Why "Black-on-Black Crime" is a Dangerous Idea


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In writing about the myth of “black-on-black crime” this week, I’ve gotten a huge number of responses, from both sides. The disagreement, in particular, has taken the form of incredulousness. For example, here’s Rod Dreher of the The American Conservative, who says that the Zimmerman verdict has caused me to “lose my mind”:

Jamelle Bouie today wrote a Daily Beast post tied to the Trayvon Martin situation, claiming that the fact that nearly all black murder victims in America are killed by blacks just goes to show that there is no such thing as black-on-black crime, and that the concept is ginned up by white people to justify their fear of black masculinity and black criminality. Bouie also says that NYC’s stop-and-frisk program is racist, and not justified by statistics — this, even though NYPD stats show that 96 percent of all shooting victims are black or Hispanic, and 97 percent of all shooters were black or Hispanic.

These statistics are so clear, so consistent, and so overwhelming that it defies rationality to claim that the youth of black males is being stolen by the likes of George Zimmerman. It’s being stolen by other young black men.

No one has said that crime between African Americans isn’t a problem. The point is that blackness has nothing to do with it. “Black-on-black crime” is a frame that presupposes black criminality—that there’s something inherent to blackness which makes intra-group crime more prevalent and more deadly. But that’s nonsense, and all it does is obscure the history that brought us to this point. After a century of anti-black violence and public policy—of manufactured ghettos, forced hyper-segregation, and state-supported peonage—is economic perilousness and heightened violence among the victims and descendants of those people really a shock? And if it isn’t, then why would talk about crime in these communities as a factor of blackness, and not of history and circumstance?

The only thing we accomplish by focusing on “black-on-black crime” as an independent phenomena—distinct from “white-on-white crime”—is justify universal suspicion of black men, and young black men, in particular. This is a problem. It’s absolutely true that “NYPD stats show that 96 percent of all shooting victims are black or Hispanic, and 97 percent of all shooters were black or Hispanic,” but it’s also true that the number of black and Latino offenders is a small fraction of all blacks and Latinos. But stop and frisk turns all blacks and all Latinos into potential offenders—it erases individual consideration and imposes collective suspicion.

This alone should make the program indefensible. When you add data to the mix—in 2012, New York police made 532,911 stops, in 89 percent, there was no criminal activity found, and in only 0.2 percent did the police find guns—it’s hard to see how you could support the policy, much less justify the universal scrutiny of all black and Latino men. And it’s worth noting that this blanket suspicion makes it harder to police communities. A reader explains:

I’ve been a cop for 5 years. I work one of the worst neighborhoods in the city, a predominantly black housing development. In that 5 years I’ve steadily built a rapport with the community, one based on transparency—being frank and open with everyone I talk to, both about police matters and sometimes my own thoughts and tastes.

When an event like the Martin v Zimmerman one occurs, all that rapport goes to hell. All my work is ruined, and my relationship with the people I serve is injured.Instead of being “Cody” or “Red” or “The Flash”, I go back to just being that fucking white cop in the community’s eyes.

Stop and frisk is both racist and damaging to actual police work. Why defend it?

Before I finish this, one last word on Dreher. “It’s being stolen by other young black men.” No one believes that the only threat to young black men comes from the “likes of George Zimmerman.” No one. What we’re trying to say is this: The manufactured image of rampant black male criminality creates fear, and that fear leads people to profile (stop and frisk), barricade themselves (gated communities), and confront individual black men because they must be up to something (George Zimmerman: “Those fucking punks always get away.”).

Not only do black men have to live lives aware of that fear, but they have to be conscious of the fact that—in the wrong situation, at the wrong time, with the wrong person—it could get them killed. And that’s what’s been stolen: The right to walk freely as an individual, and not as the member of a suspect class.