It’s Time to Stop Blaming Black-on-Black Crime

The rhetoric around crime is factually wrong and allows some to ignore and pass the blame for systemic misdeeds.

The body of a man is removed from a yard in the Kelvyn Park neighborhood of Chicago July 28, 2008.
The body of a man is removed from a yard in the Kelvyn Park neighborhood of Chicago July 28, 2008. Scott Olson/Getty Images

For every unarmed black man, woman or child killed by unrestrained police officers, there’s an intellectually impoverished response when black people get visibly upset about it: What about black-on-black crime?

There was a time, in another surreal reality not so long ago, when conservative pundits reflexively grimaced at even the mention of it—and, oh, that whole notion that black people were unjustly shackled or slaughtered in advanced Western societies.

Now black-on-black crime is a thing, with famous heavy-right rags embracing it as frequently as they knock the black president. It’s a fresh, new, nasty, stick-your-tongue-out retort to shut down any justifiable complaints from grieving black communities.

Which means, sure, we can talk days on end about being black … so long as it pertains to black people hurting other black people. Others have signed on, too, including some prominent black celebrities and half-intelligentsia feeling ignored or irrelevant as the #BlackLivesMatter banner passes them by.

Yesterday’s hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs (perhaps toying with comebacks through Republican politics) kicked dirt with his own misguided reflections on it. Black conservative columnist Jason Riley, on a quest for more Fox News hits, riffs incessantly about it. And Cleveland’s black police chief, Calvin Williams, ineffectual to the point that he can’t or won’t arrest his subordinates for killing a 12-year-old kid, likes to occasionally drop hints about it when confronted or, as activist Deray McKesson recently noted, just angrily drops it when protesters get in his face.

Fortunately, we’re in the midst of a rhetorical shift that is generationally putting “black-on-black crime” 6 feet under. It was incorrect during its creation in the 1980s, when many black pundits, preachers and politicians raced to coin it in every speech instead of putting relentless pressure on the nefarious trickle-down policies of the Reagan regime at the time. Let’s not forget that black Generation X used it, albeit reluctantly; black Generation Y has been smart enough to spit on it outright.

Despite the intense national obsession with it, however, we haven’t yet come to grips with the fact that it never really existed in the first place. To refer to “black-on-black crime” not only defies common sense but grabs at baseless white racist science that removes blame for systemic deeds. There’s no more reason to assert “black-on-black crime” than there is to coin terms like “white-on-white crime” or “brown-on-brown crime” or let’s-just-insert-random-color-or-race-here crime. And, in case you haven’t noticed, we’re not using those terms.

And we shouldn’t. Geography and basic population trends dictate that. Crime happens all around us, and it happens near where populations cluster. Over the past generation, we’ve allowed this unique, yet ugly designation of community crime patterns to stalk us like an angry ex-spouse, without any requisite understanding of how human beings live. That is to say, most African Americans generally live where other blacks live. So do whites. So do Latinos, and so on and so forth.

One reason is that we’re so accustomed to congregating and living where others look like us. As the data-crunching Nate Silver recently pointed out, even the “most diverse cities” are the “most segregated.” A Pew Research survey released shortly after the election of President Barack Obama also underscored that point: Americans talk a big diversity game, but “American communities appear to have grown more politically and economically homogeneous in recent decades.” Interestingly, that same Pew study found that a larger margin of African Americans preferred living in racially diverse communities—83 percent—than whites (60 percent).

University of Washington sociologist Kyle Crowder’s research has found that racial living patterns don’t match the diversity platitudes, either: Forty-four percent of African Americans move to black neighborhoods, with just 5 percent moving into white neighborhoods. For whites, the percentage is higher, with just under 60 percent moving into neighborhoods with people who look just like them, as opposed to only 2 percent who move into majority-black neighborhoods. Many of us may have graduated from predominantly white colleges, but we’re still living like a perpetual slumber party in the college cafeteria.