My current research is a history of murder in modern Philadelphia (1940-1990) that is intended to explore the roots of violence in the modern city. In Philadelphia, over 70 percent of homicide victims in 2008 were African American males, and 56 percent were African American males between the ages of eighteen and forty. The perpetrators of these homicides are other young, African American men. Most commentators see this as a uniquely contemporary problem, but it is not.
It is a truism among sociologists that there was a golden age of the ghetto, a ‘communal ghetto,’ in which ‘old heads’ advised young men who heeded their council. In this view, modern homicide represents a 'decivilizing process' in which internal and external constraints on violence have been removed and deindustrialization has eliminated the disciplining power of work. However, the homicide data from the mid-twentieth century belie these hypotheses: in Philadelphia between 1948 and 1952, the homicide rate for African Americans was 22.5 per 100,000 population, while the corresponding rate for whites was merely 1.9. Roughly three quarters of the homicide victims and perpetrators were African American at a time when African Americans comprised 18 percent of the city’s population. Homicide was highly spatialized, occurring mainly in areas with high African American populations, and of course it was highly gendered. How do we understand this ghettoization of homicide?
I argue that African Americans lived in a state of social insecurity, in which their safety depended on their willingness to defend themselves in the absence of effective public authority. African Americans were simultaneously under- and over-policed, constantly harassed while intra-racial violence was not taken seriously. Entering into public space meant not only anticipating the possibility of violence but also frequently going armed, which threatened to turn confrontations into homicidal events. Men (and to a lesser degree, women) took the mandate to rely on themselves seriously, with collectively disastrous results.
Over time, the nature of homicide changed, becoming less expressive and more instrumental, as robbery and felony related murders increased in the 1960s and 1970s, and the rise of a drug economy placed a premium on the willingness to resort to violence. I am interested, therefore, in the history of murder, but also in murder as history, as a way of reading the history and development of the modern city.