Ghettoside | Jill Leovy

Summary of: Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America
By: Jill Leovy


In ‘Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America,’ Jill Leovy takes an in-depth look at the startlingly high level of violence and unsolved murders in predominantly black communities. The book delves into the historical and structural reasons behind the lack of a state monopoly on violence in these areas and reveals how misguided police policies and alternate systems of justice contribute to this grim reality. Leovy explores the origins of this phenomenon and the potential solutions to make communities safer by prioritizing homicide investigations, rebuilding trust with local communities, and delivering justice to victims and their families.

Unresolved Black Homicides

Surprisingly, the majority of homicides involving black male victims remain unsolved and underreported. The conviction rate for these cases is significantly lower compared to other demographics. During the early 1990s in Los Angeles, only 36% of black murder perpetrators faced conviction, a fraction above the 30% rate recorded in Jim Crow-era Mississippi. This lower conviction rate exposes the disadvantage suffered by black homicide victims. A Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that a killer of a black or Hispanic individual was less likely to be convicted than one of a white person, and even if convicted, received less severe penalties. This pattern reflects a general societal and police indifference towards crimes against black communities. The Los Angeles Police Department once acknowledged black murders as NHI (No Human Involved), highlighting the dehumanizing perspective on these cases. Furthermore, when reported, black murders are frequently skewed and labeled as “gang violence,” masking the human tragedy behind such incidents. Understanding the origins of this issue requires an exploration of historical and structural factors, with answers often contrary to expectations.

State Monopolies and Violence

The concept of a state’s monopoly on violence, as defined by sociologist Max Weber, is crucial for ensuring the rule of law and individual autonomy. Usually, the state exercises exclusive rights over legitimate force, and the police protect citizens, fostering a sense of safety. Unfortunately, poor black communities in the United States historically lack this protective monopoly, dating back to the racism of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. During those periods, safety for all citizens was disregarded. This disparity led to vigilantism, informal justice, and self-policing in black communities. When southern black communities migrated to northern industrial cities in the early 1900s, conflicts arose with northern police who aggressively patrolled black neighborhoods. Major riots resulted in the 1960s, and ever since, skepticism towards bureaucratic justice has persisted in black communities.

Unraveling Violence’s Alternate System

The absence of a state monopoly on violence within certain black communities has led to the development of an alternate system of justice. This system, rooted in violence, prevails due to minimal law enforcement intervention. In the face of perceived personal threats, people often resort to violence rather than seeking legal solutions. This phenomenon results in homicides over seemingly trivial matters like unpaid debts or party crashers. The alternate justice system is driven by unwritten codes of conduct and loyalty, which further complicates law enforcement intervention. For instance, witnesses in South Central L.A.’s black community often refuse to testify due to a fear of being labeled as “snitches” and facing violent backlash. Consequently, this reluctance becomes a significant factor in the low conviction rates for homicides in communities like South Central. This observation reveals that high homicide rates and the presence of justice systems built around gangs are not the cause, but rather a consequence, of lawlessness.

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