Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside

GhettosideLos Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy could scarcely have asked for better timing for the publication of her true-crime book Ghettoside, released in early 2015, immediately following a year of high-publicity inner city crimes, cop killings and racial tensions escalating into riots and political spats. Leovy spent nearly a decade covering homicide in South Central Los Angeles (now officially renamed “South Los Angeles,” for much the same reasons a company might rebrand a tainted product), embedded in the homicide bureau rather than working out of her usual office, and she has done for Los Angeles what David Simon, in Homicide and The Wire, did for Baltimore: shine a light on an ugly and otherwise overlooked malignancy in American society. America’s murder rate, already shockingly high compared to most developed nations, becomes all the more frightening when you realize how geographically concentrated these crimes are, and how disproportionately the victim – and the perpetrator – is a young black male. Ghettoside is really two books in one, the first a riveting narrative account of a young man’s murder and the subsequent investigation; the second a work of social science advancing a controversial thesis: that America’s black populations suffer from too little, rather than too much, policing.

Leovy’s task in Ghettoside is to explain a phenomenon that is seldom talked about or even acknowledged: the disproportionately high crime rates in America’s black communities. And she deserves credit for daring even to broach the subject, particularly when compared with how cowardly the media, the universities and our politicians have declined to engage the problem. The implication is that there is something impolite, indelicate, perhaps even racist, in pointing out the statistical disparities, particularly when they have seemed so intractable for so long. Mercifully, Leovy has no such qualms:

[…] historians have traced disproportionately high black homicide rates all the way back to the late nineteenth century, and in the early twentieth, “nonwhite” homicide rates exceeded those of whites in all cities that reported federal data. In the 1920s, a scholar concluded that black death rates from homicide nationwide were about seven times white rates. In the 1930s, Southern observers also noticed startling rates of black violence, and in the 1940s, a Philadelphia study found that black men died from homicide at twelve times the white rate. When the U.S. government began publishing data specific to blacks in 1950, it revealed the same gap nationwide. The black homicide death rate remained as much as ten times higher than the white rate in 1960 and 1970, and has been five to seven times higher for most of the past thirty years.

Disparities this wide demand an explanation, and Leovy promptly delivers (actually, her thesis precedes the naming of the problem, probably as a concession to the aforementioned sensitivity of the subject): “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” Drawing on Max Weber and his famous “state monopoly on violence” (beautifully expounded upon in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature, a book Leovy surely must have read but does not reference), she argues that the de facto tolerance of black-on-black crime – once openly spoken of, now a seriously overlooked policy issue – has given the most violent and predatory people in these communities free reign, stifling any potential for growth and peaceful coexistence. Consider: “In Jim Crow Mississippi, killers of black people were convicted at a rate that was only a little lower than the rate that prevailed half a century later in L.A. – 30 percent then versus about 36 percent in Los Angeles County in the early 1990s.” This is shameful, but it still doesn’t give a sense of the terrible scale of what the Los Angeles homicide police come to call the Monster, the system of crime and violence that claims black lives by the thousands each year. “In 1993, black men in their early twenties in Los Angeles County died by homicide at a rate of 368 per 100,000 population, similar to the per capita rate of death for U.S. soldiers deployed to Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.” The war comparison is all the more apt because, as it turns out, the U.S. military sent their doctors to train with the surgeons of Los Angeles hospitals, knowing full well they had seen as vast array of gunshot wounds as any military surgeon would likely encounter in the field.

So good police work and better police are required to combat this social monstrosity, and Leovy has found just the man for the job: Detective John Skaggs, who “descend[s] into the most horrifying crevasse of American violence like a miner going to work, pick-ax in one hand, lunch pail in the other, whistling all the way.” Skaggs is Leovy’s exception, the Los Angeles cop all others should seek to emulate. He rises before the sun each day, returning home long after the regular workday finishes, and this is hugely important because, as Leovy is quick to concede, police work operates on its own schedule. Witnesses – who very often are prostitutes, drug dealers and drug users – do not live normal lives, and so neither can the cops who interrogate them. Case in point: in Skaggs’ best year, he earned just over $160,000 as a policeman, most of that in overtime pay – good police work does not come cheap. And yet Skaggs is also undeniably effective, posting a “solve rate” of 70% or better for most of his career. Surely, Leovy speculates, if potential killers faced a 70% chance of being caught and convicted, as opposed to half that, crime would decline.

Ghettoside is also a crime drama, the story of the murder of a policeman’s son and the department’s dogged pursuit of justice. This aspect of the book deserves much praise, as Leovy deftly weaves together the facts of the case with her own commentary to create a compelling narrative. We learn about the reluctance of witnesses to testify, and the deep mistrust of police within the very communities who have most need of law enforcement; we see the allure of the gangs, the toxic pull they exercise on not only the community’s young men but the women, too. We get a sense of the deep despair that embeds itself in communities where crime is a fact of life: parents on every block who know the pain of losing a child; young women, often underage, pulled into a life of prostitution; teenagers with disfiguring injuries or condemned to wheelchairs for the rest of their lives. It’s almost inconceivable that such horrors could exist in Los Angeles, but for decades they were as much a fact of life there as heavy traffic and warm weather.

If I have one criticism of this book, it is in its capacity as a work of sociology. Leovy refuses to take seriously other theories of crime, preferring to lay blame for the vast statistical disparity in black homicide entirely at the feet of an impotent criminal justice system, even when her own narrative cuts sharply against her thesis. She is, for example, too astute a journalist not to notice that one of the preferred explanations for crime, poverty, cannot suffice to explain the homicide differentials in Los Angeles, where immigrant and Hispanic neighbourhoods of equal poverty have nothing like the same rate of crime. For this disparity Leovy blames segregation – once an official policy and later more of an unspoken agenda – for isolating black America, keeping the virtuous and the murderous penned in, but this explanation seems grossly insufficient, particularly without any consideration of family dynamics, which have also been shown to influence crime and may help to explain ethnic disparities in crime far better than she lets on.

Ultimately, this was a deeply engrossing read, both as an account of crime in America and as an attempt to explain it, and Leovy deserves immense credit for focusing national attention on the horrific realities of life in neighbourhoods where lawlessness and disorder are allowed to go unpunished – and for speaking of the countless dead young men whose lives were squandered while the rest of the country happily looked the other way.