Bringing Up ‘Black on Black Crime’ Is Racist

This tired idea makes the wrongful connection between Blackness and criminality

Photo: Tacy Pierre-Louis/EyeEm/Getty Images

Whenever protests and riots spark from police killings of unarmed Black men, women, and children, the same discourse surfaces. Again again, we hear the rebuttal against the movement for Black lives: “Black on Black crime.”

We hear logic like, “Black people protest and riot when a police officer kills a Black person, but don’t protest and riot when they kill their own.” Folks who offer this retort bring up how Black people (essentially, Black men) commit a disproportionate amount of crime. That way of thinking supposedly calls out the hypocrisy of both individual Black activists and the broader Black community.

There is no shortage of articles and books critique this idea as a form of anti-Black racism. Yes, some Black people do enact intracommunity violence. But people tend to commit crime in proximity to where they live, regardless of race. Perpetrators commit most crimes against those of the same race. This is aside from the well-studied historical, institutional, cultural, and socio-psychological factors that make someone more likely to commit crime: urbanization, unemployment and the clustering of poverty, and lack of adequate health care and educational opportunities. Specifically for Black people, remnants of slavery and Jim Crow, residential segregation, and mass incarceration contribute as well.

In most Black communities, the politicians, clergy, organizers, and activists invested in reducing violence are Black. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in The New Yorker, African Americans “who suffer the brunt of gun violence have been marching, organizing, and speaking out against the crime that threatens to devour their neighborhoods. Their efforts are typically ignored, because they don’t fit with the conventional ‘law and order’ wisdom.” Here’s the reality: Black people are often the only ones who care about Black intra-communal violence beyond simply trotting out the “Black on Black crime” card.

“Black on Black crime” has long been a cudgel against Black people — a rationale for defunding public resources, increasing funding in police departments, and justifying why Blackness is an adequate pretext for officers “fearing for their lives.” Right-wing sites like Breitbart actually have a tag committed to “Black on Black crime.” (Full disclosure: I haven’t checked to see if it is still up because I don’t want to give Breitbart any traffic.) But aside from its racist effect, it doesn’t make logical sense to bring up “Black on Black crime,” especially in the context of protests against police brutality.

Here’s the reality: Black people are often the only ones who care about Black intracommunal violence beyond simply trotting out the “Black on Black crime” card.

Bringing up “Black on Black crime” or saying, “But we kill our own!” in the context of police brutality not only conflates two separate issues (violence between citizens and violence from the state), but also collectivizes the Black community into an undifferentiated mass of criminals and hypocrites — protesting by day and committing violent crimes by night. And when these retorts come from within the Black community, it’s a strange use of the word “we.”

The implication of the “Black on Black violence” rhetoric places personal responsibility for solving long-standing systemic issues at the feet of communities affected by them. It asks everyday citizens (who have an iota of the resources the state has) to fix issues that should be addressed with policy. It assumes that the solution is having the majority of Black people police their communities instead of putting officers in jail when they commit murder. And it makes the wrongful connection between Blackness and criminality.

But let’s address the real elephant in the room: When criminals commit a crime in a Black neighborhood, who do we call? The police. If police commit brutality against Black people with impunity, who do we call? The police again? Even if you believed in a kind of bootstrapping racial meritocracy, how can Black people effectively diminish crime in their communities if they have no trust in those who are supposed to protect and serve? Why would any community need to fulfill prerequisites in order for police to do their job without killing citizens?

In his book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, lawyer and professor Paul Butler compared the Black experience to being in a chokehold. He wrote, “A chokehold justifies additional pressure on the body because the body does not come into compliance, but the body cannot come into compliance because of the vise grip on it.” This astute metaphor articulates the perpetual cycle of White fear and Black oppression — a small group within the Black community commits violent crimes, which justifies the militarized over-policing of the whole, which adds to factors that perpetuate both the causes and effects.

We would be hard-pressed to find a time in modern American history when the masses of Black people haven’t clearly expressed exactly what they need to improve their communities. Yet too often, we’ve been handed more police. Our rational frustration toward state violence is considered erratic and thuggish to too many Americans.

Conservative and libertarian thinkers often offer Black crime statistics to assert that White fear of Black people is reasonable and rational. Yet no amount of stories or video footage of police killing Black men, women, and children (whether they are sleeping, jogging, driving, walking, committing a crime, or minding their business as law-abiding citizens) will convince them of systemic racism. So many Americans voice their disgust when it comes to generalizing entire groups like the police or White people, but become social Darwinists whenever they speak about Black communities.

If we buy the logic behind “Black on Black crime,” why doesn’t the term “male on male crime” exist? Men commit vastly more violent crimes than women. If a woman or nonbinary person murders a man, would we accept “But what about male on male violence?” or “But we kill our own!” from men? Think of the solutions offered to stop police brutality versus the ones geared toward ending violence in poor Black communities. Too many of us think “love your neighbor as yourself” means that love is a function of proximity, not universal companionship.

It’s hard for most to identify and understand the distinction between systemic or cultural racism and interpersonal prejudice. ‪Historical attitudes that devalue and criminalize Blackness are held by more people than outright racist bigotry. But even if you don’t agree with the personal versus systemic distinction, you won’t find a context where the “What about Black on Black crime?” argument is logical. It isn’t.

Joshua Adams is a writer and journalist from Chicago. UVA & USC. Taught media and communication at DePaul & Salem State. Twitter: @journojoshua

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