Crime, Race and the Politics of White Deflection

Amid conservative exhortations that black leaders are “too focused on racism,” and insufficiently concerned about “black-on-black crime” — which claims are commonly made whenever racism is in the news, but have been especially ubiquitous in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict — a few points are, it seems, in order.

First, the charge is simply false. Civil rights organizations and black community leaders do in fact discuss crime in urban communities often. That most white folks — and especially those on the right — don’t know this, is simply because they don’t know many if any black people (at least not those who live in black communities), haven’t spent time themselves in those communities, and don’t read or listen to black media, where not only are such issues covered, but the efforts made by people in the community to address those problems are also highlighted; unlike in the “mainstream” (read: white) press, where they are usually ignored.

Occasionally these self-help efforts make their way into major news sources, but rarely do right-wing talk show hosts then mention the efforts of black and brown communities to address violence. They get more political mileage out of simply blasting “black pathology,” without context or countervailing evidence.

Oh, and needless to say they don’t praise groups like the Nation of Islam, which have a long track record of effective anti-crime initiatives in urban communities (and a history of getting black men with records moving in a more productive direction), or folks like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose tenure at Trinity United Church of Christ, in Chicago, involved multiple initiatives aimed at addressing violence and crime on the South Side. In other words, they ignore such self-help initiatives because they don’t emanate from blame-the-victim, “culture of poverty” theorists, but rather, often militant and radical black voices who speak out against crime and violence in the black community, but also against racism and systemic injustice (because black folks, unlike white conservatives apparently, are capable of addressing both at the same time).

Second, the mere fact that the term “black-on-black crime” is used (while “white-on-white crime” is never used the same way), suggests that the phrase is more about reinforcing stereotypes of black people as inherently dangerous, than actually addressing the phenomenon of intra-group violence. The term is not benign or merely descriptive, for if it were intended as such, we would use “white-on-white” crime to describe the crime that mostly affects white people, but we don’t. And not because it’s a minor occurrence. According to the most recent comprehensive data from the Justice Department (in that it tallies crime estimates by race, for offenders and victims, and not merely for crimes reported to police, but also those that are not reported):

In 2008:

There were 2,788,600 white victims of violent crime involving a single offender.

In 67.4 percent of these cases, the offender was known to be white.

So, in 2008 there were at least 1.9 million white-on-white single offender violent crimes.

This, compared to roughly 369,000 black-on-black single offender violent crimes.

So, in 2008 there were more than five times as many white-on-white violent crimes involving a single offender as there were black-on-black violent crimes involving a single offender.

Oh, and, importantly: the rates of white-on-black and black-on-white violent offending here were virtually identical, contrary to common perception. 15.4 percent of white victims were victimized by blacks, while 15.9 percent of black victims were victimized by whites.

Additionally in 2008, there were 726,530 white victims of violent crime involving multiple offenders. Although large numbers of these crimes involve offenders with indeterminate racial identities, or a mix of such identities, in 42.4 percent of such incidents the offenders were both (or all) known to be white. Meaning there were at least 308,000 white-on-white multiple offender violent crimes.

This, compared to about 117,500 black-on-black multiple offender violent crimes.

So, in all, there are roughly 2.2 million white-on-white violent crimes annually, compared to fewer than 500,000 black-on-black violent crimes, meaning that there are about four times as many of the former as the latter.

Although some of the Justice Department data in these tables involve sample sizes too small to make clear estimates about the numbers or crime rates for particular offenses (whether inter- or intra-racial) the overall trends remain clear: there are far more white-on-white crimes than black-on-black ones. And this would remain true, even if we were to exclude from these estimates the offenders and victims who are Latino. Because about 94 percent of Latinos are lumped into the white category racially in crime data (since Hispanic origin is not considered racial, but rather ethnic), obviously some of the white offenders (and victims) in this data will actually be Latino. But even were we to exclude those persons from the white totals, there can be no doubt that white-on-white crime would still remain far more plentiful than black-on-black crime. And yet, the term is never used.

Indeed “white” and “crime” are rarely heard together. Indeed, even looking at corporate misdeeds, or the misdeeds of folks on Wall Street, the term we normally hear used to describe the offenders in these cases is what? White collar crime. But the collar is not the only thing usually lacking color.

And finally, to suggest that civil rights groups and leaders should be criticized for focusing mostly on issues of racism and discrimination — which are what civil rights issues are about, by definition — is self-evidently preposterous. It would be like criticizing Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) for not adequately speaking to the problem of vehicular deaths caused by inadequate seatbelt usage: no doubt a numerically more frequent phenomena. And since more blacks were killed by other blacks than were killed by whites even during the era of Jim Crow segregation (since that’s who black folks tended to live around), one has to wonder, would conservatives argue that even in the era of overt racial oppression in this country, blacks should have eschewed civil rights work and focused instead on their own “internal pathologies?”

So long as conservatives continue to demand that black leaders prioritize the problem of “black-on-black crime,” while ignoring the obvious epidemic of white-on-white violence and mayhem, they will expose themselves as rank hypocrites, crappy social scientists, pure liars, or simple racists. Take your pick: in any or all cases the response from the rest of us should be to ignore them as the opportunistic hacks they are.

Comments are closed.