Schneider, Eric C. The Ecology of Homicide: Race, Place, and Space in Postwar Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.
Reviewed by Menika Dirkson
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. Throughout the book there are nods to numerous historians and sociologists who have studied Philadelphia’s street culture, desegregation movements, and Black radical activism during the Civil Rights Movement. Schneider’s chapters are jam-packed with details on the Black community’s response to issues like the 1964 Columbia Avenue Riots, juvenile street gangs, and police brutality. His focus on both well-known and less publicized organizations like the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, the House of Umoja, and the Black Liberation Army demonstrate how African American activists refused to stand by as intra- and interracial violent crime touched their neighborhoods.
The major qualm that I have with this book is that thematic consistency is often sacrificed for loyalty to chronology. While I appreciated that the monograph touches on key events throughout Philadelphia’s crime history, the book juggles multiple types of violence instead of focusing on one. Additionally, Schneider’s chapter on police officers as “dirty workers,” a term borrowed from sociologist Lee Rainwater describing people who do undesirable tasks for mainstream society without public acknowledgment, appeared to be a repeat of his co-authored article on the 1964 Columbia Avenue Riots.
The Ecology of Homicide is a relevant book that should not only be consumed by scholars but also by city officials, policymakers, and police. In 2020, Philadelphia had 499 murders following a global pandemic, high unemployment, financial insecurity, and incidents of police brutality that particularly hit communities of color the hardest. Concentrated poverty and gun violence have long been a concern in areas like North Philadelphia, a historically Black and low-income area, where up to 45 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Nevertheless, while this book is centered on Philadelphia, it is representative of many big cities, like Chicago and New York, which have marginalized Black communities struggling with poverty and high crime rates, in part due to the effects of postwar segregation and socioeconomic inequality.
Menika Dirkson is a Philadelphia native and PhD Candidate in History at Temple University who specializes in Race and Policing in post-1968 Urban America.
Featured image (at top): Teenaged boys from a North Philadelphia gang. Dick Swanson, “Street Gang Members” (1973), DOCUMERICA: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972-1977, National Archives.