The "black-on-black crime" myth is the US's substitute for caring about black safety
Over the last two years, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has become one of the most prominent public voices on "black-on-black crime."
"I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93% of blacks in America are killed by other blacks," he told NBC's Meet the Press during a segment about racism and policing in November 2014.
Black Americans, he added, must explain "how and what they're doing among themselves about the crime problem in the black community" before they complain about police officers killing them.
Giuliani's argument is, of course, a canard — one politicians use regularly to justify the aggressive policing and incarceration of black Americans. They employ it most often to deflect attention away from police misconduct. It has become an especially common talking point on the right: From conservative law enforcement figures, like Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., to outlets like Breitbart and the Daily Caller, the right has relentlessly pushed the narrative that black people are their own worst enemy, rather than the systems that surround them.
Heather Mac Donald, a conservative journalist and pundit, went so far as to argue in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that recent protests critical of the police — particularly those united under the rallying cry "black lives matter" — are "based on fiction."
"It is a scandal that outrage is heaped less on the dysfunctional culture that produces so many [black crime] victims than on the police officers who try to protect them," she wrote.
The argument is a logical fallacy: How black people treat each other has nothing to do with whether police should be able to kill them with impunity. What's more, intraracial violence is about as common among white people as it is among black people. Per Politifact, black murder victims were killed by black perpetrators about 91% of the time from 2009 to 2013, according to FBI data; white victims were killed by white perpetrators about 83% of the time.
"All violence and crime is about proximity," Carla Shedd, assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia University and author of Unequal City: Race, Schools and Perceptions of Injustice, said in an interview. "Calling it 'black-on-black crime' is an unnecessary specification."
"All violence and crime is about proximity. Calling it 'black-on-black crime' is an unnecessary specification." — Carla Shedd
Crime rates in poor black neighborhoods are often high because of concentrated poverty, lack of investment and low employment and education prospects, she added. But this violence is also presented as evidence of a unique cultural pathology — a "dysfunctional culture," to use Mac Donald's words. It is a problem attributed to blackness itself, rather than the societal factors that cause any group to commit crimes against people who live near them.
This debate has always been about more than just semantics, according to Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University.
"This logic around [black-on-black] crime has always served a larger political purpose," Muhammad said. "It allows us to disqualify those communities from our structural investments. They are their own worst enemies, we say. We have no obligation to help these people until they help themselves."
In reality, Giuliani and others on the right aren't even interested in "black-on-black crime." They want to avoid an honest reckoning with why racial inequality persists in the United States. But this faux concern for black well-being is also unsupported by the policies of their party. The modern GOP has rarely shown even a surface-level interest in black safety, save for the rare occasion when it fits the party's political agenda.
Giuliani's "black-on-black crime" tour started, conveniently, when black protesters were in the midst of the biggest anti-racism movement in generations — a movement the former mayor has since dubbed "inherently racist" and "anti-American."
As demonstrators marched the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City chanting, "Black lives matter," Giuliani and his allies were busy trying to change the subject.
Black people are killed by other black people "every 14 hours in Chicago," he told Face the Nation in July, "and we never hear from Black Lives Matter."
This argument — that black protesters don't care about black death unless it is caused by police officers — is also demonstrably false. In August 2015, Fox News tried to smear protesters in Ferguson by claiming they'd marched when a black man was shot by police, but not when a 9-year-old black girl, Jamyla Bolden, was killed by a stray bullet in her own neighborhood.
In reality, crowds of protesters gathered outside Bolden's family home to pay tribute to the slain child. Photos of the event spread across the internet.
Across the U.S., meanwhile, over decades and across political lines, countless black-led coalitions have been assembled to combat violence in the communities. The Interrupters, a Chicago-based group of people who were formerly in gangs, has devoted itself to stopping gang violence in the city. Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan have both led rallies and initiatives to stop "black-on-black violence."
"The idea that black-on-black crime is not a significant political conversation among black people is patently false," a statement on the Black Lives Matter organization's website read. "The Black Lives Matter movement acknowledges the crime problem, but it refuses to locate that crime problem as a problem of black pathology."
Historically, the only group that has shown a sustained interest in black safety has been black people. It was this concern over safety that led black residents to coin the term "black-on-black crime" in the first place. In 1973, Ebony magazine published an editorial decrying high crime rates and black intraracial violence, echoing the concerns of many residents and readers at the time.
"The editors of Ebony call for the convening ... of a cross-section of citizens who are concerned about black-on-black crime," it read. "Everyone who can possibly contribute something worthwhile to a 'master plan' of attack on this most serious problem ought to come together in conference and make decisions about what must be done."
"The idea that black-on-black crime is not a significant political conversation among black people is patently false." — Black Lives Matter
It was an attempt to place political power in black people's hands, where before it had been withheld. On the whole, this did not work: Policymakers responded to these concerns selectively, using aggressive law enforcement and mass incarceration as their primary — and ironic — solutions to black safety concerns.
The "law and order" rhetoric popularized by President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s evolved into a decadeslong crackdown on any and all urban crime, prompting a steep increase in the country's incarcerated population that didn't level out until recently. In 2014, there were more than 1.5 million people locked up in state and federal prisons alone, compared to just over 196,000 in 1972. Inmates are disproportionately black.
Overwhelmingly, government officials — including Giuliani — have responded to black communities' cries for help over the last 40 years by either aggressively overpolicing them for petty crimes or underpolicing them for serious crimes, like homicide.
None of this has been lost on black communities. But a litany of black commentators and even pop culture figures — Kendrick Lamar comes to mind — have nevertheless invoked "black-on-black crime" as a response to police protests, frequently to the chagrin of protesters and their supporters.
"What happened to [Michael Brown] should've never happened," Lamar told Billboard in January 2015. "But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?"
These figures, too, are wrong. The difference between them and the right, however, is that Lamar and company come from black communities where such crime is a day-to-day worry. Their concern — flawed though its framing may be — is rooted in actual care for, or at least serious investment in, black communities. The right's faux concern, on the other hand, is primarily deflective, opportunistic and destructive.
Perhaps the final word on this debate is that there is nothing extraordinary about intraracial violence. It varies in degree and in kind, but the pattern — that crime is almost always racially contained — prevails within every racial group. What is extraordinary is white supremacy. Its resultant inequality is the defining difference dividing black and white life in America. It is traceable, historically and experientially, to policy decisions and social norms dating back to slavery.
You will never hear this from Giuliani and his allies — and their unwillingness to honestly engage with racial inequality is a big part of why it persists.