Gladwell At His Gladwelliest: Black Crime Today Is Just Like The Old Italian Mafia
Print Friendly and PDF
In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell explains that black crime today is just like the old Italian Mafia:
The Crooked Ladder The criminal’s guide to upward mobility.


… The moral of the “Godfather” movies was that the Corleone family, conceived in crime, could never escape it. “Just when I thought I was out,” Michael Corleone says, “they pull me back in.” The moral of “A Family Business” was the opposite: that for the Lupollos and the Tuccis and the Salemis and the Alcamos—and, by extension, many other families just like them—crime was the means by which a group of immigrants could transcend their humble origins. It was, as the sociologist James O’Kane put it, the “crooked ladder” of social mobility. …

The big difference, according to Malcolm, between the good old days of the Mafia and black crime is that there has been too much law enforcement since 1960, which is what is keeping black criminals from becoming the patriarchs of upper middle class families:
When read alongside Ianni, what is striking about Goffman’s book is not the cultural difference between being an Italian thug in the early part of the twentieth century and being an African-American thug today. It’s the role of law enforcement in each era. Chuck’s high-school education ended prematurely after he was convicted of aggravated assault in a schoolyard fight. Another boy called Chuck’s mother a crack whore, and he pushed his antagonist’s face into the snow. In a previous generation, this dispute would not have ended up in the legal system. Until the nineteen-seventies, outstanding warrants in the city of Philadelphia were handled by a two-man team, who would sit in an office during the evening hours and make telephone calls to the homes of people on their list. Anyone stopped by the police could show a fake I.D. Today, there are computers and sometimes even fingerprint machines in squad cars. Between 1960 and 2000, the ratio of police officers to Philadelphia residents rose by almost seventy per cent.
Lack of law enforcement is what turned the overwhelmingly criminal masses of Italian-Americans into middle class people:
That’s why the crooked ladder worked as well as it did. The granddaughter could end up riding horses because the law—whether from indifference, incompetence, or corruption—left her gangster grandfather alone.
Seriously …

First, the Italian Mafia was a major blight on the American Northeast. If you wonder why cities like New York and Philadelphia fell so far by 1975, and some have never recovered, one reason (among several) is the toll exacted by Mafia leeches. In the 1970s, for instance, a distinct advantage that the Los Angeles economy had over the New York economy was the Mafia rakeoff was much smaller in LA.

The only good thing about the Mafia in America was that it made up a much smaller percentage of the population than the Mafia in Sicily, which is still a mess.

Second, I don’t have hard evidence for this, but I strongly doubt that most descendants of the Mafia are respectable upper middle class professionals today. The Mafia did not attract the hard-working and intelligent, it attracted lazy guys who liked to play cards all day. Their grandsons are probably hanging out at the Jersey Shore today, not studying art history in a summer program in Florence.

For example, was Francis Ford Coppola, director of the Godfather movies, descended from thugs? No, his father was a symphony musician who composed orchestral scores in the style of Ludwig van Beethoven. And his mother’s father had been Caruso’s pianist.

I’ve known a lot of educated Italian-Americans over the years. How many had mob ties? I can think of one Notre Dame high school friend whose father was a prominent sports bookie; and two friends from the St. Francis de Sales Boy Scouts who lost $400 each in high school betting on sports with a bookie who had some some muscle connections. They had to crawl to their lawyer dads for the cash to keep from having their legs broken.

But that’s about it. Almost all the educated Italian-Americans I’ve known, like my wife’s uncle the Air Force colonel with the Ph.D. in metallurgy, loved Coppola and Scorsese movies. They would have enjoyed boasting of some distant relative with connections to the underworld, but, to their frustration, they’d draw a complete blank when I’d ask them.

Third, the number of Mafia members as a percentage of Italian-Americans was strikingly smaller than the percentage of African-Americans who have been involved in crime. The Mafia was a formalized institution with barriers to entry. It’s like the percentage of Italian-Americans who have been priests is a lot smaller than the percentage of African-Americans who have tried their hand at preaching.

Fourth, Italian-Americans had low rates of disorganized crime. That is not true for blacks.

Fifth, black crime rates skyrocketed when law enforcement was dialed down in the 1960s.

Sixth, blacks have been committing crimes for a long time without the racial ratio changing much. We actually have homicide statistics by race in Philadelphia going all the way back to the 1830s. James Q. Wilson wrote in 2002:

A central problem—perhaps the central problem—in improving the relationship between white and black Americans is the difference in racial crime rates. No matter how innocent or guilty a stranger may be, he carries with him in public the burdens or benefits of his group identity…

Estimating the crime rates of racial groups is, of course, difficult because we only know the arrest rate. If police are more (or less) likely to arrest a criminal of a given race, the arrest rate will overstate (or understate) the true crime rate. To examine this problem, researchers have compared the rate at which criminal victims report (in the National Crime Victimization Survey, or NCVS) the racial identity of whoever robbed or assaulted them with the rate at which the police arrest robbers or assaulters of different races.

Regardless of whether the victim is black or white, there are no significant differences between victim reports and police arrests. This suggests that, though racism may exist in policing (as in all other aspects of American life), racism cannot explain the overall black arrest rate. The arrest rate, thus, is a reasonably good proxy for the crime rate.

Black men commit murders at a rate about eight times greater than that for white men. This disparity is not new; it has existed for well over a century.

When historian Roger Lane studied murder rates in Philadelphia, he found that since 1839 the black rate has been much higher than the white rate.

This gap existed long before the invention of television, the wide distribution of hand guns, or access to dangerous drugs (except for alcohol).

America is a violent nation. The estimated homicide rate in this country, excluding all those committed by blacks, is over three times higher than the homicide rate for the other six major industrial nations. But whatever causes white Americans to kill other people, it causes black Americans to kill others at a much higher rate.

Of course the average African American male is not likely to kill anybody. During the 1980s and early 1990s, fewer than one out of every 2,000 black men would kill a person in any year, and most of their victims were other blacks.

Though for young black men homicide is the leading cause of death, the chances of the average white person’s being killed by a black are very small. But the chances of being hit by lightning are also very small, and yet we leave high ground during a thunderstorm. However low the absolute risk, the relative risk—relative, that is, to the chances of being killed by a white—is high, and this fact changes everything.

When whites walk down the street, they are more nervous when they encounter a black man than when they encounter a white one. When blacks walk down the street, they are more likely than whites to be stopped and questioned by a police officer…

The differences in the racial rates for property crimes, though smaller than those for violent offenses, are still substantial. The estimated rate at which black men commit burglary is three times higher than it is for white men; for rape, it is five times higher.

The difference between blacks and whites with respect to crime, and especially violent crime, has, I think, done more to impede racial amity than any other factor.

Print Friendly and PDF