The award winning Los Angeles Times reporter unpacks her debut book, Ghettoside.
Journalist/Author Jill Leovy
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Jill Leovy is the author of the controversial but bestselling “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America”. The book tells the story of the largely unsolved murders of Black men by Black men here in the city of Los Angeles.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Jill Leovy coming up right now.
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Tavis: Jill Leovy is the author of “Ghettoside A True Story of Murder in America”. The book tells the story of the largely unsolved murders of Black men by Black men here in the city of Los Angeles. Earlier in her career, she was imbedded with the LAPD covering homicide in South Los Angeles for six years. Jill, good to have you on the program.
Jill Leovy: Thank you.
Tavis: The best way I can do this is to frame the conversation with a quote from James Baldwin. Baldwin once said this: “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty…the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”
That’s a strong quote from Baldwin. But I thought about that when I started reading this because I wonder, honestly, why it is that white folk seem interested in a book about Black people killing Black people.
And all of the critical praise and all of the quotes on the back of the book, all the blurbs from white Americans, white people, for whatever reason, are so interested in your telling of this story about Black people killing Black people. What do you make of that? You wrote it.
Leovy: Well, it’s deliberate, you know.
Tavis: What’s deliberate?
Leovy: I wanted a book that white people would read. I’ve been covering homicide for almost a decade and, you know, I’ll quote something that an assistant to Chief Bratton once said to me, that “black on black homicide is not a Black problem, it’s a white problem. It’s a problem in which white indifferences is largely implicated.”
And as a newspaper reporter, I really found that Black readers responded a lot to the stories that I did in South L.A. and that it was like moving a boulder to get white readers to respond.
So I wanted to find a way to get this story to the people who I thought needed to hear it the most. So some of what you’re picking up on is deliberate and I understand the concern. The concern is, is it maudlin? Is it exploitive? Those are actually super important questions about this and things to think about.
Tavis: Obviously, you think it’s not maudlin or exploitative.
Leovy: You know, I think that there’s a tendency whenever you’re talking about victims of crime for it to strike a kind of coarse populist note. But I also think, in the case of especially Black men–and I always say men.
People like to say youth which tends to make the 25-year-old, the 30-year-old, the 36-year-old, the 42-year-old even more erased from the picture than they already are–that it’s so invisible. It’s so ignored. It is such an immense ocean of suffering that we don’t give credit to, that the balance was on the other side for this one.
Tavis: I guess the question is, the follow-up question, is whether or not Black lives matter when Black folk say Black lives matter. Or do Black lives matter only when white folk say Black lives matter?
Leovy: Well, I’ll tell you what a victim’s mother said to me, a Black woman who had lost not one but two children to homicide. And she had responded to that loss by starting a small nonprofit of her own.
She said to me when I came to interview her, she said, “You know, white people have the money. They have the political power. They’re the ones who need to move on this” and I took that to heart.
You know, part of what I’m trying to do and get aside is cut through some of the rhetoric. We use terms in L.A. like “gang-related”. There’s, I think, a general sense that it’s just a bunch of gang members and drug dealers and end of story. Nobody wants to look any closer to that.
I was very careful always when I wrote about these victims in the newspaper to say “men” to sort of assert their humanity before then. And that’s why I think a narrative about them is important. But the things that you’re raising are things that I struggle with.
Tavis: The publishing company, this is Spiegel & Grau. Did anybody consider–did it matter to anybody at the publishing company that all the people blurbing the back of this book–and I know a lot of them. They’ve been on this program, many of them. Some of them are friends of mine. Michael Connelly was just here not long ago.
They’re all white males. I wonder if that ever occurred to anybody that you’re–again, if your answer is it was deliberate, then tell me that. But why all white males endorsing a book about Black folk killing Black folk? Not even a white female. All white males, one, two, three, four, five, six of them.
Leovy: Well, it’s interesting that you’re picking that out. I would love to hear more Black voices on this issue. I wrote this book to open a conversation. I’m not the only one who should be talking about this.
White people are not the only people who should be talking about this. White men are certainly not the only people who should be talking about this. We all need to be heard from. We all need to talk about it. We all bring different and limited perspectives to it, absolutely.
Tavis: How is it and why is it that, when a book like this is written, we can get a conversation–I use that word advisedly. I’m not sure there’s a conversation, but the book is certainly generating a lot of talk.
We can generate a conversation, I’ll put it that way, about Black on Black homicide, but we can’t ever seem to generate a conversation about the humanity of Black life, about the dignity of Black life. So that if homicide is the only way in to a conversation, is that acceptable in our society?
