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Hyper-Segregation, Inequality, And Murder Rates — A Review Of “The Ecology Of Homicide”

Schneider, Eric C. The Ecology of Homicide: Race, Place, and Space in Postwar Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.

In 2006 national news media bestowed the name “Killadelphia” on the “City of Brotherly Love” when police recorded 406 homicides, predominantly involving Black men, in Philadelphia’s low-income, African American neighborhoods. For activist historian Eric Schneider (1951-2017), this tragedy became the impetus for an investigation of the human ecology of murder. The result, The Ecology of Homicide: Race, Place, and Space in Postwar Philadelphia, is an interdisciplinary microhistory of how racial discrimination, violence, crime, and masculinity have played a role in the high rates of murder in Philadelphia’s hyper-segregated Black communities, from World War II to the early 1980s. By relying on research from sociologists and criminologists, he refutes theories suggesting that African Americans and their culture are inherently violent. Instead, he explains historically how high murder rates in marginalized Black communities are a result of generations of social inequality that create an environment where life is uncertain and murder is performed as self-protection from physical violence and dishonor in the public and private spheres of society.

In The Ecology of Homicide, Schneider uses transcripts from 195 criminal court trials for homicide in Philadelphia to argue that postwar segregation and ghettoization created the ecology for homicide to thrive in low-income African American neighborhoods. During WWII, African Americans migrating to Philadelphia looking for wartime industrial jobs were funneled into segregated neighborhoods. Government housing policies maintained residential segregation in the city, and white resistance to desegregation in the form of race riots and White flight created hyper-segregation. After WWII African Americans were excluded from factory jobs when private enterprises, unbeholden to wartime production demands, offered positions to returning white soldiers seeking jobs, despite civil rights protests for equal opportunity employment. Deindustrialization, financial disinvestment, and the reduction of legitimate employment in Black neighborhoods made room for “vice markets” of illegal drugs, alcohol, gambling, prostitution, and numbers games to “flourish” and inevitably bring residents in close contact with police. 

In Philadelphia, men committed over 90 percent of the homicides. Black people were more likely than white people to carry weapons like knives and guns for self-protection because of under-policing in their neighborhoods, racial violence when traveling through all-white neighborhoods, the existence of poverty-induced crime, and their mistrust of a racially-biased criminal justice system. Since Black men had little control over their access to secure employment and financial stability, Schneider explains that egoism became the Achilles heel of men who “exercised” their masculinity through violence when they faced confrontations in the street and at home. Moreover, murder was not only about self-protection, but also asserting one’s manhood through the display of dominance over adversaries who challenged their masculinity, such as friends, domestic partners, romantic rivals, police, and strangers. 

The structure of the book consists of a foreword, preface, and six chapters. There is no conclusion for this monograph, which is understandable, given the fact that Schneider lost his battle with cancer before he could complete his manuscript. Each chapter is filled with lucid statistical crime data and vivid, subaltern stories lifted from the court transcripts he mined for his research. Schneider’s monograph is written chronologically and covers many forms of violence involving a diverse group of everyday people. In one chapter, Schneider focuses on domestic violence in the 1940s, explaining why men and women killed their intimate partners, as well as how criminal sentencing for murder varied based on race, class, mental health, and veteran status in the postwar. Another chapter breaks down the racial and carceral effects of felony murder by focusing on the 1958 robbery-murder of international graduate student In-Ho Oh by eleven Black teenagers in West Philadelphia. Oh’s murder not only triggered white flight but also citizens’ calls for tough on crime policing, the legal pursuit of the death penalty for criminal youth, and the gentrification of Black neighborhoods adjacent to college campuses.

The strength of this narrative is that it offers many untold stories about the city, police, court, and community response to violence while also being richly fluent in Philadelphia-centric historiography. 

Read entire article at The Metropole