Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review of Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

There’s nothing like a book about murder to send 2015 out with a bang.

Los Angeles Times Journalist Jill Leovy chronicled every murder in that city over the course of a single year.  She wrote Ghettoside after noting that the media does not cover most of the deaths of young, African-American men and boys. And with that lack of attention comes the lack of resources to solve those crimes or to push them through the justice system.

In her book, Leovy focuses tightly on one particular crime – the seemingly random shooting of a detective’s son in a Los Angeles neighborhood with a particularly high murder rate. We get to know the victim and the victim’s family. We get to know the police division that serves this neighborhood and different detectives’ relationships with the community they serve. And specifically, Leovy introduces the lead detective on the case, and that detective is white. 

The case -- as Leovy reported it in the Los Angeles Times. The red dots represent other murders in the same area.

Ghettoside is a timely book, given our current grappling with relationships between the police and African-American communities across the country. This account is different than others, because it is not focusing on explicit police violence against citizens. We do, however, get to see how the police are still part of the story of “black on black violence,” the kind of violence that so rarely makes the news. Different police divisions do or do not receive priority funds to tackle these often difficult-to-solve cases. Different police officers do or do not come to know and care about the neighborhoods they serve. Different police officers do or do not believe that crimes against black men are as important as any other crimes.

Leovy comes to the conclusion that the problem that this neighborhood faces is that the American justice system does not really operate there. In the absence of a fair legal system, a different set of rules and a different logic of justice took root. The failure is not, she contends, a failure of individual morals or a consequence of poverty; rather, we as Americans have distributed justice, and the means to get there, unequally.

It is worthwhile to think about this book alongside two others that have addressed similar themes last year: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.  It would be interesting to discuss whether people think that it matters – or how it matters --  that the author is white or that the “hero” in the book is white. One thing that Leovy herself suggests is that race is never neutral.

I do think that Ghettoside is most devastating when Leovy simply lists murders. The names go on and on. The book could be reduced to a single essay with just those lists and make as much of an impact on me as this entire work of narrative nonfiction.

You can find a good interview with Leovy here.

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