Commentary Magazine

Black Mafia, by Francis A.J. Ianni

Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime.
by Francis A. J. Ianni.
Simon & Schuster. 831 pp. $8.95.

Professor Ianni’s thesis is that control of organized crime is slipping from the increasingly bourgeois and respectable Italian-Americans and is being taken over by Cuban, Puerto Rican, and black gangsters. If true, this would be in some respects a positive development. At present, most big Northern cities are afflicted by disorganized crime. Free-lance criminals make business and residential activities difficult, expensive, and dangerous in large areas. Organized crime, on the other hand, performs useful illegal services to society as a whole and provides income and employment opportunities for depressed minority groups. It is generally agreed that the safest places in our cities are those controlled by the Mafia. A black-and-brown Mafia would bring order to crime, institutionalize services, make the streets safer, and levy less than the existing laissez-faire system.

But Ianni’s display of evidence does not support his thesis. With the exception of a single organization in “Patterson” (all individual names in the book are fictional; one must assume the places are too), the criminals described here are unimpressive—a pimp, a fence-loan shark, a narcotics dealer, a Brooklyn boys’ gang that grew up into better things, a numbers banker, a hot car-parts dealer—just an assortment of small-time hoods and punks, not to be compared with the sophisticated organizations detailed in Ralph Salerno and John S. Tompkins’s thoughtful and comprehensive The Crime Confederation.

The types of operations Ianni deals with have always existed in urban poverty areas and have been manned by the local people. To be sure, there has been some specialization—at the turn of the century Jews and Armenians were favored fences, and even Ianni’s “minority” criminals seem to prefer Jewish shysters for their legal services. But the everyday crime in slums has been handled by locals, whether they were of old American stock, Scots-Irish, Irish, German, Slavic, Jewish, or Italian.

Ethnic succession in crime is a myth. During Prohibition, criminals came out of all the slums to serve the demand of urban dwellers for illegal liquor. The winners of the vigorous competition for markets were a loosely allied confederation of gangs dominated by (but not restricted to) Italians in line positions and Jews in the staff. With the profits, organization, respectability, and political contacts acquired during Prohibition, the syndicates were able to convert to labor relations, insurance, narcotics, gambling, and many legal businesses. But respectability and political contacts have gradually been eroded. Almost all the great leaders who put together the organization are dead; Meyer Lansky, the eminence grise of the Mob, is one of the few remaining survivors of that heroic era. What with federal income tax and wiretapping, it would probably be impossible to rejuvenate organized crime on the national and regional levels.

What Ianni chronicles, then, is a regression to the status quo ante Prohibition—small localized gangs with little cohesion or political clout. Indeed, present-day ethnic factors may preclude, rather than foster, the establishment of organized crime in the “ghetto.” According to Ianni, it is Cubans who most closely adhere to the old Italian model, but the Cuban diaspora is economically so succeeful that its criminal phase will scarcely last a generation. Black criminals have the fierce individualism, sense of personal honor, and taste for violence of their Southern homeland, but they lack the family ties and organizational heritage necessary to put together stable syndicates. (Ianni’s speculations that black criminals might turn politically militant is not consistent with the record of urban criminals anywhere or with the behavior, as distinguished from the rhetoric fed to white sociologists, of black criminals.) Puerto Ricans offer a mixed example—some are adhering to black models, but the more successful seem to be assimilating to the Italians as they move up.

As illustrated by Ianni’s fine discourse on gypsy-cab operations in New York City (an illegal business employing tens of thousands and serving hundreds of thousands, made necessary by licensing procedures “in the public interest”), the expansion of government regulation creates additional needs and opportunities for organized crime. It is possible, however, that American society has evolved to the point where we no longer require lower-class criminals at all. The marijuana business, certainly, suggests that the middle classes are quite capable of staffing their own illegal services. Professor Ianni’s thesis of ethnic succession, then, in addition to describing a process that has never really taken place, may be addressed to a way of life that is altogether en route to disappearance.


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