Critics of racial disparities in the criminal justice system often get asked a single question: "But what about black-on-black crime?" The rhetorical question is meant to argue that if you really think black lives matter, you should be more worried about black-on-black homicides that take thousands of lives each year, not police brutality and mass incarceration. That, defenders of police say, is the real racial problem in criminal justice today.
But in her new book Ghettoside, journalist Jill Leovy argues that the abhorrent levels of black-on-black homicide and other racial disparities in the criminal justice system are two sides of the same coin — as summarized by this great paragraph:
Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.
Under this argument, black Americans are exposed to both neglect and over-policing by the criminal justice system. The question isn't whether police use of force in black communities or black-on-black crime is a bigger problem, but rather how we got to a point in the criminal justice system in which both are problems.
On one hand, the criminal justice system is highly active in black communities, but typically with a focus on petty offenses. Stop and frisk in major US cities targets drugs and other nonviolent crimes. The brutal arrest and death of Eric Garner, a black man in New York City, came about after he allegedly sold untaxed cigarettes. Courts and police in Ferguson, Missouri, focused on low-level crimes to raise revenue through fines and court fees from black residents.
On the other hand, black communities are typically neglected when they're hit by a terrible crime such as murder. In her book, Leovy outlines the inadequate resources Los Angeles relies on to solve black-on-black murders — the elite homicide unit, the Robbery-Homicide Division, typically focuses on celebrity cases, massacres, and arson murders, but rarely pays any attention to black-on-black violence, leaving it instead to under-staffed local divisions. This is typical across the US: Investigations have found, for instance, that black homicides are less likely to be solved than those that involve white victims.
These two issues work together to make the situation worse. The simultaneous over-policing and neglect of black communities by the criminal justice system make black-on-black violence more likely, while exposing some of the broader racial disparities in the US that also contribute to crime and too much policing.
The simultaneous brutality and neglect of the criminal justice system make black-on-black violence worse
These two problems don't exist in a vacuum. The police harassment black communities feel they face may actually make it more likely that homicides in their neighborhoods won't be solved.
As Charis Kubrin, criminologist at the University of California Irvine, told me, people are much less likely to cooperate with police if they feel that cops are harassing them on a daily basis. "People don't feel like they can go to the police even if they've witnessed crimes, because they don't trust the police, and there's antagonism there," she said. "And police can't do the job on their own — they need the community to help them."
Police have a harder time getting their jobs done when they don't have community cooperation. A study published in the National Institute of Justice Journal, for example, found murders are a lot more likely to be solved when police officers are faster at securing a scene, notifying homicide detectives, and identifying witnesses. All of these tasks are easier if locals are willing to cooperate.
What's worse, police's inability to solve crimes can lead to more lawlessness. As Leovy notes in Ghettoside, people are more likely to take matters into their own hands — and resort to violence — if they no longer believe that the criminal justice system will protect them. Putting an end to retaliatory violence, which can be rooted in even small and personal disputes about relationships, is one of the reasons we have a criminal justice system in the first place, Leovy wrote:
In the dim early stirring of civilization, many scholars believe, law itself was developed as a response to legal "self-help": people's desire to settle their own scores. Rough justice slowly gave way to organized state monopolies on violence. The low homicide rate of some modern democracies are, perhaps, an aberration in human history. They were built, as the scholar Eric Monkkonen said, not by any formal act, but "by a much longer developmental process whereby individuals willingly give up their implicit power to the state."
But the neglect felt by black communities goes beyond clearance rates for homicide cases — it goes into deeper, historical neglect that touches on every part of black life in America.
It's not just the criminal justice system. The neglect runs much deeper.
Although the criminal justice system has been viewed as the primary avenue to stop crime in the US, criminologists and economists agree that policies that seem completely unrelated to crime can greatly influence it. This is made clear by the kind of environment that fosters murder.
In murder cases, most of the mourning and concern is directed toward the murder victim. This makes sense: Obviously, he is the person who suffered the greatest loss — and, in turn, his family, friends, and peers suffered as well.
But it can be valuable to think about what led to the perpetrator of the crime — the murderer — to act as well. In some ways, he's a victim to system and society that has thoroughly neglected him for generations, leaving him in a place in which crime and murder seem reasonable, perhaps normal. Although the neglect of the criminal justice system feeds into this problem, it goes much deeper.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a recent piece looking at the history of mass incarceration of black Americans for the Atlantic, captured this point, noting that higher levels of crime and incarceration are rooted in socioeconomic disparities at the neighborhood level that go back to slavery and Jim Crow laws:
Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard who focuses on crime and urban life, notes that in America’s ghettos, "like things tend to go together." High rates of incarceration, single-parent households, dropping out of school, and poverty are not unrelated vectors. Instead, taken together, they constitute what Sampson calls "compounded deprivation"—entire families, entire neighborhoods, deprived in myriad ways, must navigate, all at once, a tangle of interrelated and reinforcing perils.
Black people face this tangle of perils at its densest. In a recent study, Sampson and a co-author looked at two types of deprivation—being individually poor, and living in a poor neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, they found that blacks tend to be individually poor and to live in poor neighborhoods. But even blacks who are not themselves individually poor are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods than whites and Latinos who are individually poor. For black people, escaping poverty does not mean escaping a poor neighborhood. And blacks are much more likely than all other groups to fall into compounded deprivation later in life, even if they managed to avoid it when they were young.
This by no means should be taken to justify crime or murder. Police still need to focus on solving these cases and jailing the perpetrators — or risk creating an environment in which lawless acts seem like the only way to settle disputes.
But it does mean that there's a lot society can do — but doesn't — to prevent a murder before the criminal justice system needs to get involved. Before our criminal justice system responds, the school system, economic investments, gun laws, housing laws and regulations, and dozens of other socioeconomic policies could help stop the murder before it's even a possibility in the perpetrator's mind.
That these interventions don't happen speaks to the neglect black communities face in America — and the way US policies simultaneously ignore and over-police black communities.