Why Did Black Crime Syndicates Fail to Go Legit?

Black Guerrilla Gang

Black Guerrilla Gang

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting long essay in The New Yorker about the gradual going-straight and assimilation into respectable society of the Italian crime families (“Mafia”) of the 50s.

The Lupollos were not really called the Lupollos, of course; nor was Uncle Phil really named Philip Alcamo. Ianni changed names and identifying details in his published work. The patriarch of the Lupollo clan he called Giuseppe. Giuseppe was born in the eighteen-seventies in the Corleone district of western Sicily. He came to New York in 1902, with his wife and their two young sons, and settled in Little Italy. He imported olive oil and ran an “Italian bank,” which was used for loan-sharking operations. When a loan could not be repaid, he would take an equity stake in his debtor’s business. He started a gambling operation, and moved into bootlegging; during Prohibition, the business branched out into trucking, garbage collection, food products, and real estate. He recruited close relatives to help him build his businesses—first, his wife’s cousin Cosimo Salemi, then his son, Joe, then his daughter-in-law’s brother, Phil Alcamo, and then the husband of his granddaughter, Pete Tucci. “From all accounts, he was a patriarch, at once kindly and domineering,” Ianni wrote of Giuseppe. “Within the family, all important decisions were reserved for him. . . . Outside of the family, he was feared and respected.” The family moved from Little Italy to a row house in Brooklyn, and from there—one by one—to Queens and Long Island, as its enterprise grew to encompass eleven businesses totalling tens of millions of dollars in assets.

“A Family Business” was the real-life version of “The Godfather,” the movie adaptation of which was released the same year. But Ianni’s portrait was markedly different from the romanticized accounts of Mafia life that have subsequently dominated popular culture. There were no blood oaths in Ianni’s account, or national commissions or dark conspiracies. There was no splashy gunplay. No one downed sambuca shots at Jilly’s, on West Fifty-second Street, with Frank Sinatra. The Lupollos lived modestly. Ianni gives little evidence, in fact, that the four families had any grand criminal ambitions beyond the illicit operations they ran out of storefronts in Brooklyn. Instead, from Giuseppe’s earliest days in Little Italy, the Lupollo clan was engaged in a quiet and determined push toward respectability.

By 1970, Ianni calculated, there were forty-two fourth-generation members of the Lupollo-Salemi-Alcamo-Tucci family—of which only four were involved in the family’s crime businesses. The rest were firmly planted in the American upper middle class. A handful of the younger members of that generation were in private schools or in college. One was married to a judge’s son, another to a dentist. One was completing a master’s degree in psychology; another was a member of the English department at a liberal-arts college. There were several lawyers, a physician, and a stockbroker. Uncle Phil’s son Basil was an accountant, who lived on an estate in the posh Old Westbury section of Long Island’s North Shore. “His daughter rides and shows her own horses,” Ianni wrote, “and his son has some reputation as an up-and-coming young yachtsman.” Uncle Phil, meanwhile, lived in Manhattan, collected art, and frequented the opera. “The Lupollos love to tell of old Giuseppe’s wife Annunziata visiting Phil’s apartment,” Ianni wrote. “Her comment on the lavish collection of paintings was ‘manga nu Santa’ (‘not even one saint’s picture’).”

The moral of the “Godfather” movies was that the Corleone family, conceived in crime, could never escape it. “Just when I thought I was out,” Michael Corleone says, “they pull me back in.” The moral of “A Family Business” was the opposite: that for the Lupollos and the Tuccis and the Salemis and the Alcamos—and, by extension, many other families just like them—crime was the means by which a group of immigrants could transcend their humble origins. It was, as the sociologist James O’Kane put it, the “crooked ladder” of social mobility.

The piece has more interesting material about the Italian crime family’s climb to respectability. Gladwell highlights another book to ask the differential question: why were the black drug gangs of the 70s-90s not able to make the same transition? It may be that declining police corruption, and a lack of political friends in high places to protect their underground business, kept them from getting any traction in the upward climb:

Fast-forward two generations and, with any luck, the grandchildren of the loan sharks and the street thugs would be riding horses in Old Westbury. It had happened before. Wouldn’t it happen again?

This is one of the questions at the heart of the sociologist Alice Goffman’s extraordinary new book, “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.” The story she tells, however, is very different.


Chuck and Mike were criminals: they were complicit in the barbarism of the drug trade. But, in the Mertonian sense, they were also innovators. Goffman describes how they craved success in mainstream society. They tried to get an education and legitimate jobs, only to find themselves thwarted. Selling crack was a business they entered into only because they believed that all other doors were closed to them. In Chuck’s case, his mother had a serious crack habit. He began dealing at thirteen in order to buy food for the family and to “regulate” his mother’s addiction; if he was her supplier, he figured, she wouldn’t have to turn tricks or sell household possessions to pay for drugs. Chuck’s criminal activities were an attempt to bring some degree of normalcy to his family.

