Over the holidays, I noticed journalist Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America popping up on “best books of the year” lists, so I downloaded it, expecting some gripping but morally simple true-crime reading. Leovy surprised me with something far more precious: a revelation of how high rates of unsolved murders of blacks in Los Angeles have caused endless waves of individual human suffering, eating away at lives and communities — and how to understand why these murders keep happening. It is not about how guns or gangs or racism are to blame for the violence (though all play a role): it is about how the absence of justice for the victims, and their families and neighbours, breeds a pathological cycle of death.
Leovy puts it this way: “This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” It’s true the idea is simple. But as an explanation for the high homicide death rates for U.S. black males — rates that Leovy shows us are wild in how disproportionate they are compared to the rest of the U.S. population — the idea is almost heretical. Seriously? After the Michael Brown police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore at the hands of deadly rough and indifferent police treatment, this woman is suggesting American blacks are dying because of under-policing?
The answer is yes, she is; and she makes a very convincing case.
Leovy is not unaware of the more popular, seemingly opposing explanations for the sky-high homicide rates, nor does she argue that these factors don’t exist. For example, thanks in large part to David Simon’s excellent books The Corner and Homicide: Life on the Street, we’ve spent the last several decades focused on how the criminalization of drugs — and the excessive penalties for drug crimes — has decimated black inner city communities. Leovy acknowledges this (though the Simon references are mine, not hers), but she sees it as merely the other side of a single coin.
“Like the schoolyard bully,” Leovy writes, “our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”
Once the duality is pointed out, it starts to become obvious everywhere one looks, and it underlines another key piece of the puzzle: the vast majority of the murders we’re talking about here are black-on-black murders, which means that calling for greater protection of black mean also entails calling for greater punishment of black men. That’s not an easy or comfortable thing to talk about, let alone do. Leovy is frank and factual about why both — talking about it and doing it — are crucial, despite the charges of racial insensitivity (or worse) that might result. She quotes black law professor Randall Kennedy:
“It does no good to pretend that blacks and whites are similarly situated with respect to either rates of perpetration or rates of victimization. They are not. The familiar dismal statistics and the countless tragedies behind them are not figments of some Negrophobe’s imagination.”
Leovy strengthens her case with eye-opening statistics and history showing how disproportionate black violence rates in America predate the guns, gangs, and drugs we typically blame for the scourge. Because the real culprit is a legal system that values some lives more highly than others, and that is a much older and deeper problem.
I have no idea what Jill Leovy’s political leanings are, which I see as a testament to her book. Certainly, there are “conservative” aspects to her thesis, but there are equally “liberal” ones too, and in many ways her book strikes me as one of the most powerful counterarguments I’ve ever read to the “broken windows” theory of criminal justice that is so favoured by many conservatives. Ultimately, what Leovy’s book convinces me of is that government is necessary to impose justice when violence is committed, and the better and more blindly it does that job, the better off we all are; while at the same time, the more it tries to do other jobs, the worse off everyone will be.
Lest you suspect I have spoiled Ghettoside for you, let me assure you that I have left out the best parts of the book. These are the intricate portraits of the real people — victims, criminals, witnesses, mothers, fathers, detectives — who are living these painful stories every day in Los Angeles.
Ghettoside offers the freshest ideas about criminal justice policy I’ve read in a long time. It’s clear that the author arrived at them through both careful, reasoned study and profound human empathy. We should all aspire to both.
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