WASHINGTON -- Somebody should have warned Newt Gingrich to stay away from the "ghetto."
The word, I mean. If so, the former speaker of the House, who is weighing a presidential bid, could have avoided the embarrassment for which he is apologizing.
In a video statement on YouTube that's read in Spanish and subtitled in English, the Georgia Republican says his "word choice was poor" when he equated bilingual education with "the language of living in a ghetto."
What he meant to say, he says, is this: "In the United States, it is important to speak the English language well in order to advance and have success."
As a journalist who has had the G-word stricken from my copy by cautious editors, I could have warned him. "Ghetto" means so many things to so many different people that it is best avoided as a metaphor in mixed company unless you're trying to be, say, Grand Master Newt, the rap artist.
Mr. Gingrich didn't know it, but his G-bomb stepped into the middle of a bubbling controversy in the black community that has boiled over into mainstream American culture.
"Ghetto" originally referred to the areas of Rome, Warsaw and some other European cities into which Jews once were confined. Black activists in 1960s America embraced the word to label impoverished urban areas into which blacks had long been segregated.
But in recent years, the word increasingly has come to mean simply "low-class," sometimes with irony, sometimes not.
Mr. Gingrich's gaffe coincides with the publication of a book he would have found helpful: Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and the Home of the Shameless, by Cora Daniels.
Ms. Daniels says she was moved to write by the sight of Paris Hilton remarking on the reality TV show The Simple Life that "this truck is so ghetto," as she tried in vain to start up an old, rusted pickup. At that moment, Ms. Daniels says, she realized that "ghetto" is no longer a "black thing," but "an American thing."
Ms. Daniels is not radical chic. She comes courageously to vilify "ghetto," not to praise it.
With wit and wisdom, she explores and exposes the ghetto "mindset" that demeans women ("hos," "bee-yatches"), devalues education ("acting white"), ridicules proper English ("talking white"), celebrates criminality ("gangsta love"), discards traditional parenthood ("babydaddies") and celebrates tacky fashion ("ghettofabulous").
She knew things had gone off the rails when, shopping for Halloween, she found "pimp" and "ho" costumes in preschool sizes. And when she discovered that more than 1,200 babies were named Lexus in 2006.
Yet Ms. Daniels writes with an undertone of love. She softens the inevitable "elitist" label that some critics have pinned on Bill Cosby by spreading the blame. Ms. Daniels quite properly includes black middle-class Americans, like her and me, in her critique.
Ms. Daniels fails to pin down the precise moment when the most self-destructive values took hold, if there is one. I would put it at the point when, as black novelist-journalist Jill Nelson tells Ms. Daniels, "We lost hope." Our generation saw the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy and other great leaders rise, only to be violently snatched away from us.
We also saw the poorest of the black poor becoming increasingly isolated in the economic ghettos from which their more fortunate neighbors escaped. Like impoverished societies everywhere, our black poor created new music and fashions from the resources they had. These, in turn, were exploited by entertainment executives when they found big profits to be made, often in white suburbia.
At a time of great national argument over who is to blame for poverty, racism or bad habits, Ms. Daniels reveals that society can be blamed.
Mr. Gingrich is hardly the first or only American to be caught in the "ghetto." The first step toward improving our predicament, as Ms. Daniels tells us, is to improve the way we think about it.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.