Ghettoside in Review

Jill Leovy’s book gets deep into the weeds of black-on-black homicide in Los Angeles. If it was on the syllabi of public policy/public administration courses, students would actually read it.

la-la-ca-0115-jill-leovy-285-jpg-20150121In the current ‘Black Lives Matter’ debates, black-on-black crime is often invoked as a tactic to silence legitimate protest over racist police misconduct, up to and including the misuse of lethal force. It would be a mistake to classify Leovy’s book as an instance of such callousness.

Before I get into the book, a few words about numbers. I’m no criminal justice expert, but I am numerate. A commonly-cited number is the percentage of African-Americans victimized by other African-Americans. This is an idiotic metric. The numbers for blacks and whites are similar. People who commit murder tend to murder people they know. More to the point is the percentages of different groups victimized.

The lowest-income groups suffer the more from crime, and African-Americans most of all. In this vein, a black-white comparison is not quite apples-to-apples. What would be more telling is such a comparison where the income distributions of the groups were made comparable in some way. That would isolate the racial disparity. In any case, there are data on homicide death rates by age and race. There should be no ambiguity that it is higher for blacks, by more than a few multiples. These lives matter too.

I speculate that for young blacks, the murder of one of their own by a police officer is more heinous than a murder by a neighborhood offender. After all, infinitely more is expected of a person in authority who has sworn to uphold the law, and who is supposed to be trained to do so effectively.

Feelings aside, it may appear to reasonable people that relief from police malfeasance is more available than solutions to crime in low-income neighborhoods. Law enforcement is susceptible to political control, criminal acts less so. So in general the focus of #BlackLivesMatter on police misconduct, as opposed to black-on-black crime, is well-taken, if susceptible to critique.

The fact remains, homicide of black males by other black males is real and alarming. Ideally, reform of law enforcement would pay heed to what police should do less of — indulge their racist proclivities — as well as what they ought to do more of — prevent crime and catch the bad guys. Ghettoside is only relevant to the latter objectives.

Leovy’s key point of departure is the very low (30%) ‘clearance rate’ of homicides in black neighborhoods. The immediate cause is the indifference of municipal authorities to the problem. Some factors seem specific to Los Angeles, such as the relative lack of prestige accorded detectives, compared to other lines of professional advancement in the police department. More generally, for one reason or another, resources go elsewhere.

In Los Angeles, homicide detectives were burdened with an extraordinary number of cases. They had to go begging for basic office supplies, as well as necessary equipment. They could have benefited from better support from uniformed officers. Meanwhile, resources did flow to dubious police strategies that looked ‘tough’ but were either ineffective or counter-productive. Shades of the ‘surge’ in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The baddest residents of the ghetto are seldom all bad. Leovy is able to delineate a range of characters. There are hard-core gang-bangers, reluctant recruits, hangers-on, and wannabee gangsters. Some get into the life purely as a defense mechanism; it’s either join or be subject to abuse. Others manage to avoid it completely. All kinds of folks are on view.

A striking feature of the effective police investigations chronicled in the book is the extent to which they rely on just one thing: witnesses. For many murders, the perpetrators are known to everybody but the police. The lack of resemblance to popular television shows about cops is stark. There is no CSI coming after you in the ghetto. It’s mainly asking people what they know, again and again and again. There is further the horrendously difficult task of protecting witnesses and their families, which goes back to the money problem.

Some of Leovy’s explanation for the racial disparity in murder verges on the anthropological. A concern in this vein is the tendency to assume that sole responsibility for misdeeds rests with those who commit them. The flip side would be to deny responsibility and arguably discount the humanity of those who commit crimes.

When it comes to root causes, I’d say Leovy hits a few relevant highlights.

First and foremost, the absence of law enforcement — in this context embodied in the failure to bring murderers to justice — facilitates lawlessness. When the State is absent, so is the force required to resolve disputes peacefully. People are left to their own lethal devices. Those who have good reason to expect they will get away with criminal acts are less reluctant to commit them.

Second, the evaporation of good-paying jobs elsewhere described by William Julius Wilson facilitates crime. When you have no income and the opportunities it provides, you have less to lose from incarceration. You also have fewer ways of escaping threats of violence. Interesting in this regard is Leovy’s claim that in her observation, the expansion of disability benefits reduces crime. These benefits move their desperate recipients one notch away from utter destitution.

Third, racial segregation makes everything worse. The geographic concentration of low-income residents and absent law enforcement is a flammable combination. It also isolates potential witnesses from legal shelter.

Fourth, not mentioned in the book but obvious from a reading of it, is the proliferation of guns. Murders tend to be quick in-and-out operations. With less efficient tools, those who might commit murder would be constrained. And if more good guys had guns, the predictable result would be more shoot-outs and random casualties.

Leovy is a reporter, not a sociologist or political economist. Nevertheless, I’d say she makes a pretty good stab at causality. The sources of municipal indifference to crime in the ghetto, the enduring extent of racial segregation, deindustrialization, and our libertarian gun control regime are grist for other books. Ghettoside doesn’t reveal everything, but what it does report leaves much to ponder.




Ghettoside in Review — 6 Comments

  1. Nice summary Max. I read the book some time ago because of relevance to our violent crime situation here in Oakland CA. Our murder and violent crime rate is higher than most other cities and our denial of protective resources to our poorest minorities is as great as anywhere. Nevertheless our pols like to think of themselves as pwogwessive.

  2. I am surprised that Homicide detectives in LA do not receive better material support. Usually that is the glamour division in police departments…

  3. One thing that struck me when I read the book (I have a post related to it here: is that the phrase ‘community policing’ has a lot of different meanings. Ideally, it would mean that police have good community relations so they can gather intelligence related to serious crimes for detectives. Unfortunately, it seemed in the book more of a ‘broken windows’ approach which actually made solving homicides harder.

  4. What I took from the book is that you want residents to be willing to talk to and confide in police. They’re not going to do that with people who constantly harass them.

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