Making Black Lives Expensive

The highly acclaimed new book Ghettoside tries to explain inner-city violence while papering over structural oppression.

Los Angeles's Central Avenue, the historic hub of the city's African-American community.

Over twenty years ago, on the eve of the Los Angeles riots, several gangs in the historically black and deeply impoverished neighborhood of Watts brokered a peace treaty after years of warfare that had sparked sensationalized press coverage and prompted a heavy-handed police response. After holding for many years, the truce broke down in the early 2000s. The murder rate in Watts never reached pre-truce, pre-riot levels, but the violence continues to this day, even as it has faded from the headlines.

Jill Leovy’s recently published, highly acclaimed book Ghettoside tries to explain that juxtaposition — ongoing violence, flagging public interest — and why young black men are killed at disproportionately high rates.

The book focuses on the 2007 murder of Watts resident Bryant Tennelle, the son of a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) detective. It was, as Leovy is quick to point out, an unremarkable case among the seemingly endless murders on the “ghettoside” (slang for the predominately poor and black neighborhoods south of Interstate Ten): two young men associated with the Crips went looking for someone to target in a rival neighborhood, saw Bryant and a friend walking down the street, and opened fire.

Leovy, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, worked the crime beat from 2001 to 2012 and in 2006, she started The Homicide Report, a blog that lists all the murders in Los Angeles County and catalogs them by various factors, including race.

Ghettoside attempts to contextualize some of those murders, synthesizing the investigation of Tennelle’s death and the social “phenomenon” of black-on-black murder into one narrative. The result is an amalgamation of gritty detective stories, ghetto violence, and social commentary that is as compelling and affecting as it is deceptive.

The book’s underlying premise is that black-on-black violence is so prevalent because society does not afford equal status to African-American murder victims and thus does not pursue their killers — that the state’s monopoly on violence is unequally applied. It is undeniable that black victims of crime receive less attention than white victims from police and society (and Leovy provides compelling statistics to corroborate that point).

But her argument takes a symptom and tries to pass it off as a cause:

Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.

Leovy links the absence of formal protections for black people under Jim Crow — from white violence and from other blacks — to the informal justice in the form of vendettas and vigilantism that took its place. She suggests that this pattern of extralegal killings followed black people when they migrated to northern and western cities like Los Angeles. And she notes that the majority’s indifference is compounded by mistrust of the police and fear of retaliation in black communities. The sum total, the book claims, is an environment in which fighting easily becomes murder, free of state sanction.

Leovy isn’t entirely off base. But she gives too little weight to the structural nature of racism, including the unique historical position blacks have held in the country’s economy, from slavery to neoliberalism.

Beginning in the late 1800s and continuing through the first half of the twentieth century, black southerners, propelled by agricultural poverty, migrated en masse to cities like Los Angeles to take industrial jobs and despite suffering racist violence and housing discrimination, were able to able to make some material gains. In Los Angles, these gains fell apart in the 1960s when industrial jobs were shipped overseas, or moved to the fringes of the city, away from South Central.

What had once been bustling, working-class African-American communities collapsed into ghettos hemmed in by freeways, redlining, and hostile white neighborhoods. Watts exploded in rebellion in the summer of 1965 and was quickly suppressed. In the span of a few decades, a broad swath of people who had experienced a brief taste of mobility and relative economic security were pushed out of the labor market. Illegal economies proliferated, most notably heroin and crack cocaine. Crime increased, and the carceral state expanded.

These dramatic economic changes coincided with the near total destruction of various black liberation movements. In the aftermath of the Watts Rebellion, the LAPD and the FBI infiltrated and wiped out the Black Panthers, the Us Organization, and other militant groups.

The Crips and other gangs filled the void, adopting the Panthers’s militarism and ambitions for expansion while leaving political aims to the wayside. In the 1980s, the street gangs took over the drug trade, and the money that came with it brought huge amounts of guns into South Central, setting the stage for unprecedented violence.

Ghettoside only makes oblique references to these seismic changes. They are treated as background, not conditional, factors in the development of the criminogenic enclaves south of the Ten freeway.

Of course, Leovy is not a social scientist (though she relies heavily on academic research). She tackles what she calls the “mysterious problem” of black homicide as a journalist would — through individual stories and accounts. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem were it not for the individuals through whom she chooses to tell the story.

In the author’s note, Leovy reveals that during her stint at the Times she was embedded with the LAPD (specifically with the 77th Street Division, which she describes in great detail). This is one of the main problems with the book: it seems Leovy spent so much time with police and detectives that she took on their worldview.

Thus Ghettoside processes the intricate web of inner-city violence through the mind of a cop, through notions of individual responsibility, justice, and punishment. It soft-pedals the racism in the LAPD, and when the book does give examples of it — which range from the traditional: “The whole culture of the black community is crime!” to the ontological: marking “No Human Involved” on the files of dead black men — it feels like the tip of a deeply submerged iceberg.

In addition, the detectives who people the book are held up as different than the uniformed officers and gang units who patrol the streets. They, the book would have us believe, are the good guys, trying to bring murderers to justice, no matter the race of the victim, but hampered by bureaucracy, fear, and indifference.

John Skaggs, a white detective with a penchant for working “ghettoside” murders, is the narrative hero of this ideal, and his story is told alongside the career of Wallace Tennelle — the black detective whose son’s murder forms the book’s focus. Their experiences as investigator and victim form the backbone of the book.

Yet in three-hundred-plus pages, the young black men — the oft-touted victims and perpetrators of these killings — are rarely given a chance to speak about their own situation and the violence that permeates their existence. At most, the book gives their side of things through police investigators or from worried and bereaved relatives, usually as an anecdotal part of an interrogation or from tearful remembrances.

Ultimately the book is not about black-on-black violence but about police and policing. Leovy feigns an argument against the outdated (and racist) myths of black-on-black crime (that black people are somehow prone to offend, etc.), but she is really arguing for different approaches in police tactics and crime prevention. She is arguing for investigative policing in lieu of the preventative policing characteristic of the “war on drugs.”

The book’s argument dovetails with the debate around police violence following the murder of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and others. To the outcry following those killings, the police and their supporters have often responded that the protestors don’t actually care about black lives, as evidenced by their silence on black-on-black murder.

Though she doesn’t defend police violence, these assertions are similar to Leovy’s — that the only people who really value the lives of young, poor, black men are police, specifically homicide detectives. As she writes of Skaggs: “His whole working life was devoted to one end: making black lives expensive. Expensive, and worth answering for, with all the force and persistence the state could muster.”

Leovy is right to suggest racism allows the majority to live in close proximity to murder and immiseration with indifference. And it is also clear she is intimately familiar with this cycle of killing and maiming. Ghettoside paints the grief and anger in detailed minutia, rendered surreal against the warm climate and suburban sprawl of Los Angeles. By the end of the book, a reader has at least taken on Leovy’s initial question: how can this be happening?

The gang truce in 1992 showed that those involved in the violence were willing to take up the question, but their efforts were undone by the social reality of Watts. Actually ending the scourge of killing would entail destroying the system that created the “ghettoside” in the first place. It would require not just making black deaths matter, but black lives matter.