport bookstore - actually, a lot of mysteries. We'll tell you how to choose the right airport literature when time is short and selections are few. So stay with us for that conversation as well.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Today we're talking with Cora Daniels about her book, "Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and Home of the Shameless."
Let's see if we can get a couple more questions in. And this is Debbie. Debbie's with us from Peoria, Arizona.
DEBBIE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say that I think that this is really an issue of race. And the fact that white people have appropriated the language and some of the dress and all that of the ghetto is simply a demonstration of how we have trivialized as a nation the issues that are seriously affecting our country. And we haven't addressed those at all. And I think that this is happening because we just don't have national policy to solve the issues of people who have to live in a ghetto.
Ms. DANIELS: I mean, I definitely think that - I mean, I would agree that we're definitely not addressing the serious issues of this nation and of poor people in this country and of people still trying to climb. So, you know, I think that, yeah, that that's part of it when this stuff becomes mainstream.
CONAN: Thanks, Debbie.
DEBBIE: Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure. Here's an e-mail from Joe in Oakland, California. Something along the same lines.
What I find so unsettling about the notion of ghetto as a mindset or it's use a pop cultural colloquialism is the way that it trivializes something very serious. Taking the suffering and social pathologies of poverty, co-opting them, giving them a glitzy coat of meretricious sparkle and selling them back to those who strain under them strikes me as the worse sort of cynicism.
When 12-year-old white children try their level best to ape a swagger that arises from a desperate kind of social defensiveness, it's obvious that something is amiss. It frightens me even more that legitimizing the ghetto culture can create the impression that those who are actually in the ghetto have nothing to protest or fight about. It's sad, he says.
Ms. DANIELS: Bravo, bravo. He just made me cheer here in New York.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Okay. Let's see if we can get one last call in. And this is Laura, Laura with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
LAURA (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I mean, it's not about poverty at all. It's just as much when I was little, I mean, some people were poor people and some people were - and I'm from the South - were called poor white trash. And that was just about how they chose to handle themselves, about their self-respect.
But I think there's another word that kind of goes along with ghetto, which is wannabe. Which is we make just as much fun of people emulating rich people. And stores like Target certainly cater to it now. We've got a lot of products that are made to look like imitations of the rich version, you know.
So I think that that's - you know, ghetto doesn't necessarily have to be a dirty word, basically.
CONAN: It's interesting, Cora Daniels, one of the examples you use is a town along the Jersey Shore that you covered. A very wealthy town, large houses and large lots, and houses that you came to suspect were largely empty of furniture.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DANIELS: Well, if you did the math of the median and average income of the town and how much the houses cost, they didn't match. And it was actually the local police officers who kind of put me onto this at first. Because when I used to collect the police blotter, they wouldn't have anything. They'd have, oh, maybe a stolen bicycle.
So then, you know, that's the secret of cops. They like to chatter and gossip and talk a lot. And so they were like, oh, well, you know, that big house on the corner, you know, they can't afford to buy any furniture, and this house and that house.
And I think that is another illustration about how this mindset crosses racial and class lines. I think it's very easy to sort of point our finger and recognize ghetto in someone else and, you know, snub our nose at it without sort of recognizing the ghetto in ourselves.
And, you know, if the bar has dropped this low, then we've all played a part in that. And how we can sort of raise it and solve these issues is raising our expectations. That's the first step is you have to raise your expectations.
CONAN: Cora Daniels, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.
Ms. DANIELS: Thank you.
CONAN: Cora Daniels' book is "Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and Home of the Shameless." She was with us today from our bureau in New York.
And in just a moment, the mystery of the airport mystery.