Leovy: Well, this book is about the very specific issue of homicide, unapologetically so, you know. I think these 6,000-some lives that we lose every year in this country are worth this conversation.
The point of the book, the criminal justice argument that’s being made in the book-and you have to draw this out–but it’s really actually an argument for a more limited version of law enforcement in Black America in saying let’s focus on the violence.
Let’s catch people. Let’s not spread this preventive net across everybody and throw suspicion across entire demographics of people. Let’s think about what crimes have actually occurred and find the people who’ve committed them and respond to those.
Tavis: See, in my read–respectfully, Jill, my read of that was the exact opposite. I think that the argument made in the book, as I read it, is an argument that essentially says–and you’re right about this–that the criminal justice system too often fails the Black victims of homicide at the hands of other Black folk, and that is true.
But that net, to use your phrase, is much larger. The criminal justice system fails Black people, period. It’s not just on homicides. So why is it–again, you have the right to write whatever you wanted to write, so you wrote it…
Leovy: But it’s very heavy-handed in some areas.
Tavis: Yeah, it is.
Leovy: And it’s excessively lenient in other areas, and that’s important.
Tavis: Lenient where, where Black folk are concerned?
Leovy: In the idea that 50 to 60% of these Black on Black murders aren’t solved. So there’s where you’d want them to put the focus. And, instead, it’s heavy-handed on whatever you might have in your pocket, whatever small traffic offense has been used as a pretext for a search, these things that are actually an echo of something that’s happened in Black America for a long time.
I mean, think about the south. What happened in the south? They also ignored Black on Black murders in the south and then they rounded people up for vagrancy, right? For trivial offenses, for order offenses. You have a little bit of an echo of that in the way law enforcement is done today.
Tavis: What did you hope, or what do you hope, that white readers will, one, take away from this text, but more importantly, do about what they take away from the text?
Leovy: You know, I’m a journalist. I’m not a writer of policy. It’s interesting, your questions about this. A lot of the questions I get have to do with what’s wrong with the police and why are they so bad? I’ve been thinking about that a lot. To me, it’s more our social attitudes around the police that are responsible for that. Police are just bureaucracies that respond to public opinion.
I think that some of what I’m arguing here is really a paradigm shift. It’s about this idea of prevention. Really? Is that how we want to do law enforcement? We want to pretend that we know what somebody is going to do before they’ve done it? And we’re going to structure our law enforcement efforts around that idea?
Because I think that idea of predicting what somebody might do leads automatically in two directions. It either leads to profiling or it leads to total surveillance of everybody, because how else can you do it? You just have to watch people.
Whereas, what I’m calling for which is responsive law enforcement is something that arises out of acts that people had actually committed, individuals, and judging them on their acts and responding to victimization, responding to victims, and kind of narrowing law enforcement to that and building the rest of the justice system around it.
Because if the system is built around stop and search, it feels extremely unjust to the people on the receiving end of that. It feels like harassment. It feels like control. Catching a murderer feels much more like justice and that’s what you want to be the animating spirit of the criminal justice system.
Tavis: This is not your responsibility. As you mentioned, you’re a journalist and all you can do is write the book and you wrote it in the way that you chose to write it. But what do you say–again, I don’t cast aspersion on you for this.
I’m just curious as to what your response to them would be, them being those persons who take this book and say this is the very reason why we have Fergusons and we have Eric Garners and Sean Bells and Trayvon Martins.
Their argument basically is that, if Negroes weren’t killing Negroes, and that Black people don’t ever want to talk about the fact that Black people kill other Black people, as if white people aren’t killed by other white people, but it’s always this Negroes kill Negroes argument.
To those who would take this book and use this as fodder for their campaign against Black people, you say what to those persons?
Leovy: This is not Black peoples’ fault. There’s no evidence for that. If you really think about homicide epidemics around the world, you’d find them in all kinds of different colors of people and in all kinds of different places.
And typically, the environment is an environment where the legitimacy of the state is in question because there’s been civil war, because there’s been a history of exclusion. If you look at Northern Ireland, if you look at South Africa, there’s commonalities to all these things.
So anyone who wants to serve this up as a moral failing of Black people, I would push back on that. I think that we can’t be so afraid of that that we don’t tell the truth about these victims because people are really suffering.
And one of the things this book tries to explore, you know, Black neighborhoods get much more intensive policing. They have much more police per capita, just the numbers. They’re just swamped with police officers.
