The important new book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Los Angeles Times homicide reporter Jill Leovy, is the hybrid of a true crime tale about the struggle of white LAPD detective John Skaggs to find the killer of the son of a black LAPD detective and a taboo-breaking scholarly analysis of America’s plague of black-on-black homicides.
At a moment when the conventional wisdom is coalescing around the idea that the big problem with the criminal justice system is white policemen being too mean to black criminals, Leovy drops a bombshell carefully justified by what she learned reporting from 2001 to 2012 on black crime in South Central Los Angeles. She argues the opposite: that white people should work harder to track down and lock up black murderers. Leovy admits:
This is not an easy argument to make in these times. Many critics today complain that the criminal justice system is heavy-handed and unfair to minorities. We hear a great deal about capital punishment, excessively punitive drug laws, supposed misuse of eyewitness evidence, troublingly high rates of black male incarceration, and so forth. So to assert that black Americans suffer from too little application of the law, not too much, seems at odds with common perception.
But if “black lives matter,” it’s time to get serious and admit that the main killers of blacks are, overwhelmingly, other blacks.
Ghettoside confirms the tradition of L.A. being the big leagues for crime writers.
Most parts of America can today boast of a local color crime writer, typically a former police beat reporter or a literary talent looking to make a living, such as the Ozarks’ Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone.
Los Angeles has one of the strongest heritages of crime writing, drawing upon the talents of journalists (for example, Michael Connelly and James M. Cain), cops (Joseph Wambaugh), prosecutors (Vincent Bugliosi), political scientists (James Q. Wilson), and homeless dudes (James Ellroy).
Perhaps the seminal crime for Los Angeles literary history was the 1929 murder-suicide in the Greystone Mansion of Beverly Hills of Ned Doheny, son of an pioneering California oilman, fictionalized in There Will Be Blood, and his secretary Hugh Plunket, who was under subpoena to testify in the Teapot Dome scandal in Washington. An obscure Los Angeles oil company executive named Raymond Chandler noted that the newspapers initially reported that the scion had shot his staffer and then himself. But on the second day of the story, coverage simply reversed—with no explanation—the key angle of “Who? Whom?”
When the Anglo-American Chandler, who had failed at making a living as a man of letters in Bloomsbury, found himself jobless again during the Depression, he resolved that he was going to write genre crime fiction (although with superior English literary skill). The 1929 double shooting in Greystone—with its glamor, wealth, political corruption, and warping of the press—remained an inspiration for Chandler, as his detective hero Philip Marlowe explained in 1942’s The High Window.
But most murders in Southern California don’t take place in the largest mansion south of Hearst Castle. Most aren’t worth fixing the news coverage for, because there’s almost no news coverage, because there are so many homicides in Los Angeles.
Blacks killing blacks are especially depressing and dull to potential audiences, as Chandler observed in his 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. A lazy, ineffectual LAPD homicide detective named Nulty complains at length to Marlowe about getting assigned to the murder case the private dick witnessed in a South Central black bar. The aptly named Nulty laments that he gets stuck with the all the boring black crimes that get no space in the newspapers (crimes that Nulty never solves). When Marlowe encourages Nulty to go get the killer, Nulty replies:
“I’ll get him,” he said, “about the time I get my third set of teeth. How many guys is put on it? One. Listen, you know why? No space. One time there was five smokes carved Harlem sunsets on each other down on East Eighty-four. One of them was cold already. There was blood on the furniture, blood on the walls, blood on the ceiling. I go down and outside the house a guy that works on the Chronicle, a news-hawk, is coming off the porch and getting into his car. He makes a face at us and says, ‘Aw, hell, shines,’ and gets in his heap and goes away. Don’t even go in the house.”
In this century, two obscure white female reporters—Christine Pelisek of the L.A. Weekly and Leovy of the L.A. Times—have set out to do something about the pestilence of black murderers in their city.
Pelisek broke the story of the Grim Sleeper serial killer, so-called because he was back on the prowl after taking a decade and a half off. The arrest of Lonnie David Franklin, Jr. in 2010 led to a horrifying realization: there had been at least five serial killers active in South Central in 1984-1994, murdering about 100 people, most of them black crack prostitutes—and nobody noticed. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2010:
… few people in South L.A., including parents of victims, were even aware of a serial killer operating in their neighborhood—much less five or more. While the more publicized cases had distinctive hallmarks, in South L.A. there were so many people being killed, almost all of them from the margins of society, that it was difficult for neighbors or police to pinpoint any patterns.
The rapes and murders of dozens of young women were, effectively, lost in the crime wave. “Could you imagine—more than 100 women killed and nobody notices?” said Margaret Prescod, who founded an organization 24 years ago to press for a more aggressive response to the killings and now hosts a radio show. “Could you imagine it in Beverly Hills? Palos Verdes?”
Four of the five overlooked serial killers were black.
Leovy is something of a data nerd. Because her L.A. Times only covered about one out of every ten murders in Los Angeles County, she started the Homicide Report blog on the paper’s website.
In 2010, I analyzed the first 2,600 killings covered by her blog. Only 9 percent of Los Angeles County’s roughly ten million people were black, but they accounted for an imposing fraction of the dead. Among 15- to 29-year-old male victims of homicide in L.A. County, blacks outnumbered whites by a per capita ratio of 20.7 to 1, while Hispanics outnumbered whites 6.8 to 1. (According to the Obama Administration, the national ratios are lower but still eye-popping.)
Those were the ratios for homicide victimization. All evidence suggests that the homicide offending racial ratios are similar or worse. But it’s hard to pin down the exact figures, because so many homicides in Los Angeles never lead to an arrest. Leovy estimates in Ghettoside that only 38 percent of the murders of black males are “cleared” by an arrest.
