Spike Lee has already fallen under some controversy for his upcoming movie Chi-Raq, a musical comedy that attempts to satirize Chicago's crime and violence. Given that the movie is treading closely to making light of violence, it's not surprising it has been highly controversial since it was announced, with some accusing Lee of trying to exploit the struggles of black Chicagoans for profit.
Undeterred by the criticism, Lee recently released a music video tied to the movie. Titled "WGDB" (We Gotta Do Better), the lyrics, as laid out by Deadspin, are not good:
Everybody's talking about Brother Bill Cosby / It looks like our favorite dad was drugging girls.
But please not let us forget about little Amari / An innocent victim of this cruel world.
Only seven years of age and he was shot / But it wasn't by a racist nor a cop
You see it was by someone the same color as myself / We're the only race that shoots and kills themselves. …
Everybody's talking about Meek Mill and Drake / Everybody's mad because Cecil the Lion was shot.
But where was the compassion for those murdered in Chicago / When will it end? When will it stop? …
We gotta do better / What's the use of saying Black Lives Matter if we're gonna kill ourselves?
We gotta do better / What's the use of saying 'I can't breathe' if we're choking ourselves?
Some of these lines are completely inexplicable. Most notably, the line that "We're the only race that shoots and kills themselves" is laughably false. According to FBI's most recent data, nearly 90 percent of black homicide victims in 2014 were killed by someone of the same race — but more than 82 percent of white homicide victims were killed by someone who's white. Violence within people of the same race, then, is actually the most common kind of violence among both white and black Americans.
More broadly, the song speaks to the typically conservative idea that issues like police brutality get too much attention (through Black Lives Matter) while black-on-black violence does not. But both of these issues are intrinsically linked by the criminal justice system — to the point that you can't fix black-on-black violence without first addressing the police harassment and abuse of black communities.
Black communities are simultaneously overpoliced and underpoliced
In her recent book Ghettoside, journalist Jill Leovy argues that the abhorrent levels of black-on-black homicide and the police harassment of black communities are two sides of the same coin:
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 overpolicing 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 understaffed 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.
What's worse, these issues work together to make both problems worse. Leovy writes that a big hurdle to solving murders in crime-ridden areas is that witnesses aren't willing to cooperate with police — they're too scared, or they just don't trust cops.
As Charis Kubrin, a criminologist at the University of California Irvine, previously told me, "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. And police can't do the job on their own — they need the community to help them."
So when police are harassing predominantly black neighborhoods for petty offenses, they're making it less likely that the residents of that same neighborhood cooperate with police in future, more serious cases. And the unsolved murders can lead to more murders: 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, as Leovy details in her book.
So people don't have to choose between caring about police brutality and black-on-black violence. Not only is caring about both possible, but it's ultimately necessary to seriously address black-on-black violence in particular.