Well, that in itself is an earlier reform from the days when police officers used to ignore Black neighborhoods, right? Now they deploy according to crime numbers and the result is that they probably, all over the country, have higher numbers of police officers, so everything is intensified. There’s all this contact.
I don’t mean to dismiss what you’re saying. When you’re on the receiving end and you’re vulnerable and you’re not powerful and you don’t have that gun on your hip, it’s a whole different situation than if you are…
Tavis: Which leads to my next question which is how does this intensive focus, including the picture on the cover of the book, how does the intensive focus on the homicide of Black people by other Black people in this text get us to redirect our attention and we direct our focus to the system itself?
That’s the point you just made, that people oftentimes want to talk about the system, what’s wrong with the system. But how do we get to a conversation about the system if the focus is on Black folk killing other Black people?
Leovy: Well, the focus of this book is why we’ve let this condition persist and persist and persist in America. And I think we’ve had this conversation about it as if it’s background noise, as it it’s some kind of natural state, as if it’s some kind of pathology, social pathology, something wrong with Black peoples’ families. I don’t buy any of that.
I think that the conditions are created on the ground by the legal history here. And if you think about, you know, what does it mean to be Black in this country, it really has a lot to do with a very peculiar history of law going way back. It’s all about the law. That is the thing that really makes Black Americans different is that relationship to the law.
And when you overlay that with what you see happening in the rest of the world and what I saw happening on the streets of South L.A., it gives us a place to start. And it tells us that actually we do need the criminal justice system, but it has this role in building law, in building justice in these communities.
Not just watching people, not just searching their pockets to see if they have something that they might use to do something in the future that they haven’t done yet, but actually delivering justice in a way that gives the state a legitimate role.
Tavis: I don’t want this question to come across the wrong way because I don’t want my point to get lost here. But I’m curious as to your take.
For generation after generation after generation, there have been Black activists, some in the trenches every day whose names we will never hear, but they’re doing the heavy lifting every day, as you know because you profiled them in your text. There are others who, you know, have established identities that we’ve come to know on some level.
But my point is that Black people are talking about Black on Black crime every single day. They’re the victims of this every day.
Tavis: But it takes a white reporter to write a book like this that gets everybody talking about Black on Black crime. What do you make of that? And I’m not demonizing you. I’m just asking what does that say about America?
Leovy: You know what? It’s annoying. It’s totally annoying and I am here being annoying. And the first thing I would say about my book is please let this just start the conversation. Tell me what I don’t get.
I mean, one thing about being a white reporter on a Black story, a healthy thing about it, is you learn right away how stupid you are. And that’s a good starting point if you’re a reporter to go to people and say, “I’m stupid.” Here’s how I start this. You know, it’s something that I learned covering homicide for a newspaper for years and years.
I had a Black physician in South L.A. who once refused to be photographed for a story while he’s being portrayed very well. I said why? He said, “If they see a Black face in the photograph on the story, no one will read it, and that’s why I don’t want my photo in the paper.”
And that was way in the beginning when I was first doing the beat. I thought that’s crazy and then later, I thought, no, he’s got a point, and it’s annoying.
Tavis: I want to come back to the story in a second here. Since you raised this, it made me think about the fact that Joyce Carol Oates has a new book out, a novel, that’s based on the–the novel is inspired by the Tawana Brawley case in New York in ’87. Her book is called “The Sacrifice”.
And Joyce Carol Oates has the same challenge in fiction that you have in nonfiction which is navigating this tricky terrain of writing about difference. When women write about men, that’s writing about difference. When men write about women, it’s writing about difference.
When white folk write about Black folk, it’s writing about difference. When Black folk write about white folk, it’s writing about difference. What did you learn? What’s been your takeaway as a white reporter writing about difference?
Leovy: I mean, I think in the case of what I covered, the hardest thing and the things that I really have to discipline myself to think about is vulnerability, and especially for men who don’t always talk about in the easiest way.
These people I met who I think are at extremely high homicide risks and who also, by the way, tend to be the same people who draw the most intense focus of the police. I mean, their situation is scary, physically scary, in a way that, if you feel safe, it’s hard to put yourself there and it’s hard for them to describe, and especially when it’s homicide.
Homicide is incredible psychological pressure. It’s the most terrifying thing the human brain can contemplate. So these guys who tell me I gotta watch my back, think about what that means to have to watch your back, the stress involved in watching your back all the time. So that’s something I have to think about.
Losing a child to homicide, you just can’t go there. It’s very, very hard even to really sit down for a day and think about what that person is going through. So that’s another real discipline of humility when you sit down with parents of murder victims to find out where they’re at.
