Even 75 years later, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton Jr.’s 1945 tome Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in the Northern City remains my aspirational model for social scientific scholarship. Written by two graduate students, with an introduction from their comrade and friend Richard Wright, the text uses interdisciplinary methods strategically to offer a rare materialist analysis of urban inequality and community formation. Their work disrupts the dominant human ecology vision of the day, led by their mentors of the “Chicago School,” which saw the organization of cities emerging from an organic process dictated by the cultural tastes and temperaments of racial groups, rather than being driven by the accumulation of socioeconomic power. Drake and Cayton’s work directly challenged not only those who controlled their immediate professional fate, but also scholars who propped up the segregationist outlook of both the real estate industry and public policymakers in the Federal Housing Administration.
With the text at just under 800 pages, it’s easy to lose sight of the pathbreaking methodological brilliance found in Black Metropolis. For example, Drake and Cayton drew from South Side activists in the 1930s to offer one of the first academic uses of the term “ghetto” as an analytic for engaging the state-sanctioned racial segregation of African Americans in cities. Their “Black Ghetto” chapter overwhelms the dominant human ecological paradigm of their Chicago forbearers with detailed sociological data to document racial disparities in housing, labor, health, income, and other metrics—challenging any claims about the organic structure of cities. Before US politicians and scholars turned their eyes to Nazi Germany, Drake and Cayton used the term “ghetto” to shed light on municipal policies like racially restrictive housing covenants, white vigilante violence, and financial divestment from Black communities to argue that the racial organization of urban space looked not like a human ecology but fascism. Still, the authors immediately placed this sociological rendering of the “Black Ghetto” in conversation with an ethnographic account of what residents called “Bronzeville.”