Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, 2015


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Leovy argues that police overreach and excessive police aggression are not the primary cause of persistently high murder rates and other criminal behavior in high-crime minority community.  Instead, she points to the lack of law-enforcement—specifically the failure to prosecute homicide cases in such communities—as a major contributor to the perpetual problems plaguing those environments.

When the state fails to forcefully investigate and bring charges against murderers, it loses its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.  Homicide goes unpunished, cheapening lives of minority residents, and encourages vigilante violence to avenge deaths that would otherwise go unpunished, perpetuating a cycle of violence over which the state has no control.  In such an environment, citizens place little trust in the police, who do not solve the most serious of crimes, and are also afraid to testify against murders, either out of fear, or due to the belief that non-state actors will address the situation through further violence.

This commentary is woven into the real homicide case of south Los Angles detectives, who are trying to solve the murder of a colleague’s young black son.  The pressure and urgency of solving the case—for one of their own—is, Leovy argues, a model for how all homicides should be investigated and prosecuted.  If the law were enforced in this manner more broadly throughout high-crime minority communities, the state would regain the trust and cooperation of its citizens, and the cycles of homicidal self-policing would be great reduced.

While the general argument of the book outlined above was interesting and seemingly solid, the narrative of the real-life case and the characters involved wasn’t emotionally engaging for me.  It came across as an impersonal news report, even though it recounted a tragedy.  It is non-fiction report, but it still seemed to lack something, and I feel the book ran a little too long.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (lower)

Related Books: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Recommend to Others: If you are interested in the issue

Reread Personally: No

Quotes:  *Read on Kindle, so no real page numbers available, unfortunately

[black men are] just 6 percent of the country’s population but nearly 40 percent of those murdered.

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.

By the early twenty-first century, popular consensus held that any emphasis on high rates of black criminality risked invoking the stigma of white racism. So people were careful about how they spoke of it.

Men act touchy. They fixate on honor and respect—a result of lawlessness, not a cause. Petty quarrels grow lethal, and may mask deeper antagonisms.

despite rampant complaints about law enforcement, black Southerners everywhere also said they wanted more policing—to protect them from other black people.

Fundamentally gangs are a consequence of lawlessness, not a cause.

Checklist work and real work were not the same to him. You could get praise and a paycheck and fill your day with busy, important-seeming activities and never solve a case.

No amount of “community” feeling or activism can eclipse this dynamic. People often assert that the solution to homicide is for the so-called community to “step up.” It is a pernicious distortion. People like Jessica Midkiff cannot be expected to stand up to killers. They need safety, not stronger moral conviction. They need some powerful outside force to sweep in and take their tormentors away. That’s what the criminal justice system is for.

“As homicide creeps up, witness cooperation drops off,” he said. A feedback loop exists between murder rates and ambient fear; Skaggs was now seeing this firsthand.

how police had long functioned in the United States: preoccupied with control and prevention, obsessed with nuisance crime, and lax when it came to answering for black lives.

it was really not so hard to insert legal authority into the chaos of extralegal violence among the young men of South Central, and that the state’s monopoly on violence could be established fairly easily, after all. But you had to be willing to pay the cost, to put in the effort. You had to be very persistent.

If every murder and every serious assault against a black man on the streets were investigated with Skaggs’s ceaseless vigor and determination—investigated as if one’s own child were the victim, or as if we, as a society, could not bear to lose these people—conditions would have been different.

a refusal to see the black homicide problem for what it was: a problem of human suffering caused by the absence of a state monopoly on violence.

Stuntz died in 2011. His summation still applies: “Poor black neighborhoods see too little of the kinds of policing and criminal punishment that do the most good, and too much of the kinds that do the most harm.”

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


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