Tavis: I hear the point you’re making now. I don’t just hear it. I feel it because I think that the work that we do–and I mean all of us–in the space of the arts or in this case literature, the work that we do even here on public television, at our best, I hope that what we’re trying to do is to get folk to be empathetic, not necessary sympathetic. I don’t need your sympathy.
These people need your empathy, which leads me to ask what part of the text do you think lends itself best to white folk who don’t get this, being empathetic, putting themselves in the shoes of these Black people, not being sympathetic? What stories do you tell? What part of the book is gonna help them be more empathetic to Black on Black crime?
Leovy: I mean, part of that white defensiveness is not seeing. It’s just not seeing it. You know, even for me, it’s easy to be cynical about, but on the other hand, how are people going to know if you don’t tell them?
If they’ve never seen that in their lives, that they don’t live in a neighborhood where these issues are, how are they supposed to know if you don’t take them there a little bit? That’s why the book spends some time, especially with the parents whose children are murdered.
Because I really do think you can think about it for an hour or you can’t think about what it’s like a year later or two years later to stay with that part of the story and to not make it just a flash that goes away. And then we shift to the exciting detectives and the part of more intriguing perpetrators to stay with that painful victim part of the story.
And I think it’s a general point about doing this kind of reporting and also some of the issues that you’re talking about in terms of policies to make things victim-centered, to give the people who are suffering the most the front row seat in these stories. And I really try to tell the story of these homicides with that idea that things should be victim-centered.
One of the things that would help us, I think, deal with this problem is there’s a tendency to say “at risk” Black male as if they’re the problem. They’re the victims. They are our crime victims. They’re the people who most need safety.
They most need protection. They need to stop having to watch their backs all the time because that is a terrible way to live. And if we define the issue like that instead of these Black men who are such a problem, then it will give us some clarity of the road ahead that we don’t have right now.
Tavis: Before my time runs out, you used a phrase a moment ago about these exciting detectives in the story. And for those who watch my show regularly, they’ve heard me rail about this a thousand times in Hollywood how sick and tired I am–like Fanny Lou Hamer–I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired of movies where the white guy saves the Black guy. This happens all the time, which brings me back to your text.
Leovy: The white people saving the Black people is all over the place, isn’t it [laugh]?
Tavis: In this instance, we’re talking about really the Black beast versus the white savior. And I’m quoting now from your text. We’re talking here about a detective named John Skaggs who you describe as not just a white guy, but a Republican hero. These are your words.
“He was not just white, but very white, a Caucasian archetype with his blonde and pink coloring and Scots Irish features. His whole working life was devoted to one end: making Black lives expensive.”
Now I’m not saying there aren’t white folk that feel that way, but why again in every book, even a book about Black on Black crime, you got to have a white guy saving the Black people?
Leovy: Well, I’ll go back to my point about getting a white readership. That particular anecdote at the beginning of the book has another element to it. He’s a Republican, he’s dealing with a mother of a Black homicide victim. She’s a Democrat.
Part of the reason I use that anecdote at the beginning is because I really think that the issues I talk about in the book transcend traditional partisanship. There’s ground to be given up on both the right and the left here when it comes to homicide, and that’s part of the point that’s trying to be made.
But I totally agree with you. I don’t like the white people rescuing the Black people story. It’s something that I never want to be. I think that, you know, this would be a long conversation for another time.
But I think we’re very simplistic about the way we even talk about “the racist versus the non-racist” that all white people want to be, want to vilify some imaginary white racist that they are absolutely not, without really looking at the big picture which is forces that are beyond all our control, but really give some people some advantages over others.
And people who enjoy those advantages are still looking to somebody else to be the racist. So I completely agree that we need to blow apart that narrative if we can. This book, it did happen [laugh].
Tavis: I take that. Let me close my time with Jill Leovy by giving her the best compliment that I think that I can giver here at the end of this conversation, which is that “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America” made me think. When you read a good book, it challenges you to reexamine the assumptions you hold. It helps expand your inventory of ideas, helps you see from another point of view.
And even if you don’t agree with all the tenets in the book, that’s what a good book does. It makes you think. And I hope that you can tell by our conversation tonight that it made me think and it made me come up with a lot of questions tonight about the thesis of the text.
The book is called “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America”, and I hope that this conversation makes you want to read it as much as I wanted to read it when I first heard about it. Jill Leovy, we thank you for writing, and thank you for coming on to sit for these questions.
Leovy: Thank you.
Tavis: My pleasure to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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