Keep in mind that the current LAPD is a relatively professional police force. Much of the Nulty-type deadwood was cleared out in a “scouring of the Shire” phase after World War II, when police chief William H. Parker imposed military professionalism on the once shambolic outfit.
In bringing South Central murderers to justice, the high-tech lab techniques featured on shows like NCIS often aren’t useful:
… there were few mysteries among Southeast cases. The homicides were essentially public events—showy demonstrations of power meant to control and intimidate people. They took place on public streets, in daylight, often in front of lots of people. Killers often bragged.
LAPD homicide detectives like Skaggs operate less like Sherlock Holmes solving a puzzle and more like salesman trying to talk witnesses into testifying:
Skaggs learned to think of his job as persuasion: selling formal law to people who distrusted it and who were answering to another authority—shadow law. The pitch had to be convincing and relentless. Ghettoside detective work was “ninety percent talking to people.”
Leovy guesstimates that about a dozen witnesses were murdered per year in the first decade of this century in LAPD’s southeast division, enough to have a massively chilling effect on cooperation. (I’ve long argued that the death penalty should be preserved as a higher penalty to deter witness murdering.)
The low clearance rate doesn’t mean all the killers are still walking the streets. No doubt a substantial portion have been in turn murdered by others, some in formal retribution, and some just for the usual knuckleheaded reasons that inspire blacks to murder each other.
Leovy notes that less than five percent of the murders of black men in South Central directly involved drug deals. This doesn’t mean that the profits from drug dealing don’t have some impact on how enthusiastically blacks team up in gangs and shoot each other, as we saw during the crack wars around 1990 or the powder cocaine wars that peaked in 1980.
But much of the killing reflects knuckleheads being knuckleheads in a shoot-first environment. Murder is a way of life in these Hobbesian black slums, which remind Leovy of lawless tribes in the accounts of anthropologists. In Los Angeles:
The smallest ghettoside spat seemed to escalate to violence, as if absent law, people were left with no other means of bringing a dispute to a close. Debts and competition over goods and women—especially women—drove many killings. But insults, snitching, drunken antics, and the classic—unwanted party guests—also were common homicide motives. Small conflicts divided people into hostile camps and triggered lasting feuds. Every grudge seemed to harbor explosive potential. It would ignite when antagonists met by chance, gunfire erupting in streets or liquor stores.
(The blog Handle’s Haus recently put forward the alarming hypothesis that keeping drugs illegal is less the cause of black predation than a cynical cure for it, by giving idle hands a small business—dealing drugs—to do on their home turf in South Central rather than engaging in, say, home invasions in Brentwood.)
Why are blacks in Los Angeles so much worse behaved than whites and Asians, or even Hispanics? (Keep in mind that L.A. traditionally has the most vicious Mexican and Central American gangs in the country.) Leovy recounts cops
… trying to figure out how to accommodate their experiences at work with the antiracism they shared with most of their countrymen. … No one in the wider world seemed to want to talk about it, but black residents, to many officers, appeared more violent than Hispanics. Their own eyes told them so. Statistics backed them up. Few officers wanted to believe that black people were somehow intrinsically wired for violence.
Leovy offers a complicated theory about how blacks were ruined by the poor criminal justice system in the post-Civil War South. But was policing in the American South in 1915 really three times worse than in Mexico, during the Mexican Revolution that killed some one or two million people?
And, anyway, it’s now the 21st century.
A more plausible explanation for why Los Angeles’ gang violence became famous around the world via the entertainment industry would be that the entertainment industry, which celebrates African-Americans’ worst instincts, is centered in Los Angeles.
If you are looking for a white man to blame for blacks behaving badly, how about starting with music executive Jimmy Iovine (net worth $970 million)? Back in 1988 Iovine managed the initial gangsta rap album, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, which did much to glamorize crack dealing among impressionable black youths with low IQs. (Iovine recently bought a $60 million Malibu mansion, so go gentle on him.)
Nor is it particularly encouraging for the future of America that black male behavior deteriorated so spectacularly where blacks first came into massive contact with Latin American illegal immigrants, who proved much more satisfactory to employers, thus rendering unskilled black males irrelevant as workers.
Finally, one may ask: How much of black knuckleheadedness in South Central Los Angeles—with its superb climate and freeway-close location—is a rational political response to the long-term threat of gentrification?
On July 4, 1977, I drove down to look at the site of the Watts riots and was amazed by how nice the residential streets were. Leovy likewise muses:
Yet for all its notoriety, the landscape of Watts was not as formidable as its reputation. This was not a no-man’s land of high-rise slums. Trees and lawns adorned tiny detached one-story houses … And, of course, Watts claimed an equal share of the city’s best attributes. It was Mediterranean and golden, with air that was soft in summer and crisp in winter. Gardens there burst with bird-of-paradise flowers and purple-blooming jacarandas.
Blacks are being slowly pushed out of potentially valuable places like Watts by Latin American immigrants, sometimes economically, sometimes violently. But poor Mexicans and Salvadorans aren’t particularly formidable competitors compared to, say, Koreans, Armenians, Persians, Israelis, Russians, and other nationalities flooding into less violent parts of the Southland.
There are a lot of people in this world who grew up dreaming of moving to greater Hollywood, and many of them are more cunning and effectual at realizing their dreams than typical Latinos. The chaos of black crime, however, makes them think twice about trying to push African-Americans out of the mellow Los Angeles basin.
My guess is that about 2070, African-Americans will think back in astonishment at the amazing places where their ancestors had once lived—the heart of Los Angeles; Manhattan, San Francisco and Oakland; the Chicago lakefront; the nation’s capital—and wonder how they let it all slip away.
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