PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Systems and Stereotypes

David Leonard

Any game that has players choosing among a malt liquor bottle, a basketball, or an Uzi for playing pieces is certainly harmful.

I own Ghettopoly. I'm not proud of it and I'm not comfortable that I made its creator David Chang any richer. But the recent controversy surrounding the board game surprised me. Ghettopoly, a board game that satirizes Monopoly, capitalism, and "black urban" stereotypes, allows players to "buy stolen properties, build crack houses and projects, pay protection fees and get car jacked."

Rather than a sports car or dog as your game piece, Ghettopoly has you picking between a piece of crack or chronic. Instead of buying Park Place or Reading Railroad, players purchase properties like "Tryron's Gun Shop," "Busta Cap Recording," or "Ling Ling's Massage Parlour." Ghettopoly constructs a black world in which "Yo leg [can be hit] by a stray bullet during a drive-by" or elected "Pimp of the Year."

As it's been available for over a year, I have to wonder why Ghettopoly has only recently become the center of a firestorm, following Urban Outfitters' decision to sell it. "It's really sick," Darryl Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg, Florida chapter of the NAACP, told the St. Petersburg Times. "What would be going through a young adult or teenager's mind if they're playing this game to win? The message that's being reinforced in the mind while you're playing, there's nothing good about it, there's nothing humorous about it."

The controversy reflects a contemporary trend in the media and among antiracist activists, focused on putting out discrete fires because they loom so large and hot so quickly. Only in moments of racial rupture, where the dominant paradigm of colorblindness is obviously disturbed, do politicians, pundits, and "activists" respond with condemnations and demands. As with the disruptions ignited by Fuzzy, Newt, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Rush, the outrage focused on Ghettopoly reflects the limitations of social justice movements today.

Consider UCLA Law Professor Kimberle Crenshaw's analysis of the clamor over Rush Limbaugh's racist comments on ESPN: "The elementary 'see no evil, speak no evil' version of racial etiquette that has been assumed in mainstream media effectively whitewashed Limbaugh. The process of normalizing racism as mere conservatism probably does as much to advance the cause of white supremacy as hooded marches, cross burnings and other patently racist activities." In other words, transforming the racial justice movement into a series of stopgap measures reduces our understanding of racism and prevents any sort of structural critique.

The furor over Ghettopoly exemplifies this process. While, as Al Sharpton argues, it surely reduces blackness to "thuggery, drug dealing, and misogyny", so do any number of video games, commercials, films, television shows, and legislative debates. David Chang's game capitalizes on the popularity of Grand Theft Auto III, Dope Wars, and many rap albums. And he has profited from a white desire to consume a demonized blackness, or what scholar S. Craig Watkins calls the "ghettocentric imagination."

However, public condemnations of Chang and Ghettopoly have not sparked reevaluations of the policies or conditions that underpin U.S. ghettos. Denunciations of the game ignore the links between it and ongoing police brutality, the prison industrial complex, deindustrialization, "all children left behind" policies, and globalization.

While Sharpton and other black leaders make their loudest protests over flare-ups like Rush or Michael Jackson, at least they see there is a problem with Ghettopoly. And that's more than might be said for many. The censure by Sharpton and others has also been dismissed as unnecessary, hypersensitive, and "politically correct." An AOL poll found that over 60% of "Americans" feel that Ghettopoly is "harmless fun." Believe me, the game is not fun; it's Monopoly. And it's not harmless. Any game that has players choosing among a malt liquor bottle, a basketball, or an Uzi for playing pieces is certainly harmful. It contributes to widespread stereotypes of black men as drug dealers, pimps, and gangsters. It reifies dominant beliefs that, for instance, more prisons and police are reasonable means to deal with vilified black bodies and spaces associated with them.

Neither critics who see Ghettopoly as an isolated problem, nor those who detach consumption from ideology can see Ghettopoly for what it is, a representative entertainment. Last month's criticism of Ghettopoly, while surely warranted, was misguided. The call to remove the game from store shelves not only led to greater interest and increased sales, but also demonstrated the current trend toward reactive outrage in lieu of sustained organization against racism as a system.

Given the increasing number of African Americans behind bars and the declining presence of blacks on college campuses, we need more than a boycott of Urban Outfitters. The fact that so many dismissed criticism of the game necessitates education and action. We can neither ignore Ghettopoly, nor focus all our attention on sensational moments, given that racist images and attitudes are promoted, tolerated, and consumed every day.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.