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Why asking black people about "black-on-black crime" misses the point

A black protestor in Baltimore after officers were charged in death of Freddie Gray.
A black protestor in Baltimore after officers were charged in death of Freddie Gray.
Baltimore Sun via Getty Images

From the 2014 Ferguson protests and the 2015 Baltimore uprising to the current protests in Charlotte, many critics of the Black Lives Matter movement have sought to challenge black activists’ call for criminal justice reform by invoking the problem of crime in black communities.

But a survey from April underscores what the people in these communities have long argued — that police brutality and crime are not mutually exclusive concerns for African Americans.

A YouGov survey of 1,000 Americans found that while 64 percent of respondents believe intra-communal violence is a bigger problem for black Americans than racial justice in the criminal justice system, the results diverge when race factors in: 71 percent of white respondents share this belief compared to 42 percent of black respondents.

A new survey finds that views on "black on black crime" diverge along racial lines.
A new survey finds that views on "black-on-black crime" diverge along racial lines.

The results are not surprising: According to a 2013 Pew Research Survey, 37 percent of white people believed police treated black people in their community less fairly than white people, compared to 70 percent of black people. In 2014, two Stanford professors released a study that suggested white American voters were more likely to favor the criminal justice system when racial injustices were discussed.

But the degree to which African Americans diverge is also important: African Americans in the YouGov survey are concerned more with violence within the community, but only slightly more so. Thirty-six percent do not feel intra-communal violence is more important than addressing racial injustice in the criminal justice system. This suggests that African Americans may not prioritize the issues the same way, but it doesn't mean they discount either of them. And maybe a better question to ask is why are black people expected to choose between the two in the first place?

The question fuels the "black-on-black-crime" myth

The question that fuels the YouGov poll is based on a fallacy. Choosing between intra-communal violence and racial disparities in the criminal justice system is a false dichotomy based on the myth of "black-on-black crime." Black people aren't uniquely predisposed to commit crimes against each other — crime is often racially segregated, based on a number of factors, including that most people commit crimes against people they either know or live near. According to the FBI's 2014 Uniform Crime Reports, close to 90 percent of African-American homicides were committed by other African Americans, while the majority (82 percent) of white American homicide victims were killed by other white people.

But it's also true that data has shown that there is implicit bias in policing practices, including black people being killed by police at disproportionately higher rates.

From Donald Trump to Spike Lee, "black-on-black crime" has been evoked to charge black people with the personal responsibility to make changes to complex issues rooted in structural inequalities. But there's no reason to assume black people can't and don't care about both.

"Black-on-black crime" is a symptom of broader structural inequalities

Since the term emerged in the early 1980s, hysteria over "black-on-black-crime," which diagnoses the issue as a broader cultural failing, has obscured the economic and social inequalities that contribute to high crime rates in black neighborhoods.

"Supposedly we saw youth that were going astray and that was the problem," University of Illinois geography professor David Wilson told The Root in 2010. "The media imposed this narrow [black-on-black] lens that looked at the category of culture. The culture was deemed as problematically different than the mainstream."

One factor that contributes to crime is poverty. A 2014 special report by the Department of Justice found that black and white households that lived in poverty were much more likely to be victims of crime, and were victims of crimes at similar rates (51.3 per 1,000 compared to 56.4 per 1,000).

Black people are more likely to be living in poverty without the resources necessary to get out of it. Redlining practices targeting black communities have deprived entire neighborhoods of their economic viability for generations. A 2015 report by the Century Foundation found that more than one in four African Americans lived in concentrated poverty, in comparison to one in 13 white people. Meanwhile, white families have six times as much wealth as black families, and the poverty rate for black people (27.2 percent) is almost three times that of their white counterparts (9.6 percent).

Additionally, unemployment is far higher for black people, and always has been, by at least 60 percent higher than for white people since data collection started in 1972. At the end of 2015, the black unemployment rate was 9.5 percent — only slightly less than the national peak (9.9 percent) in 2009. The white unemployment rate was 4.5 percent.

And yet politicians and government officials have advocated for community policing programs to curb crime, despite a lack of evidence demonstrating it effectively does so. In September 2015, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Department of Justice was providing $12 million for these programs.

Violence within black communities and the experience of over-policing black people are linked. But if an honest conversation is going to be had about either topic, it needs to based on the fact that "black-on-black crime" is not simply black people's making.

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