Ferguson, Gladwell's Crooked Ladder, and the Social Effects of Organized Crime

by Michael Dorf

A recent New Yorker essay by Malcolm Gladwell provides a potentially interesting way to think about the events in Ferguson. Gladwell's essay was published just before the eruption in Ferguson, so he does not discuss it. A Washington Post op-ed by Allyssa Rosenberg applies the lessons Gladwell draws in his essay to Ferguson and the larger problem of the racialization of poverty and violence, but mostly by accepting Gladwell's claims. Here, after briefly describing Gladwell's claims, I want to raise some questions about his analysis.

Gladwell's essay centers around a 1972 non-fiction book by Francis Ianni, A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime, that was the basis for The Godfather and many subsequent popular fictional portrayals of organized crime in general and the Italian mafia in particular.

The Godfather films suggest that mafia life is a trap: "Just when I thought I was out," laments Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in Godfather III, "they pull me back in." But the lesson of Ianni's study, says Gladwell, is more nearly the opposite. People who turn to organized crime do not reject the bourgeois values of the surrounding society. They embrace those values but, seeing few if any opportunities to achieve a good life for themselves and their families legitimately, they turn to crime. Over time, however, the wealth accumulated through organized crime enables crime families to go legit. Thus the grandsons and granddaughters of a mafia don end up as wholly respectable doctors, lawyers, and accountants. Organized crime, Gladwell says, quoting sociologist James O'Kane, is a "crooked ladder" to prosperity and respectability.

Gladwell also notes that by the early 1970s, the empires built by Italian-American crime families were increasingly reliant on African American and Latino foot soldiers. Based on Ianni's study, one would expect that, just as organized crime had served as a crooked ladder to respectability for earlier generations of Irish, then Jewish, then Italian mobsters, so it should work the same way for African Americans. (Gladwell does not discuss Latinos beyond his initial observation.) And yet, it obviously has not.

Why not? Curiously, Gladwell does not even mention racism, but let's put that rather glaring omission aside. Gladwell discusses modern urban life for African American criminals by reference to Alice Goffman’s new book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, juxtaposing the portrait Goffman paints with the one Ianni painted. Gladwell argues that in earlier times, organized crime worked as a gateway to legitimate business because corrupt police and generally lax enforcement of the criminal law enabled the accumulation of capital and the development of a business ethic within organized crime circles. By contrast, African Americans had the bad luck to move into the organized crime niche just as police corruption was being dramatically reduced and criminal law enforcement was being ramped up.

There is something that's clearly right about this narrative. Young African American men are arrested and incarcerated at alarmingly high rates; and the increasingly for-profit criminal justice system can convert even the most minor brush with the law (such as a traffic offense) into a source of insurmountable debt. So yes, the second half of Gladwell's hypothesis has much to be said for it, and that something dovetails with the expressions of outrage we see on the streets of Ferguson. The early discussion of Ferguson focused on the militarization of police, which is a problem, but a relatively small one in comparison to the core issue: Over-criminalization and excessive punishment in general, and their disproportionate impact on the African American community in particular, are extremely serious problems.

But that has little to do with organized crime. Does Gladwell really mean to imply that the best solution to the problems that ail urban America is for the police to back off and allow the Bloods, Crips, MS-13s, and other gangs to run rampant, in the expectation that, within a couple of generations, middle-class respectability will take hold? If one considers the sorts of places in which this approach has been more or less unintentionally applied--e.g., Sicily and Central America--one finds not respectability but disorder and despair.

Both in this recent essay and more generally, Gladwell is such a good writer that he makes it easy for the reader to get caught up in the arc of his narrative and end up at his counterintuitive conclusion. But there is a reason why counterintuitive conclusions are counterintuitive: often they're wrong.

One of Gladwell's key anecdotes is instructive. He describes the practices of Salvatore Avellino, who oversaw the Long Island garbage disposal cartel in the 1970s and 1980s. Gladwell praises Avellino's business ethics. Instead of keeping the 50% premium in rents that the cartel was able to extract from its customers, or giving most of that money to the Lucchese and Gambino crime families, Avellino ensured that most of the profits went to the cartel members, the family-owned trash disposal businesses that operated in the respective territories allocated to them. Gladwell writes that although Avellino would use violence and intimidation against those who did not play by his rules, "when it came to his [cartel] members, Avellino acted not as a predator but as a benefactor."

And there you have the non sequitur that is at the heart of Gladwell's analysis. Organized crime may indeed be a crooked ladder to respectability for the participants in organized crime or their descendants. But for the rest of the people in the community--those who are already trying to live and work by the rules of the larger society--organized crime is an impediment to achieving a comfortable existence. To the businesses and individuals who paid a 50% premium above what they would have paid for trash disposal in a competitive market, Avellino's violence-backed cartel most certainly was a predator. Likewise, the small business owners trying to make an honest living hardly benefit from having to pay protection money to the mob, even though the profits are shared fairly among the mobsters.

Here, it seems to me, popular fiction gets it about right. Tony Soprano's extraction of resources from the communities his minions oversaw paid for Meadow's tuition at Columbia, but it also prevented some of the sons and daughters of the business owners from whom he stole from being able to afford to go to Rutgers.