Playing the Violence Card: It's a Cynical Ploy

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Khalil Gibran Muhammad takes on those who suggest that "black people should worry more about the harm they do to themselves and less about how victimized they are by others."

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Juan Williams (Fox News)

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Khalil Gibran Muhammad takes on those who deflect complaints about racism against black people by playing "the violence card": suggesting that "black people should worry more about the harm they do to themselves and less about how victimized they are by others." Some have used this tactic in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's death, says Muhammad, who is director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.

Here’s how it works. When confronted with an instance of racially charged violence against a black person, a commentator draws attention to the fact that there is much more black-on-black violence than white-on-black violence. To play the violence card -- as many criminal-justice advocates have done since the Rodney King police brutality case of the early 1990s -- is to suggest that black people should worry more about the harm they do to themselves and less about how victimized they are by others.

The national outrage over the Trayvon Martin case has prompted some recent examples. Last week, the journalist Juan Williams wrote in The Wall Street Journal of the “tragedy” of Trayvon’s death but wondered “what about all the other young black murder victims? Nationally, nearly half of all murder victims are black. And the overwhelming majority of those black people are killed by other black people.” During a debate about the case on Sunday on an ABC News program, the commentator George F. Will argued that the “root fact” is that “about 150 black men are killed every week in this country -- and 94 percent of them by other black men.”

For Mr. Williams, Mr. Will and countless others playing the violence card, the real issue has little to do with racist fears or police practices -- even though those would seem to be the very issues at hand.

It’s true that black-on-black violence is an exceptionally grave problem. But this does not explain the allure of the violence card, which perpetuates the reassuring notion that violence against black people is not society’s concern but rather a problem for black people to fix on their own. The implication is that the violence that afflicts black America reflects a failure of lower-class black culture, a breakdown of personal responsibility, a pathological trait of a criminally inclined subgroup -- not a problem with social and institutional roots that needs to be addressed through collective effort well beyond the boundaries of black communities.

But perhaps the large scale of black-on-black violence justifies playing the violence card? Not if you recall how Americans responded to high levels of white-on-white violence in the past.

Read Khalil Gibran Muhammad's entire piece at the New York Times.

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