The problem was that on 6th Street crime didn’t pay. Often, Chuck and Mike had no drugs to sell: “their supplier had gotten arrested or was simply unavailable, or the money they owed this ‘connect’ had been seized from their pockets by the police during a stop and search.” And, if they did have drugs, the odds of evading arrest were small. The police saturated 6th Street. Each day, Goffman saw the officers stop young men on the streets, search cars, and make arrests. In her first eighteen months of following Mike and Chuck, she writes:

I watched the police break down doors, search houses and question, arrest, or chase people through houses fifty-two times. Nine times, police helicopters circled overhead and beamed searchlights onto local streets. I noted blocks taped off and traffic redirected as police searched for evidence . . . seventeen times. Fourteen times during my first eighteen months of near daily observation, I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks.

Years later, when Chuck went through his high-school yearbook with Goffman, he identified almost half the boys in his freshman class as currently in jail or prison. Between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-seven, Mike had spent three and a half years behind bars. He was on probation or parole for eighty-seven weeks of the hundred and thirty-nine weeks that he was out of prison, and made fifty-one court appearances.

The police buried the local male population under a blizzard of arrest warrants: some were “body” warrants for suspected crimes, but most were bench and technical warrants for failure to appear in court or to pay court fees, or for violations of probation or parole. Getting out from under the weight of warrants was so difficult that many young men in the neighborhood lived their lives as fugitives. Mike spent a total of thirty-five weeks on the run, steering clear of friends and loved ones, moving around by night. The young men of the neighborhood avoided hospitals, because police officers congregate there, running checks on those seeking treatment for injuries. Instead, they turned to a haphazard black market for their medical care. The police would set up a tripod camera outside funerals, to record the associates of young men murdered on the streets. The local police, the A.T.F., the F.B.I., and the U.S. Marshals Service all had special warrant units, using computer-mapping software, cell-phone tracking, and intelligence from every conceivable database: Social Security records, court records, hospital-admission records, electricity and gas bills, and employment records. “You hear them coming, that’s it, you gone,” Chuck tells his little brother. “Period. ’Cause whoever they looking for, even if it’s not you, nine times out of ten they’ll probably book you.” Goffman sometimes saw young children playing the age-old game of cops and robbers in the street, only the child acting the part of the robber wouldn’t even bother to run away:

I saw children give up running and simply stick their hands behind their back, as if in handcuffs; push their body up against a car without being asked; or lie flat on the ground and put their hands over their head. The children yelled, “I’m going to lock you up! I’m going to lock you up, and you ain’t never coming home!” I once saw a six-year-old pull another child’s pants down to do a “cavity search.”

When read alongside Ianni, what is striking about Goffman’s book is not the cultural difference between being an Italian thug in the early part of the twentieth century and being an African-American thug today. It’s the role of law enforcement in each era. Chuck’s high-school education ended prematurely after he was convicted of aggravated assault in a schoolyard fight. Another boy called Chuck’s mother a crack whore, and he pushed his antagonist’s face into the snow. In a previous generation, this dispute would not have ended up in the legal system. Until the nineteen-seventies, outstanding warrants in the city of Philadelphia were handled by a two-man team, who would sit in an office during the evening hours and make telephone calls to the homes of people on their list. Anyone stopped by the police could show a fake I.D. Today, there are computers and sometimes even fingerprint machines in squad cars. Between 1960 and 2000, the ratio of police officers to Philadelphia residents rose by almost seventy per cent.

In the previous era, according to Goffman, the police “turned a fairly blind eye” to prostitution, drug dealing, and gambling in poor black neighborhoods. But in the late nineteen-eighties, she writes, “corruption seems to have been largely eliminated as a general practice, at least in the sense of people working at the lower levels of the drug trade paying the police to leave them in peace.”

The entire piece is well worth the ten minutes it takes to read it. But it does seem the earlier immigrant crime families were able to climb a ladder to relative respectability that was never available to inner-city drug gangs.

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.


More on Social Decay:

“Marriage Rate Lowest in a Century”
Making Divorce Hard to Strengthen Marriages?
The High Cost of Divorce
Divorced Men 8 Times as Likely to Commit Suicide as Divorced Women
Cuba: Where All but the Connected are Poor
“Postcards from Venezuela”
Ross Douthat on Unstable Families and Culture
“Income Inequality” Propaganda is Just Disguised Materialism
The Social Decay of Black Neighborhoods (And Yours!)
“Marriage Markets” – Marriage Beyond Our Means?
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
Why Did Black Crime Syndicates Fail to Go Legit?
“Why Are Great Husbands Being Abandoned?”
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
Culture Wars: Peace Through Limited Government
Steven Pinker on Harvard and Meritocracy

“Breaking Bad”–The Lessons of Walter White


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