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Why it's finally catching on that "What about black-on-black crime?" doesn’t make sense

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In some of the recent cases of police officers killing black men, any uncertainty about the events preceding the fatal altercation has provided fodder for debate about what exactly led to their deaths, and whether the killing was justified.

Not so in the case of Walter Scott. A video makes it perfectly clear that he was fleeing when North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slanger shot him in the back after a traffic stop, and then lied about what happened.

(Warning: graphic footage)

In this case, there's not much room for speculation about things like hand positioning or who was the initial aggressor or whether the victim had ever done anything in his childhood that could suggest he didn't like to follow rules.

Enter "black-on-black crime"

As a result, people who prefer that the media and the American public focus on anything but a police officer killing an unarmed black man (and the larger racial issues it's understood by many to represent) really don't have much to work with here.

This partly explains why some of them are trying to change the focus of this story even faster than usual to an old standby: "black-on-black crime."

This is one of the most predictable reactions to conversations about police violence

This is not unusual. In August 2014, Media Matters listed some of the right-wing efforts to focus on black-on-black crime to deflect from the national conversation sparked by Michael Brown's death at the hands of white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson:

  • The Wall Street Journal's Jason Riley on Meet the Press: "Let's not pretend that our morgues and cemeteries are full of young black men because cops are shooting them. The reality is that it's because other black people are shooting them."
  • Rush Limbaugh asserting that black homicide in Chicago isn't a topic of national concern because it's not "mixed race."
  • Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum asking: "What about the children who are being killed in the streets in Chicago? What about black-on-black violence? Where is Al Sharpton on that? Where is the president on that?"

More recently, Rudy Giuliani told a New York radio station in March that he blamed President Obama for the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson, accusing him of "enormous amounts of crime" committed by African Americans and saying he should focus more on this topic — like Bill Cosby did.

The argument may be old, but it's wrong every time

The fact that this response is so predictable — and strikes so many as an obvious, desperate attempt to focus on anything rather than the issues of systemic racism in the criminal justice system — is the source of a lot of frustration.

It's an easily anticipated source of preemptive eye-rolls among people who follow and participate in social media conversations about race and justice. In fact, the absurdity of bringing up black-on-black crime in response to unrelated issues has inspired a popular punchline:

There are many layers of logical and moral reasoning that explain why focusing on black-on-black crime in response to criticism of law enforcement's treatment of black Americans misses the point. As Vox's Lauren Williams has pointed out, this starts with the term "black-on-black" itself:

One of the primary problems with this argument is that "race-on-race" crime is not a phenomenon unique to black Americans. (Jamelle Bouie debunked this myth in the Daily Beast, and my colleague Matt Yglesias recently exposed the scourge of white-on-white murder.)

Plus, she explained, the underlying sentiment that "nobody pays attention when black people kill each other" is simply not based in reality:

But even though the term "black-on-black" crime is misleading, this much is true: a disproportionate number of murder victims are black. African Americans make up about 13 percent of the US population and 50 percent of homicide victims, according to the FBI's (imperfect) data. But not only is it unoriginal and transparent to trumpet these stats whenever tough questions about systemic racism arise, it's also untrue that so-called violence in black communities is being ignored.

In fact, the reason everyone knows so much about black-on-black crime in, say, Chicago is that it gets tons of national attention.

But guess what does often get ignored by a large segment of the population? Every piece of the puzzle that goes along with crime in black communities — deep-seated, institutionalized discrimination and racism that affects every single area of life, and provides the backdrop for the violence that does occur in predominantly black, low-income places like Chicago's South Side neighborhood:

The effects of this systemic racism show up in almost every meaningful aspect of American life. Black and Latino children are more likely to attend schools that are segregated by both race and income. White families are about six times more wealthy than black families. [As of August 2014] just43.5 percent of black Americans own homes, about 20 percentage points below the national rate. The African-American poverty rate is 27.2 percent, while the white poverty rate is 9.7 percent. In July, national unemployment was at 6.2 percent, but for black people, it was 11.4 percent.

Focusing on black-on-black crime distracts from the current news (the murder case against Slanger, in this instance) that is worthy of discussion and analysis. Worse, it randomly zooms in on one phenomenon — that sometimes black people kill people who are also black — while ignoring the issues that go hand in hand with it. And that's a lot to ignore. As Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote at the Atlantic in 2014, "The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these facts — they evidence them."

So people who are put off by discussions of the latest instance of a police officer killing an unarmed black man, and how it reflects the way systemic racism works in America, are more than entitled to their stance. But they'll really need to find a more convincing way to change the subject.

Further reading:

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