Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

13153693Over the past weeks, I’ve had my insides tied into knots by this book. It took me a long time to read, because it is devastating. So many young people getting killed; many for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jill Leovy reported on homicide for the Los Angeles Times, and this book grew out of her observations of and her attempt to understand the high numbers of black murders. Considering how disproportionate black-on-black violence is in this country, it should be a prevalent subject in the news and the minds of people. Instead, it is largely ignored, contributing to the disillusionment contained in the phrase “just another black man down.”

Built around the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of a police detective, in 2007, Leovy takes what I found to be an objective look at the roots, circumstances, and consequences of the high number of blacks murdering blacks in the Watts area of Los Angeles County. While I sometimes got a little lost in extraneous information, overall, I found this book to be very well-written, very informative, and very poignant.

Here are the 3 points Leovy made that I found most thought-provoking:

  1. The problem in many high-crime neighborhoods is not overpolicing, but underpolicing. As long as a 40% success rate for solving homicides is acceptable (as is the case in LA), there is no incentive to stop killing. The success rate for catching and prosecuting robbers, rapists, and burglars is even lower than 40%. This is despite the fact that in neighborhoods that are tightly knit together by a lack of opportunity and mobility, “everybody knows” who committed a crime. Sometimes, it is fear of retaliation that stops a witness from saying something, and sometimes, it’s the lack of engagement on the part of the investigating police officer that prevents a crime from being solved.
  2. “Righteous victims” are hard to find in poverty-stricken neighborhoods with high crime rates. To many, a righteous victim is someone innocent, someone deserving of sympathy. Admittedly, it is much easier to shrug off the death of a gang member, a drug dealer, a pimp, or someone in possession of illegal weapons than the death of a righteous victim. But in the end, everyone is someone’s child and his or her murder causes someone else incredible pain. Nobody’s violent death should simply be shrugged off.
  3. We have to accept the fact that sometimes, rules and regulations that look good on paper do not work in the streets. Obviously, we need these rules to avoid abuse of power, but we also need flexibility for the people who are involved to be able to do their job most effectively. Likewise, we have to accept that the further we are removed from a situation, the easier it is for us to judge—often wrongly.

Ghettoside is not an easy read, but it is well worth the effort. I hope people will read it, think about it, and talk about the issues it presents. Considering recent events here in the United States, it is more than necessary.



  1. I feel weird saying this about a book about such a depressing topic, but I really loved it. I thought the story it told was fantastic and worthwhile, the writing was superb, and the narrative was so gripping I couldn’t put this down. I really appreciate you highlighting the most important points of this book for people who might not get to reading it, because I think they’re facts people should be more aware of. Although I realize awareness is less valuable than action, it still seems like some outrage over the low rate at which violent crimes involving black perpetrators and victims are solved could help provide the necessary motivation for changing this fact.

    • It was your post that mentioned both The Train to Crystal City and Ghettoside that got me to read this book. (Both are great books!) I had to take frequent breaks reading Ghettoside. There was so much outrage and sadness in it. But I really liked how balanced it was, and it got me thinking about some things that I hadn’t considered before.

      • That’s so nice to hear! This was one of those books that I thought was so good, I wanted to run out and tell everyone to read it, so I’m happy that my post convinced you to pick it up 🙂

  2. I agree- I did get a bit bogged down in this book at times, but it had so much important information too. The individual stories were so sad. Some people just have so few chances in life.

  3. It sounds as if this book offers an eye-opening and clear-minded insight into an important issue. I too am surprised and saddened by the suggestion that a 40% success rate is acceptable. Targets are all well and good, but they need to be set at appropriate levels in order to influence (or change) behaviour…

  4. I also have a copy of this book and have been a little apprehensive about reading it — but I know it is an important book. Did you read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy? Excellent, and devastating.

  5. A 40% success rate is horrifying. I had no idea. But, after reading your second point, it doesn’t surprise me as much. It’s still awful. And, it is so true that people are too quick to judge. This sounds like a book that would get my blood boiling.

    • This book got my blood boiling and gave me the chills at the same time. So many kids who have family members get killed. So many parents who have to constantly worry that their kids walk down the wrong street. And detectives who have to stop investigating because there’s no more money for overtime. Despite the very emotional subject matter though, this was a very well-balanced book.

  6. I’ve been wanting to read this since I heard about it. Reading your review makes me want to read it even more. I can’t believe that a 40% solving rate is considered good enough. That’s devastating. I think we do have a tendency to think that those involved in high-risk lifestyles get what they deserve (there’s a turf war going on in one of the communities here, there have been more than 20 shootings in a month and a half and that’s kind of how we feel about it) but we need to look at why that lifestyle is so accessible and prevalent and then maybe it can change. An important book for sure!

    • The really sad thing is that those 40% include those cases where the perpetrator dies before he or she can be prosecuted. That really got to me. And while I believe that each person is responsible for his/her own actions, there were so many people in this book who would have been ok if they had just been in different circumstances. So many young people who grow up witnessing violent crime on a daily basis. It must be hard in such a situation to always make the right decisions, just like it must be hard for police to be involved yet stay objective. This book really got me thinking, and I could say so much more about it! 🙂 I do hope you’ll get a chance to read it!

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