Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities
2013—2014 Forum on Violence
Assistant Dean and Associate Director for Academic Affairs
Adjunct Professor of History
Dancing with Knives: The Ecological Structure of African American Homicide in Postwar Philadelphia
Of the approximately 9,200 persons murdered in Philadelphia since 1988, nearly 80 percent were African American; over half were African American males between the ages of eighteen and forty. Most commentators see this as a contemporary problem, but it is one with deep historical roots. It is a truism among sociologists that a 'communal ghetto' once existed in which 'old heads' advised young men. Historians have argued that the postwar period was a time of civil rights optimism, when genuine change seemed possible and new job opportunities became available to African Americans. The data on homicide in the 1940s and 1950s belie these premises. There were stark racial differences in murder rates (22.5 per 100,000 for African Americans v. 1.9 for whites) and homicide was highly spatialized, occurring in areas with concentrated African American populations. What explains the persistence of murder in Philadelphia's black community?