Donald Trump once again stirred controversy over the weekend, this time by tweeting a set of wildly incorrect stats about crime in America with a racist point.
The tweet's graphic insinuates the real problem in the criminal justice system is not police brutality or racial bias but black people themselves — since, after all, black-on-black crime is the most likely outcome, according to the graphic. These figures reinforce a common defense of racial disparities in the criminal justice system: Conservatives often raise the point of "black-on-black" crime, rhetorically implying that the real issue is a lack of personal responsibility in black communities, which leads police to shoot black people at higher rates.
There are all sorts of problems with this narrative, particularly the mischaracterization of why levels of black-on-black crime are higher within black communities. But perhaps more importantly, the numbers in Trump's tweet are completely wrong.
Donald Trump's figures are wrong
Every single number in Trump's tweet is wrong. Here are the real numbers for 2014, the latest year available in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports:
- Nearly 90 percent of black homicide victims were killed by someone who's black, and nearly 8 percent were killed by someone who's white.
- More than 82 percent of white homicide victims were killed by someone who's white, and nearly 15 percent were killed by someone who's black.
- It's impossible to know just how many homicide victims are killed by police, because these killings are underreported and, in some cases, completely unreported.
What's immediately clear is Trump's numbers are completely wrong. Not only are the great majority of white homicide victims not killed by black people, but they're in fact killed by other white people.
These figures speak to racial segregation in the US: People are simply more likely to kill those who are closer to them, and most people happen to be closer to others of the same race.
But the figures' inaccuracy isn't too surprising when considering the source. As blogger Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs found, the original source of the graphic appears to be a neo-Nazi who praises Adolf Hitler in his profile: "we Should have listened to the Austrian chap with the little moustache." And the source cited in the tweet — the Crime Statistics Bureau in San Francisco — doesn't appear to exist.
It's unlikely Trump knew a neo-Nazi is the apparent source of the graphic, but he should have known that he was wading into some rather racist territory with the tweet.
The tweet tries to make a racist point about crime
Whenever there's another example of racial disparities in the criminal justice system or police use of force, a very common refrain among conservatives is to argue that the disparities are driven by another problem: black-on-black crime.
As the argument goes, it is not that police are more likely to shoot black people — but rather that black people are more likely to be in situations that require police action, and this greater exposure to police creates a higher probability of getting shot by cops. It's a way of blaming the victim — by arguing that the real problem is a lack of "personal responsibility" within black communities, which drives higher crime rates and forces police to act in disproportional ways. It's also racist, since it suggests that something is uniquely wrong with black people and their communities.
It is true that crime levels are much higher among black communities — nearly half of 2014 homicides were perpetrated by someone who's black, even though black people made up about 13 percent of the population that year.
But the statistics are not, as conservatives often suggest, indicative of a problem with personal responsibility. Many factors drive higher crime rates in black communities, including massive economic inequality and housing policies that leave black people poorer and much more likely to live in impoverished, crime-riddled neighborhoods.
One of the causes is even the criminal justice system itself, which both underpolices and overpolices black communities. As journalist Jill Leovy argued in her recent book Ghettoside, the abhorrent levels of black-on-black homicide and the police harassment of black communities are actually 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.
"Police can't do the job on their own — they need the community to help them"
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 it's not just that the figures in Trump's tweet are wildly wrong. The conservative trope that the tweet referred to is very wrong, as well.