Thursday, August 2, 2007

Senkewicz reviews Mullen, Dangerous Strangers: Minority Newcomers and Criminal Violence in the Urban West, 1850-2000

Kevin J. Mullen, Dangerous Strangers: Minority Newcomers and Criminal Violence in the Urban West, 1850-2000 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) is reviewed for H-Urban by Robert M. Senkewicz, Department of History, Santa Clara University. Hat tip. Senkewicz writes:
Over the past decade and a half, a number of historians have been writing about violence in the West, especially in California. It would be too much to call them a formal group, for their concerns, focus, and interpretations do not always agree. But the works of these scholars, including John Boessenecker, William Secrest, and Clare McKanna, Jr., have served to elevate the quality of writings on California violence, and to impart greater quantitative precision and conceptual clarity to this easily caricatured subject. Kevin Mullen, the author of an important book on the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851, is one of these writers.

Much of this writing has examined the nineteenth century. But in Dangerous Strangers: Minority Newcomers and Criminal Violence in the Urban West, 1850-2000, Mullen dramatically expands the chronological sweep and looks at criminal violence in San Francisco from the time of its origin as an American city until the dawn of the new millennium.

The most impressive achievement of this volume is the primary research that went into it. Mullen has constructed his own database of "the almost 7000 criminal homicides that occurred in San Francisco from 1849 to 2000" (p. 146). He does this, as he carefully explains, because he agrees with many criminal justice researchers that homicide is "an index of the amount of criminal violence generally" (p. 2). Since many of the public records of San Francisco were destroyed in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake, the creation of this database was not an easy task. Mullen exhaustively read the daily newspapers for the 1850s. He perused the municipal reports that began in the 1860s, waded through various coroners' tallies, combed the statistics in the city health department summary reports, and supplemented all this with this further readings in the city's newspapers. Mullen reports that this unique database has been archived at Ohio State University's Criminal Justice Research Center, where it is available to other researchers. The database can be accessed here, where it is marked as "Data Set 4." There one can find details on 6974 criminal homicides in San Francisco, from June 21, 1849 to December 19, 2003.

In this book, Mullen focuses on a series of what he terms "minority newcomers," and examines their contributions to criminal violence in San Francisco. He looks at Australians in the early days of the gold rush, at Latinos in the 1850s, at the Irish in the nineteenth century, at the Chinese between 1870 and 1930, at the Italians from the 1880s to the 1930s, and at African-Americans, generally in the post-World War II era. He finds that each group was overrepresented in the commission of criminal violence during the period he studies. He then poses two lines of inquiry. First, he seeks to examine "to what extent the criminal violence emanates from the culture of the group involved, as distinguished from that which is the result of the mistreatment of a minority group by the majority society." Second, he considers "the extent to which police practices influence levels of criminal violence." In short, he finds that "high rates of criminal violence can be attributed more to the group's culture than is generally believed." Also, "what police do--or do not do--affects the level of violence in a community" (p. 2)

There is much that is commendable in Mullen's work. The volume's broad sweep, for instance, allows him to offer suggestive comparisons between various groups, such as between the Chinese and the Italian immigrant experience in San Francisco and to draw interesting and important contrasts between the Italian experiences in San Francisco and Chicago. Mullen is sensitive to the ways in which changes in the structure of Irish society affected the social conditions and experiences of those who emigrated from there to the United States in the later nineteenth century. Most importantly, his own background as a San Francisco police officer allows him to write with clarity and verve about the changing policies of the city's police chiefs and the evolving procedures of the police department as it struggled to find ever more effective ways to combat crime and to keep abreast of the technologies, such as the automobile, which for a time gave a tremendous advantage to some of the city's criminals. These sections are some of the best in the book.

However, in my judgment the volume also suffers from a few deficiencies, which combine to weaken the overall quality of the work.

First, the notion of the culture that the various immigrants brought with them tends to be simplistic. The basic procedure Mullen follows is to cite a few secondary sources that describe a violent aspect of a country or region (such as brigand gangs in northern Mexico in the late nineteenth century, the Triad gangs in southern China, the Black Hand in Italy, or violence in the American rural South), then quickly to conclude that the immigrants who actually came to San Francisco brought these types of violence with them, and that this phenomenon goes a considerable (but unspecified) distance toward explaining what he finds in the database. Such complicated assertions demand a much more complex series of arguments.

Second, the social and historical context is uniformly weak. The narrative appears generally unaffected by much recent historical scholarship on the history of San Francisco, especially in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. One looks in vain in the bibliography for works by Robert Cherny, William Issel, Michael Kazin, William Bullough, or others. The result is that the minority newcomers are treated in an insular fashion, with little relation to or interaction with the social, cultural, economic, or political life of the city.

Third, the very concepts of "minority newcomers" and "host society" are extremely problematic in reference to the tumultuous and multicultural milieus that constituted both Gold Rush California as well as the instant city of San Francisco that was its commercial hub. Australians and Latinos, far from being newcomers to the gold rush, were in fact early arrivers. A considerable part of the resentment against them stemmed from the fact that when the Atlantic-based 49ers finally arrived in California in later 1849 and after, they found that people from the Pacific Rim, who did not have to come around the horn or endure a long overland trek, were already there. To call the later arrivals the "hosts" is to miss this reality and to impose on Gold Rush society a dynamic that was not there....

Fourth, the dichotomy that Mullen uses to structure his investigation is not one that he is able to sustain throughout the work. He tends to put the matter is stark "either-or" terms. Minority newcomers were criminals either because they were treated harshly by the host society, or because it was part of their culture. As he puts it, he is attempting to determine "to what extent the criminal violence can be credited to their treatment by the host community and how much can be traced to traits found in the immigrant community" (pp. 64-65). But, as the book goes on, Mullen finds himself adopting an explanation that uses neither pole of his dichotomy, but rather emphasizes the difficulties that second-generation immigrants had in adjusting to their society. He finds much of the violence in Irish, Italian, and African American communities to have been committed by the sons of the immigrants, and his explanation is social: "Some of the increase in violence in those eras can be traced to the second-generation hoodlums, those not fully assimilated into the new society but out of sorts with the values of the older members of their communities" (p. 116). This approach leaves behind the simple dichotomy around which Mullen organizes much of the book, and it is a pity that he did not attempt to develop it more fully.

But here we return to the great value of the book: the publicly available database. In August 2006, Mullen's book was the subject of a session at Pacific Coast Branch meeting of the American Historical Association. Three academic experts offered thoughtful and nuanced critiques of Mullen's work. Mullen responded well and reiterated the major points in the book. He then noted that, in freely posting his sources on line, he has provided other researchers with the very sources with which they can challenge his findings. He hoped that others would continue this research and advance the scholarship on the controversial and important topics highlighted by his book. This is a noble hope and it testified to the fundamental generosity of spirit that underlies this significant work.
The full review is here.