This year began in the Triangle with a particularly sad event. A crowd gathered at a Chapel Hill church for an Emancipation Day prayer service in memory of 14-month-old Maleah Williams. The child was in her mother’s arms when struck by a bullet, apparently intended for a man who happened to be in the parking lot of an apartment complex where several children enjoyed playing outside on a warm Christmas Day.
Attendees at the service, organized by the state NAACP branch, were soon reminded that black suspects were in custody for the killing of this innocent black child.
“It makes no sense for us to be killing more of our people than the Ku Klux Klan ever did,” said the Rev. William Barber II, president of the state NAACP. “Our people made it through slavery without killing one another. Don’t tell me it’s upbringing and poverty. We’ve got to fight against poverty, yes, ... but evil kills babies.”
Last week, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush in Iowa was asked during a meeting with the editorial page of The Des Moines Register about whether there was a federal role in easing police community relations in the wake of high-profile police shootings.
Bush’s response, according to The Washington Post, was to bring up “black-on-black crime.” Most crimes in the communities are “black-on-black,” he said. “… by far in the predominantly African-American communities, it’s black-on-black crime — the police shooting of unarmed black males, which is what the conversation is about as I understand it, is very small.”
Bush is far from alone with such a response when the subject of police shootings come up. “Black-on-black-crime” is a common refrain among certain segments of society in the era of Black Lives Matter.
But what does the phrase mean?
It’s true that violent crime in America is overwhelmingly intraracial. Blacks almost always assault, rape and kill other blacks – spouses and blood relatives included; whites almost always assault, rape and kill other whites –spouses and blood relatives included.
But in America, one never hears of “white-on-white-crime.”
So is “black-on-black-crime” a call to action for a traumatized community, an accusation of cultural dysfunction, a deflection away from uncomfortable and contentious subjects, or an invitation for the larger community to disengage from something “those people do to each other”?
Many black-on-black crimes go unreported. But few black-on-white crimes escape media scrutiny (despite the lower frequency of these crimes.)
Samuel L. Myers Jr., professor at the University of Minnesota
One can see this disengagement in the attention different crimes get.
“Many black-on-black crimes go unreported. But few black-on-white crimes escape media scrutiny (despite the lower frequency of these crimes),” Samuel L. Myers Jr., the Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice at the University of Minnesota, said in a recent email exchange.
The “black-on-black-crime” label is a fiction that erases the factors of opportunity, proximity and poverty that underlie almost all street crime. The label frames crime as a pathology distinct to blacks with results far more harmful than the lack of parallelism in the label.
It’s instructive to go back and look at the context surrounding one of the first times the phrase was published.
In 1968, a Chicago Defender editorial addressed the black community’s distrust of police that fueled much of the urban unrest of the era.
“The violence of black man stabbing black man, mugging black man, stomping black man, raping black woman. Black on black. And a black crime against a black gets canceled out in the mind of a white precinct commander.”
Criminal interactions among blacks have historically not been a high priority of the justice system, unless it served a political or white community interest. The late University of Iowa law professor David C. Baldus and his colleagues proved conclusively that people convicted of killing white people are four times as likely to get the death penalty than people whose murder victims are black.
It’s not a great leap to conclude that some people with malice in their hearts in the black community understand the priorities very well and know who and who not to prey on.
It’s time for those who call themselves black leaders to get out of the defensive crouch over these crimes as if they and they alone are obligated to react.
It’s time to jettison the loaded “black-on-black-crime” terminology, and it’s time for those who call themselves black leaders to get out of the defensive crouch over these crimes as if they and they alone are obligated to react.
For one, the extent of “black-on-black crime” is exaggerated. And that’s due to America’s peculiar racial math that confuses disproportionate impact with majority impact. The rate of victimization by violent crime is higher per 1,000 black people than per 1,000 whites. But in examining actual numbers, only a very small percentage of black people are either victims or perpetrators of violent crime. In 2013, the FBI reported that 2,491 black Americans were homicide victims and 2, 245 were perpetrators.
And homicides where blacks killed other blacks are down drastically from about 7,300 in 1991, a rate of decline that’s greater than the fall in killings of whites by whites.
The terminology obscures the true nature of the crime problem and impedes the search for solutions. For example, homicides are up in Durham this year and we can expect to hear a lot about “black-on-black-crime.” But Durham doesn’t have a black crime problem. It has a significant crime problem in a few highly distressed neighborhoods where a few bad actors run amok.
And those neighborhoods are the result of multiple societal and institutional failures.
Linda Williams: 919-829-4524