What About Black-on-Black Crime?


Even outside of the Ferguson case, but also tangled within it, are conservatives and others that always bring up, “What about black-on-black crime? Nobody talks about that.” And for the longest time I’ve had this musing sitting on the back of my mind to blog about, “Well, yeah, what about it?” I let it sit there because I knew the answer would be complex, nuanced and quite frankly, take some time to untangle.

Before I can get into this, we first have to look at it: Black-on-black crime. The phrase itself is peculiar, isn’t? As if it’s somehow separate from other crime going on. As Ta-Nehisi Coates says, it’s an odd phrase because black-on-black crime phrased as such makes it distinctly not American crime. Nobody that I’m aware of uses the phrase white-on-white crime or asks if whites care about whites being killed by other whites. Again, as Coates says in discussing an article about Lady Gaga and bullying, “For matters as slender as a failed party invitation, we invoke “bullying” and thus invoke a kind of failure of society. But for matters as crucial as murder we offer “black on black crime” and thus strictly invoke the failure of black people.”

He’s right. This isn’t just semantics, mind you. The way we talk, the language we use, informs the way we understand and look at issues. But what’s the motive here? What do conservatives and others mean or what is their purpose for bringing this point up? When something like Treyvon Martin happens or this recent case with Michael Brown, it’s inevitable that the “what about black-on-black crime?” question will be thrown out there. I have some suspicions about what lies behind it. The implication seems to be that nobody is talking about blacks killing blacks, specifically other blacks. Blacks are only concerned with the “white man” killing a black man, not a black man killing a black man. In fact, had a black officer killed Mike Brown, maybe there’d be no hoopla going on? That seems to be the implication, right?

There’s also the more nefarious, racist explanation that simply put, some white people fear black masculinity and black rage.

“Violence is wrong. Violence done by black men is more wrong.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates

More importantly than beginning to address the question of violence in African American communities and why that is so, we have to address the reality of crime. That is, black murder victims’ perpetrators are predominantly other blacks. But that is the case with whites, too. White murder victims’ perpetrators are predominately white, too. This readily makes sense to us if you consider it. (94 percent of black victims were killed by black offenders between 1976 and 2005, similarly, 86 percent of white victims were killed by white offenders.)

Crime is a mix of opportunity and proximity and since most blacks tend to live in the same neighborhoods, likewise for whites, then we’d expect to see that shared racial identity in crime and that’s what bears out in the data. Therefore, citing black-on-black crime as Coates says, as specifically a “black problem” (and one for which blacks are inattentive to) or as unique among crime is a bit peculiar.

All the more peculiar because the implication behind the question of black-on-black crime — that black people don’t care or aren’t paying attention to it — is just categorically false and wrong. Again, I’ll let Coates take over:

March to End Violence, Chicago 2010:

A multi-community march was held in nine of the city’s most violent neighborhoods as well as three other communities. The march for peace was personal for some participants.

It was a risk but Ceasefire marchers headed to the far South Side street where police say a high-ranking gang member was shot and killed Thursday night.

“We have to justify why we’re over there. We’re trying to save your life. Your brother is dead, God Bless him. I feel for everybody. But the thing is somebody else is going to end up dead or someone is going to end up in the penitentiary. Is it worth it?” said Tio Hardiman, CeaseFire Illinois.

Speaking of Tio Hardiman and CeaseFire in Chicago, an organization aimed at intervening between violent factions, spoke with NPR and mentioned that the CeasFire organization mentioned that in 2012, they meditated 700-some conflicts.

New York in 2012:

New York public leaders, community organizations and residents gathered Sunday to celebrate the 42nd annual African American Day Parade in Harlem. One focal point of the march was to attenuate the looming violence in neighboring and citywide communities.

Then there’s Newark, Pittsburgh’s Stop the Violence Rally, Saginaw, Michigan, Gary, Indiana, CharlestonMontgomery and Brooklyn. As just a few examples, but if you go to YouTube and type in “march to end gun violence,” you’ll pull up a great many other rallies and protests about the violence, some quite recent and some older, obviously.

As mentioned, there’s the CeaseFire organization working in Chicago to meditate violence. There’s also The Interrupters who do something similar to CeaseFire in terms of trying to meditate between potentially violence situations. They also put out a documentary by the same name that is a must-see.

So, yeah, black people do care and are talking about and trying to solve it. Does the national media cover these events, marches and meditations enough? Do they cover the violence itself enough? Probably not, if at all. But that’s a separate discussion about the media and journalism, which I don’t think is part of the implications behind conservatives bringing up “black-on-black crime.” 

