Chapel Hill: Opinion

Scott Holmes: Dear Mr. Wilson, ‘Black on Black Violence’ is not the Real Issue

I was disappointed to read the Jan. 2 commentary by Bob Wilson in which he claimed that the real issue is not racial inequality in the criminal justice system, but instead, “black on black crime.” He characterized this as a “Civil War” in the black community and minimized the problem of racial inequality in the criminal justice system.

Mr. Wilson wants to avoid the difficult conversation about the reality of pervasive racial inequality. He called “police attacks on communities of color” as “rare as they are regrettable.” While admitting that there was real violence against black people during slavery and Jim Crow, he denies it’s currently a problem. His response to the plea for Black Lives is “Yes, but, all lives matter.”

This retort denies and avoids the centuries of racial pain and suffering expressed in the declaration that “Black Lives Matter.” By responding that all lives matter, Mr. Wilson has become defensive, and cannot critically examine the painful truth of how our society systematically values black lives less than white lives. On any measure of social health, education, housing, health care, employment, wealth, access to justice, and life expectancy, people of color suffer inequality when compared with white people.

One of the most persistent, and dangerous, differences for whites and people of color are our individual and collective experiences with the police and the criminal justice system. Black and brown individuals stopped for a speeding ticket are more likely to be unfairly searched for drugs than a white driver. The Durham Human Relations Commission has recently found, as a fact, that the Durham police engage in racial profiling. At its core, the racial injustice in our criminal justice system is that our laws are not being equally applied to people regardless of their race.

Mr. Wilson’s claim that the real issue is “black on black crime” and that there is a “civil war” within the black community is most disturbing. Noting that 93 percent of black homicides were committed by other blacks, Mr. Wilson concludes that the “real war” is a “civil war” in the black community. This is a particularly insidious form of diversion because it redirects the focus from the underlying causes of racial inequality by blaming poor communities of color for the effects of racial injustice. By rhetorical sleight of hand, Mr. Wilson moves the spot light from the underlying causes of systematic racial inequality by blaming the people suffering from the manifestations of this inequality.

Selective narrative

This argument simultaneously reinforces dangerously false racial media images of the “violent black man.” Mr. Wilson has erred in his selective narrative, and would rather talk about the crimes of black people than the systematic criminal injustice in our policies and government. He fails to mention that 84 percent of the white homicides were also committed by other whites. And yet no white person would seriously contend there is an ongoing “civil war” in the white community. That is absurd. It is just as absurd to claim there is a “civil war” within the black community. This absurdity illustrates the cognitive distortions we undergo when we see the world through our racial lens. This thought betrays a deeply embedded racialized view of our community.

Different kind of crime

This idea of a “black civil war” also falsely portrays individual criminal acts as actions of the entire black community. This confuses single criminal acts with racially motivated hate crimes.

A police killing as a result of racial profiling is a different kind of crime: a hate crime based on racial prejudice. Racially motivated killings receive greater punishment in our criminal justice system because they are really acts of terrorism on a vulnerable group. When police unlawfully target people on the basis of their color and then detain, search, harass, beat, Taser and kill those people this creates a fear of unlawful state-sponsored violence against people of color. This differs in kind and in quantity from the individual acts of “black on black” crime, and yet Mr. Wilson implicitly tries to equate the two. These kinds of arguments divert the conversation away from an important critical discussion of systematic racial inequality in police behavior, and reinforce false racial visions of our community.

Another disturbing aspect of Bob Wilson’s argument is how it acknowledges that police kill people of color, but tries to avoid this problem by 1) blaming the victim, 2) minimizing our oversight responsibility to govern the police, and 3) changing the subject entirely by pointing to crimes of black individuals.

This kind of thinking glosses over our collective responsibility for the actions of our police. They work for us. As our public servants, paid by our tax dollars and governed by our elected leaders, the police are killing people in our name. The police practice of racially selective surveillance, detention, and use of force leaves the blood of black lives on our public hands. And who can we call when the police commit a crime? No one. There is a persistent refusal to charge police with crimes, and a myriad of economic and legal barriers to holding them accountable in civil court.

Have we already forgotten?

We would rather criticize the protesters than hear their message.

Some claim the protests are a “war on the police.” Some say the protesters are inciting violence against and supporting physical attacks on the police.

They intentionally confuse legitimate criticism of police misconduct with violent physical attacks on the police. This is a defensive reaction that feels the need to defend all police at all costs, rather than critically examine the statistical reality of racial disparities in police practice. These folks would rather defend the officers in general than have a hard specific conversation about how the our justice system is infected by racial inequality.

It is easier to criticize protesters than talk about systemic racial inequality. I hear comments like, “I may agree with the protesters message, but they shouldn’t disrupt traffic.” This kind of complaint is a way to dismiss content by criticizing form. Have we already forgotten the necessary disruptions of the civil rights movement? Marches, Sit-in, boycotts?

Change is disruptive. As a Quaker, I am committed to a vision of non-violence, and so I abhor any act of violence toward the police. And yet, I understand the frustration of a young person hurling a stone at a protest much more than I understand a trained professional police officer unlawfully tasering a black child. In my work, I talk regularly with victims of police misconduct. In a recent case, the Durham police unlawfully tasered a black child with his grandmother. That officer will not be charged with assault, and will not miss a paycheck. There is not even an apology.

So I make a plea to Mr. Wilson, Chief Lopez, and others to stop denying or minimizing the problem of racial inequality. If you are still in the denial phase, go read peer-reviewed studies about racial disparities in education, housing, employment, education, health care, and criminal justice. It’s not just our police who are struggling with the systematic legacy of our racial history. Then, understanding that our nation’s history of racism has brought us where we are today, hear the plea for black lives before you dismiss it and change the subject.

Scott Holmes is a Durham resident and attorney.