Shortly after Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, a local pizzeria owner, Jim Marshall, flashed a gun at black protesters after an argument. Some branded Marshall a racist and called for a boycott. A few weeks later, according to The Washington Post, his wife, Dawne, stopped kneading dough and addressed her patrons. “We are not the type of people who they say we are!” she declared. She pointed to two black customers sitting in her restaurant. “When I see you, I see you,” she added, as she began to cry. “I don’t see color!”
This would be funny were it not so pathetic. If Dawne Marshall really didn’t see color, how on earth would she know to point at the black people, and why would she say that to them?
To the twenty-first-century racist, race is always, ostensibly, irrelevant. Not only do they not see color; they are also blind to history, economics, politics, privilege, disadvantage, systemic bias and institutional exclusion. All they really see is inferiority and the inherent threat of those who embody it: they “just so happen” to be black in the same way that the people Dawne Marshall pointed out happened to be black.
The right’s response to police shootings has followed this particular contradiction. First they insist these shootings have nothing to do with race, only to ask in the next breath why those who are race-obsessed refuse to address a different racial phenomenon—“black-on-black crime.” “Ninety-three percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks,” said former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, deploying a conservative talking point. “We are talking about the exception here [in Ferguson]…. I would like to see the attention paid to that, that you’re paying to this.”
On any given day, Rudy Giuliani is wrong a thousand times before he even wakes up in the morning. But here are five reasons why changing the subject from police shootings to “black-on-black crime” is so wrongheaded.
1. The term is a racial canard. Of course, it could merely be descriptive, an adjective for a certain kind of crime, like “same-sex domestic-partner violence.” But it’s not. Same-sex domestic-partner violence is distinguished from opposite-sex domestic-partner violence. But “black-on-black crime” has no racial equivalent: nobody talks about white-on-white crime (see 2) or Asian-on-Asian crime. It’s a construct assigned solely to black people, and it interprets their transgression through a purely racial lens. It ranks alongside “the down-low,” a phrase used to refer to black gay men who lead straight lives, only to cheat on their wives with other men. When white men do it, it’s called “Brokeback Mountain”; when black men do it, it gets a special name. The phrase “black-on-black crime” makes sense only if you understand black people’s propensity to commit crimes against people of their own race as inherently different from the way other racial groups commit crimes.
2. In this regard, black criminals are not particularly different. America is very segregated, and its criminality conforms to that fact. So the victims of most crimes are the same race as those who commit them. Eighty-four percent of white people who are killed every year are killed by white people. White people who buy illegal drugs are most likely to buy them from white people. Far from being extraordinary, the fact that black criminals are most likely to commit crimes against black people makes them just like everybody else. A more honest term than “black-on-black crime” would be, simply, “crime.”
3. It is not a taboo. Anyone who seriously thinks that black people are not talking about black people killing other black people just doesn’t know any black people. Black people talk about it a lot. They have a lot to talk about. But while black-on-black crime is a nonsense term, black crime is a serious issue. Black people may not be much more likely to kill members of their own racial group than whites, but they are still more likely to kill and be killed. It’s not as though the black community hasn’t noticed that. Most cities have several black-led organizations confronting this very thing. Nor do black people grieve according to some code of silence. Go to any inner-city church, youth club, park, concert, barbershop, beauty salon or high school basketball game and listen. Every now and then, like last year after Chicago high school student Hadiya Pendleton was shot, they even get a national platform to talk about it. And when they do, they seize it.
4. The police are a special category. That’s the point. Black people are not, by dint of their melanin content, instructed to protect and serve the public; the police, by dint of their employment, are. Black people do not have a monopoly on violence; the police do. So when the people entrusted with upholding the law kill someone, that raises very different issues than if a kid from down the block shoots somebody. When the people who are supposed to protect everybody show an undeniable propensity to kill one group of people more than others (black men aged 15 to 19 are twenty-one times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts), that inevitably raises the question of discrimination. Our taxes don’t pay to support black criminals in their pursuit of black victims; they are currently going to support police in the shooting of black people.
5. The police are not an elevated category. The law still applies to them. When black people kill other black people, families and communities seek justice. When there are eyewitnesses, videos and forensic evidence, they want investigations, arrests, indictments, trials and convictions. They also want the punishment to be proportionate to the crime. They want no less when a policeman is the killer. In reality, they get far less. In fact, they get nothing. There is no punishment because, apparently, there was no crime.