“It is not “black on black crime” that is background noise in America, but the pleas of black people.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates

Okay, so let’s put that aside now. What about the violence itself? Specifically, let’s talk about Chicago because it’s hard not to think about Chicago and link it to its violent crime. It seems like an epidemic and in many ways it is, but not likely in the way people think. That is, criminology, sociology, all of these things, cannot be looked at in a vacuum. Contextualizing what we’re talking about is important. It does not diminish the real-world, present problems or lessen the need to do something about it, but it does make sense of it.

According to Politico:

In Chicago in 1994, the worst year with the highest murder rate, 168 of every 100,000 black teens ages 15-19 died from homicide — a rate nearly 20 times higher than for white teens.

But even in this worst and most tragic situation, murder remained rare, less than two-tenths of 1 percent. It was far from being a behavior that characterized all black youth there — or anywhere else. Since the early 1990s, homicide deaths and arrests have plunged by 70 percent among black youth in Chicago and nationwide — making this generation even less deserving than past ones of being condemned for wanton killing.

Stop the Violence

To that point about the current generation of black youth and “black-on-black crime” in particular, again, context is important. From Pew Research:

While the FBI won’t release official 2013 figures till later this year, the Chicago Tribune says there were 440 murders in the city last year. So far this year there have been 201 murders in Chicago, according to the Tribune’s count — roughly on pace with 2013.

But Chicago also has some 2.7 million residents, more than any other city except New York and Los Angeles, and you’d expect it to have more murders (and other crimes) than most other cities for that reason alone. Adjust the raw numbers for population size to get a murder rate, and a very different picture emerges.

Again, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem — there is. It also doesn’t mean that we look at this contextualizing of the crime statistics as there being only 440 murders last year. There were 928 murders in 1994. Within 20 years, which isn’t all that long, the number of murders fell by nearly half, 448 less murders.That “only” is not the point here. It’s just to make sense of the scope. You can’t address a problem unless we understand the scope and what it all means. In terms of looking at the murder rate, Chicago came in 21st, with 18.5 murders per 100,000 among cities in the United States, which is quadruple the national average, but still not the worst in the country.

Yes, young blacks are the predominant number of murder victims, but as numerous academics and scholars point out, you cannot untangle the root causes of the violence from the history of hyper-segregation, poverty, education and other ways in which blacks are at a disadvantage, which contributes to this culture of violence.

As I mentioned above, Chicago’s murders resemble an epidemic, but not in the way people think. Cheryl Corley, NRP correspondent said, “A few years ago, police calculated that the percentage of the city where these murders occur, just to give you an idea, is eight and a half percent of the city. So we’re talking a small percentage of the city where we’re seeing these homicides really occur and really causing so much havoc.”

In other words, much of the violence is concentrated and densely occurring in particular parts of Chicago; as in, there are actually safe neighborhoods in Chicago.

Therefore, these certain violence-concentrated communities get caught in the vicious cycle of violence combined with high concentrations of poverty and racial segregation, according to author Robert Sampson. He continues:

So you get a cycle whereby you have high concentration of poverty and especially when it is related to particular groups. So for example in the United States, it’s the case that African-Americans are disproportionately poor. But even if poor, they’re much more likely than, let’s say, a poor white to live in a poor neighborhood. And that’s what we refer to as a concentration effect.

That then leads to all sorts of other conditions. Businesses are less likely to invest. People may be fearful of the violence and as you note move out, which then may make things worse. So what we try to think about is how to intervene in that social system.


And this is where Coates, Sampson and others lose people, especially those conservatives that bring up “black-on-black crime.” What about personal responsibility, they will say. They think looking at this problem through the lens of a historical backdrop imbued with segregation, racism and direct government social engineering negates that personal responsibility and is just another way of blaming the white man for the ills of the black community. But again, it’s worth stressing that you cannot look at these issues — complex sociological, racial and criminal issues — without also looking at how we got here. Context, context, context.

To be more direct, it’s not as if Chicago or other inner-cities and places, like Ferguson, Missouri, just magically became segregated. It was purposeful. Coates’ lengthy article, “The Case for Reparations,” should be mandatory reading, as it really goes in-depth into racist housing policies of the early and mid-20th century and how it in essence, screwed over black people and created the communities we see today. They are a product of that age.

Backing up Coates work, Bryce Covert writing for Think Progress gives us the history, specifically of St. Louis and Ferguson:

What happened in St. Louis happened in cities across the country. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about extensively, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), created in 1934 to insure private mortgages, used similar ratings, marking black neighborhoods with Ds and red coloring – hence the term redlining – and usually making those mortgages ineligible for its backing. That meant black residents missed out on the lower interest rates and down payments required for mortgages with FHA backing. Most black families were shut out of the legitimate mortgage market, their home values decreased, and even those who could afford to move were trapped in inner city communities by restrictive covenants.

