A Review of Leovy’s Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America


Leovy, J. (2015). Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Black men make up around 6% of America’s population yet they account for about 40% of the country’s annual homicide victims. Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: A Story of Murder in America, documents a number of such murders which continue to plague the African American community in South Central LA in her effort to explain how and why “bullets seem to find their black targets in the “ethnically jumbled up” American cities and the supposedly color-blind America.

The author apportions blame on the country, the police force, the courts, the media and the black community. As a nation, America is guilty of criminalizing Black people thus making them fair game for both Black and non-Black murder perpetrators. In chapter, one Leovy observes that African Americans have never enjoyed the protection of the law; they were either being punished too severely for petty offenses or they were left to their own devices when they needed the law the give them justice. “The law” was especially noncommittal where both the perpetrator and the victim were Black. This trend begun during slavery, and continued through Jim Crow right to the modern-day America.

The nation is also implicated in segregating the Black community in poor neighborhoods. Such racially stereotyped neighborhoods, like South Central LA, become convenient targets for discriminatory policies such as under-funding, over-policing and under-policing.

Leovy argues that the criminal justice system is keener to prevent crime instead of reacting to crime by investigating and effectively prosecuting criminals -especially murderers. More resources are directed to patrolling streets and surveillance while police detectives are overwhelmed by the piling number of murder cases because they are understaffed and under-equipped; at times they even run out of stationery! Detectives are left to figure out for themselves how to protect witnesses to secure a conviction. These witnesses, often unemployable because of their lack of academic qualification or criminal records, need financial assistance besides the protection from the criminals they are to testify against. In many cases the system fails to deliver both.

The criminalization and stereotyping of the Black neighborhoods by the police serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy that make the districts conducive for criminal activities. Basing on the notion that Black neighborhoods are crime infested, officers prefer to live in far off suburbs from the ones they patrol.  Therefore, the police fail to understand these neighorhoods well enough to be effective. Consequently, they are seen as a foreign occupying force serving its own needs rather than the needs of the residents. Wally Tennelle stands out as one of the few officers ready to live in a Black area. When his son is shot and killed, other officers wonder why he chose to live in the 77th Division.

Tough-on-crime policies seem to succeed in filling the prisons with petty offenders while the murderers continue to live free. In diminishing Black inner-city neighborhoods with high homicide rates, the author explains, victims’ relatives know the killers of their kin. Such knowledge fuels more murders in two ways: it triggers a chain of revenge murders by relatives of victims and gang members; and more people resort to killing because of the “criminal justice system’s failure to respond vigorously”.  The result is “endemic homicides”.

The intimidation and murder of witnesses that is rampant Black areas makes it hard for witnesses to volunteer to testify. Some choose to recant their testimonies or to disappear in fear of retaliation. The success of this method in ensuring that perpetrators remain free increases the Black community’s distrust of the criminal justice system. Leovy notes that the police are usually the last know who the perpetrators are even though it might be common knowledge in the neighborhood grapevine.

Ghettoside delves deep into the historical context surrounding the gang culture in African American neighbourhoods. Tracing it back to the plantations in the south where Blacks were left to square out their own differences, to the modern day inner cities where police are hard to trust; Leovy argues that:

The tendency for people to band together when state power is weak is so inevitable it can even seem innate. … Wherever law is absent or undeveloped -wherever it is shabby, ineffective or disputed –some form of self-policing and communal justice usually emerges. (p. 80)

The inaccessibility of criminal justice to poor African Americans makes them resort to gangs for alternative justice. Another key reason why Black youth would rather “call their homeboys” than the police, the author reveals, is that some their disputes arise from illegal activities such as drug deals. These illegal activities in the “underground economy” provide the much needed income to the uneducated, unemployed or unemployable who populate the areas.

Leovy is concerned that the media shows little concern for black homicide since less than 10% of the total number is reported. This is probably because the victims have been dehumanized and criminalized and are seen as to have deserved murder. The lack of pressure that would have been generated if more homicides were covered in news allows policy makers to channel funds to preventive policing at the expense of detective work.  Her blog The Homicide Report seeks to humanize these victims by drawing the country’s attention to each individual victim, their families and friends many of whom are still waiting for justice.

Granted, each of these actors – the country, the police, the courts, the media and the Black community –plays a role which directly or indirectly makes Black men more probable than men of other ethnicities to be attacked and killed in the streets of American cities. However the one ubiquitous motivator behind the action or inaction of the above actors seems to be racism.

The reason the criminal justice system does not seem to serve the needs of African Americans is that the system was deliberately designed to serve the needs of their former masters. Racism is the reason Black people find themselves in poor, under-policed neighborhoods. It is the reason petty offenders get stiff penalties while murders are convicted at the rate of 36% in LA. It is the reason Black murder victims receive little attention in the news. It all boils down to race.

Interestingly, Leovy skirts around the issue of race, pointing at it but not calling it by name. This is probably because her book’s target audience is White. The book is meant to capture their attention without sounding accusative. Why? Because Black on Black violence is a problem that was created by White America and therefore it takes White America to solve it? Maybe.

Coming after Victor Rios’ Punished and Alice Goffman’s On the Run, books in which the authors criticize the criminal justice system in its entirety from the outside, Ghettoside seems to be singling out the problems in the system from the inside. Leovy cites preventive policing, under-funding and under-staffing of homicide detectives, a poorly run witness protection program and prejudiced police attitudes towards black residential areas as some of problems that making policing ineffective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *