Book Review : “Ghettoside” by Jill Leovy – posted 6/1/2015
I have to say Ghettoside by Jill Leovy was not what I expected. We are awash in crime fiction, crime-solving TV shows and a million shallow and stereotyped portrayals of inner city crime. Ghettoside is not like any non-fiction book or novel of that genre. It is a very sharply drawn book with compelling characters and a unique perspective.
Leovy takes on the subject of the murder of Black men in America. Through the true story of one murder in Los Angeles County and its successful investigation, she makes a powerful argument.
“…where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”
Leovy argues that the criminal justice system has preoccupied itself with control, prevention and nuisance abatement rather than responding to victims of violence. She says the criminal justice system has done a poor job in addressing black on black homicide.
It is admittedly a difficult and sensitive topic to tackle. Leovy recognizes the harshness of the American criminal justice system, the racist misuse of capital punishment, the excessively punitive drug laws, and the mass incarceration of young black men but she forcefully argues the State has failed to protect black men from bodily injury and death. Leovy sees too little application of the law – not too much.
Leovy’s theme is quite consistent with the campaign Black Lives Matter which has grown out of the police shootings of young black men. She argues that homicides in the black community have garnered inadequate attention and resources. Generally, these murders are not well-covered by the media. Too often they are ignored completely.
That tragic lack of attention and indifference are rooted in racism and devaluation of Black lives. An L.A. detective coined the term “the Monster” to refer to the epidemic of black on black homicide. Especially in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, there was a crazy ravaging where murder followed murder. Leovy says the murder rate has declined since then but the underlying phenemonon remains.
She says that the lack of media coverage was intended to convey the message that black on black homicide is “small potatoes”. She writes:
“Gangs were a big topic but atrocity, trauma, and lifelong sorrow were not part of the public’s vocabulary about black on black violence. Somehow mainstream America has managed to make a fetish of South Central murders yet still ignores them. The principal aspect of the plague – agony – was constantly underrrated.”
There is nothing cliched or less than three dimensional in Ghettoside. Leovy develops the characters in her story from the victims, to the victims’ families, to the police and homicide detectives. She gets into the role of homicide detective and the special talents required to be a good one. She describes the homicide detectives’ creed this way: “…standing over the body of a murdered prostitute..”She ain’t a whore no more”, he said. “She some daddy’s baby.” To the homicide detective, the murdered person, no matter their criminal involvement, deserved justice. As she says, the murdered were inviolate.
Leovy looks hard at high-homicide environments and adds to our understanding of why there have been so many killings. She says a large share can be described by two words: men fighting.Stupid grudges, debts, competition over women, snitching, and drunken antics – all have led to murder and lasting feuds. Whatever the original basis for the dispute, the desire for vengeance intrudes. The fixation on honor and respect in circumstances of weak legal authority leads to more acts of violence.
Since the 1980’s and 1990’s there has been a decline in the murder rate in Los Angeles County. Leavy provides a nuanced explanation for the decline. She cites an easing of residential hypersegregation. She says that integration and mobility into mixed communities tended to reduce homicide rates. A reduced caseload has then allowed for better archiving, investigation of cold cases and clearing new cases. Detectives have more time and new technology allows for better, faster matches of bullets to revolvers.
Interestingly, she thinks an increase in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits paid to poor black people has been a positive. While SSI is often maligned, she argues that the receipt of SSI has reduced homicides. Leovy cites the federal Second Chance Act of 2005 which inspired efforts to provide SSI to prisoners upon reentry. Many prisoners qualify for SSI on the basis of mental illness such as bipolar disorder and ADD. Leovy explains it this way:
“An eight hundred dollar a month check for an unemployed black ex-felon makes a big difference to him. He can move, ditch his homeys, commit fewer crimes, walk away from more fights.”
Leovy remarks that SSI has been a transformational positive force. She says “cold cash paid out to individuals is a powerful thing”. It has countered extreme economic marginalization. Leovy sees SSI as saving many from being murdered or maimed. This is a perspective that is rarely if ever heard but it makes perfect sense. When people have nothing and opportunities are totally lacking, what are the alternatives?
While there are many cool things about this book, it is uniquely a product of personal reporting. For years Leovy had created a website called the Homicide Report. She attempted to provide a comprehensive accounting of every homicide in Los Angeles County. She began seeing patterns and as she wrote she tried to penetrate the mystery of disproportionate black homicide. She particularly listened to the bereaved – all those parents, children, spouses and siblings who had suffered. I don’t believe anyone has attempted anything like this before.
At the same time as Leovy offers up this book, she maintains a degree of humility about understanding all the murders. She recognizes that black on black homicide remains an ongoing issue. I do think that the book offers many insights into how police departments and our larger society could reform and do a better job at addressing the roots of violence. She makes clear that we have brushed over tremendous tragedies out of indifference and racism. I hope this book is widely read. It takes up a significant problem that has been largely swept under the rug.