The racial segregation that these policies caused lives with us today. Whites fled the city for the suburbs in St. Louis, but blacks couldn’t follow, kept out by restrictions. “Between 1950 and 1970, close to 60 percent of the white population fled the City,” Gordon writes. The black population in the city increased slightly in the same time. Ferguson, an inner suburb, was also abandoned by white residents as they left even those areas after 1970.

Across the country, while segregation peaked in the 1960s and 70s, it is still very much around today. The average city-dwelling white person lives in a neighborhood that is 75 percent white and just 8 percent black. The average black person lives in one that is 45 percent black and 35 percent white.

These racist housing policies, this redlining, trickles down to other areas, like income/wealth and education. Also from Think Progress:

Overall, the gap in wealth between white households and black ones was $84,960 in 2011. A similar gap is apparent in Ferguson, where the median household income is about $37,500 but in St. Louis County as a whole it’s $58,500.

It’s well-documented that black students and other minorities lag behind their white counterparts. Moreover, the unemployment among blacks, particularly youths, has consistently been double that of their white counterparts.

I’ve written at length numerous times about how the War on Drugs and the criminal justice itself is racist. There’s also the study I mentioned which showed whites favor a harsher criminal justice system, even when they know it is disproportional to black people. And a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 70 percent of black Americans believe they are treated less fairly than whites in their dealings with police. Only 37 percent of whites said they think blacks are treated less fairly by police, according to the Washington Post. Which is a problem that goes back to sentiments Sean Hannity has expressed. “Well, I’ve never had bad encounters with the police.” The problem of not understanding the lived experiences of black people and the long history of police abuse related. That is, the problem of “driving while black” or “walking while black” or just any manner of being…black.

Taken with the above, all of this creates a context through which we can more readily understand why a powder keg like Ferguson explodes and why the cycle of violence in Chicago continues.

Again, I have to keep stressing this: This is not about assigning guilt to white people. I didn’t contribute to those housing policies. I didn’t foster the segregation. It’s just about owning up to and recognizing our history and how it’s clearly informed the present.

So, what about this black-on-black crime? To put it succinctly, violence is segregated, just like the neighborhoods in cities all over the United States, like Ferguson. In many ways, it’s just another way of perpetuating the stereotype of the scary, unhinged black man, the “thugs.”

Even Charles C.W. Cooke, one of my favorite conservatives (although he has libertarian leanings) to follow wrote a piece about how conservatives have reacted wrongly to the Ferguson case. He said:

Whatever its cause, it is indisputably true that the United States has a problem with blacks killing blacks. And yet this has absolutely nothing to do with the question at hand, which is: “Did a police officer unjustifiably kill an unarmed black man in Missouri?” It is feasible, is it not, to be worried about the internecine violence in America’s inner cities and to want to get to the bottom of an allegedly unwarranted shooting? So why the conflation? After all, whether or not it is intentional, reacting to a community’s grief by raising an entirely separate topic smacks largely of distraction — of reflexively throwing up a roadblock to what is a legitimate line of inquiry in the hope that the subject might swiftly be changed.

A distraction indeed. He also specifically addressed the issue of why it matters that a police officer shot Michael Brown and what makes it distinctly different:

Even if the United States did not boast a history in which blacks were routinely disfavored, beaten, and even murdered by the governments that were ostensibly established to protect them, there would still be something distinct about being killed or hurt by a man in uniform. No, you are no less dead if your neighbor murders you. But you do enjoy a different relationship with him — and it matters. As a rule, your neighbor does not exist to protect you; he is not paid by the whole of the citizenry; he does not claim to act in your name, or to treat everybody equally. And, if he commits an illegal act, he will be charged by authorities and he will face a jury of his peers that will first pronounce upon his guilt and then decide upon his punishment. He, in other words, is subject to rules that are designed to help you if he steps out of line; the state, by contrast, has very little above it. Traditionally, conservatives like to ask “Quiscustodiet ipsos custodes?” — who guards the guardians? — and, too, to maintain a clear line of separation between the public and the private spheres. One has to wonder what purpose can be served by blurring that line, as so many have done in reaction to the news from Missouri.

Yes, a lot of black people are killing a lot of black people in Chicago, but they aren’t carrying badges and given the public’s trust. That’s an important difference. 

As far as I’m concened from my reading and understanding of this issue, shouting the mantra “what about black-on-black crime?” is at best, a rhetorical device to distract or conflate, as Cooke stated, or at worse, it’s a racist way of equating black people with being uniquely criminal. 

criminal justice

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