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Why “black-on-black crime” isn’t a valid argument against criticizing police brutality

Harry Houck caused an uproar on Monday when he implied that black people were "prone to criminality" during a CNN panel.

"Facts have got to matter," Houck said. "If we were going to make some changes to what’s going on here, the police have already recognized the fact that we’ve got some issues we’ve got to deal with. Now the black community has got to also understand that they have issues they have to deal with."

But the facts Houck cited are telling. He mentioned the controversial "Ferguson effect": that more crime is happening because officers are reluctant to do their jobs for fear of backlash from protesters and community members. He also said black people accounted for a much higher percentage of violent crimes than both the population they represent and their white counterparts.

For Houck, police brutality discussions too often turn into "a one-sided argument" where "racial demagogues out there turn [these facts] around that the blacks are being picked on." While police officers are scrutinized, Houck suggests that black people take responsibility for their own crimes.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani issued a similarly inflammatory statement Monday. Not only did he call the Black Lives Matter movement "racist," but he also chastised protesters for not protesting crime within their own communities.

"Black Lives Matter never protests when, every 14 hours, somebody is killed in Chicago, probably 70 to 80 percent of the time [by] a black person," Giuliani said on Fox News. "Where are they then? Where are they when a young black child is killed?"

But the facts Houck and Giuliani left out are important too. Black people care just as much about racial disparities in policing as they do violence within their communities. And violence within their communities is too often tied to structural inequalities that racist policing perpetuates.

Black people care about crime within their communities and racism in the criminal justice system

A recent YouGov survey of 1,000 Americans underscored what many black Americans have long argued — that police brutality and crime are not mutually exclusive concerns.

While 64 percent of respondents believe intracommunal violence is a bigger problem for black Americans than racial justice in the criminal justice system, the results diverged when race factors in: 71 percent of white respondents share this belief, compared with 42 percent of black respondents.

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

But the degree to which black Americans diverge is also important: Black respondents in the YouGov survey are concerned more with violence within the community, but only slightly more so. Thirty-six percent do not feel intracommunal violence is more important than addressing racial injustice in the criminal justice system.

This suggests that black 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 those like Houck presume that black people do and should choose between the two issues in the first place.

"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."

Black people aren't uniquely predisposed to commit crimes against each other; crime is generally just 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.

Another 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 with 56.4 per 1,000, respectively).

Black people are more likely to live 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 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 that it effectively does so. In September 2015, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Department of Justice would provide $12 million for these programs.

In fact, racist policing can exacerbate these issues. Some departments try to turn a profit by ticketing, which tends to exploit racially biased policing practices. The Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson, Missouri, showed high incarceration rates there, because residents often could not afford to pay the fines incurred from ticketing they disproportionately faced. And a panel of New York police officers recently admitted they often target the most vulnerable — poor people, people of color, and LGBTQ people — to meet quotas.

Violence within black communities and the overpolicing of black people are linked. But if an honest conversation is going to be had about either topic, especially in light of the latest officer-involved fatal shootings of black people, it needs to based on the fact that "black-on-black crime" is not simply black people's making.