- Murder in New Orleans: The Creation of Jim Crow Policing by Jeffrey S. Adler
Changing social conditions nationally and locally greatly altered patterns of, and legal reactions to, homicide in New Orleans from 1920 to 1945. The city’s homicide rates ranked among the highest in the nation in the early 1920s. Homicides were concentrated among poorer citizens. Although few whites were convicted of murder, the criminal-justice system reacted with even greater indifference to African-American killers. Homicides rates fell precipitously in subsequent years, but African Americans were increasingly seen as criminal threats deserving of harsh sanctions. Adler’s carefully crafted microhistory focuses on the social, economic, and demographic forces underlying the changing patterns of homicide and racialized social control. This study relies on a multisource data set containing extensive information about every homicide that occurred in New Orleans during the quaarter-century under consideration.
The analysis reveals that spousal homicides in particular rose dramatically in the early 1920s. Young male migrants from the surrounding regions inundated New Orleans, and the ensuing overcrowding, deteriorating living conditions, and imbalanced sex-ratio created a context conducive to domestic violence. African Americans, who were disproportionately affected by these changes, fueled the city’s rising homicide rate. Formal marriages were relatively rare among this less-affluent population; more egalitarian common-law marriages were prevalent. Many African-American women were gainfully employed. These arrangements challenged masculine privilege, and fostered domestic discord, which all too often escalated to deadly violence by one of the partners. Legal authorities generally saw these disputes as personal matters and did not bother with them. White spousal homicide rates were appreciably lower than African-American rates. White homicides typically involved jealous husbands employing “violence in the service of patriarchal control” or wives fighting back against years of spousal abuse (59). Although police were more likely to intervene in domestic violence involving whites, they often supported masculine privilege by encouraging women to submit to their spouses and failing to arrest abusive husbands.
Social conditions were changing markedly by the 1930s. Homicide rates dropped sharply during the Great Depression, particularly among [End Page 166] African Americans. The flow of young migrants into the city declined, the sex-ratio became more balanced, and fewer African-American women were in the labor force. At the same time, swamps surrounding the city were drained, and new subdivisions proffered opportunities for more affluent whites to escape the racially heterogeneous, densely populated, older downtown neighborhoods. The circumstances promoting domestic violence among both African Americans and whites had been transformed. Although homicide rates for both groups declined, white homicide became relatively more common in the home whereas African- American homicide moved to the street.
Even as homicide rates were plunging, a few killings of respectable whites by African Americans were highly publicized, promoting popular stereotypes of African-American criminality. Indeed, these homicides created a crime panic and “ignited a furious backlash from a cross-section of white New Orleanians” (109). Local political candidates called for more stringent racial control; gratuitous police use of force against African Americans became rampant; and conviction rates for African- American homicide defendants increased substantially.
Whereas the local criminal-justice system largely ignored African- American killings during the 1920s, protecting whites from African Americans had become its top priority in the 1930s. The advent of World War II exacerbated this trend. The overall homicide rate increased to some extent, and the arrival of young servicemen with cash to spend and a propensity for hard drinking contributed to relatively more robberies and killings of whites by African Americans. Racial disparities in police violence, homicide convictions, and executions increased considerably. Although reflecting the unique local context, in many ways the patterns of crime and justice seen in New Orleans mirrored trends in urban areas across the nation. The criminal-justice system increasingly targeted African Americans for social control, thus “forging the roots of modern mass-arrest and mass-incarceration practices” (177).
On balance, Adler’s book is carefully researched and well written. His analysis provides persuasive evidence...