During the past seven months there have been thousands of articles written about the trend of unarmed black men and boys being killed by police officers. Mike Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island, Dontre Hamilton here in Milwaukee, and Tony Robinson in Madison on March 6. Though this troubling trend has existed across our nation for centuries, these killings are now receiving unprecedented attention and sparking a national dialogue on issues of race, police brutality, the criminal justice system, and the value of black lives. And while we’ve yet to fully realize the fruits of this conversation, the fact that we’re broaching these long-ignored topics is generally good news.
From Twitter to barbershops, mainstream media to classrooms, protests to pulpits, dinner tables to workplaces, these conversations are now more widespread and in depth than perhaps at any other point in my lifetime. The bad news, however, is that we don’t have to delve too deeply into any of these domains to find people who insist on imbuing the discussion with the fallacy of black-on-black crime.
The topic of black-on-black crime, in and of itself, is ridiculous in isolation. We often use the phrase to highlight the killing of black people by other black people, thereby undergirding the stereotype of the black criminal. Such an argument completely ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of all murders in our nation are intra-racial. Or as one of my former students so eloquently stated: “If your neighborhood is populated by a majority of any race, whom the hell else would your conflicts be with?” According to an FBI Uniform Crime Report, white killers perpetrated a whopping 83 percent of the 3,172 white murders in 2011. Yet, suggestions of a critical conversation about white-on-white crime are seemingly absent from the dialogue. Puzzling, right?
More recently, those who most proudly boast the black-on-black crime trope usually insinuate that frustration with police officers unjustly killing unarmed black people is misplaced, because “if we really cared” about black lives, we’d be “just as angry” when black people kill black people.
Stop. Just, stop.
Pivoting the dialogue to black-on-black crime is a red herring and nothing short of intellectual dishonesty. Let’s momentarily set aside the considerable amount of time and energy, the abundance of resources, and the plethora of leaders (and no, I’m not talking about Sharpton and Jackson) dedicated to healing the broken communities where black lives are taken the most. While undoubtedly terrible, black peers killing each other is not, has never been, and will never be analogous to police killing unarmed black folks. I posit that all black life lost is immensely tragic, but the impunity with which officers across this nation, sworn to serve and protect, can snuff out black life frequently and without consequence should inspire special ire. In plainer terms, the “protectors” killing our kids, and then being treated as heroes instead of criminals, should make us even angrier.
The deadly brand of policing that seems to only haunt marginalized communities is part of a larger system of institutional injustice that continues to steal black lives en masse. The same criminal justice system that has created aggressive policing has also spurred the prison industrial complex, broken educational journeys, and shattered families. Policing is only a symptom. Injustice is the root. And the fallacy of black-on-black crime does more to blame the victim than attack the roots of inequity that can leave black children dead at the hands of a peer or police.
We can do better than this intellectual child’s play; it only distracts from true systemic change.
Am I suggesting that we summarily dismiss intra-racial crimes in black communities? Of course not. It’s deeply problematic, as is the case when it occurs in any racial community. But Milwaukeeans who can’t see local leaders who care about, are angered by, and dedicated to solving this problem must be living under a rock.
We must continue to show our anger through commitment to the myriad of efforts here in Wisconsin to attack the underlying problems leading to senseless murder, whether intra- or inter-racial.
We must also continue our commitment to being extremely critical of the troubling trends in Wisconsin’s systems of policing and criminal justice, especially deaths like those of Dontre Hamilton and Tony Robinson.
And we must continue our commitment to the clarion call of #blacklivesmatter and the fight to ensure that our “protectors” are held accountable to the highest ethical, moral and constitutional standards.
It’s high time we stop perpetuating the irresponsible fallacy of black-on-black crime and the usual irrational arguments that accompany it. There’s too much real work to be done.