This year's Black History Month was a particularly bloody one in Shelby County, S.C. Sergio Leary, Ja'cole Wilson, Karon Barrow and Leon Thurman Jr., all young people in their 20s, were all shot dead, according to local news reports.
The Shelby Star's analysis of the burst of violence, hit on all the usual crime reporting clichés: ''black,'' ''at-risk youth,'' ''subcultures that don't value'' life. And then, there's the clincher. ''Despite overall crime numbers falling in recent years, black-on-black [emphasis added] violence remains a prevalent issue,'' the newspaper reported.
You can expect to hear these key phrases on a local television news report near you as temperatures—and tempers—rise this summer. Black clergy like Al Sharpton, prominent black thinkers like Kevin Powell, and writers at black journals like the Urban Politico will shake their heads at this ''black'' scourge, self-flagellating that ''we gotta do better.''
Of course, any loss of life is cause to scream from the mountaintops. But explaining the tragedies by using loaded phrases like ''black-on-black'' violence is dangerously wrong. First, in a country that is essentially still segregated (and not necessarily by black people's choice) what race do you expect for both victim and perpetrators to be? Language like ''black-on-black violence'' effectively smacks a racial label on problems that are socioeconomic and thus the collective, moral responsibility of every American.
At this particular moment in our history, it is more important than ever to reject these kinds of racialized explanations. They are being used to slander public school children as incapable of learning; to deem affordable housing a hopeless cause. In gentrifying cities, ''black-on-black crime'' is used as a weapon to encourage public policies that treat black people as blights on the new urban aesthetic. There is a moral imperative to challenge these assumptions.
Every. Single. Time.
''It's as though there is something defective about black culture and moderate income, and low-income, working-class kids and families live in different worlds,'' said the University of Illinois geographer David Wilson, who traced the origins of the term in the early 1980s in his brilliant book, Inventing Black-on-Black Violence (Syracuse University Press).
''Supposedly we saw youth that were going astray and that was the problem,'' Wilson continued. ''The media imposed this narrow [black-on-black] lens that looked at the category of culture. The culture was deemed as problematically different than the mainstream.''
In his most recent book, Cities and Race (Routledge 2007), Wilson looked at how prevailing public policies in cities have taken these racialized arguments to some very scary places. According to Wilson, city planners in gentrifying cities now argue that there is a new global reality afoot. As such, prominent urbanists such as Richard Florida argue that what we need in our cities more than ever are creative people. People who are highly educated—people who can find their niche in the world economy.
This might be all well and good, if we lived up to the ''post-racialism/colorblindness'' everyone keeps crowing about. You know, that notion that you are not judged by your skin tone. That in America, everyone has an equal chance. No need to bring up the nastiness of the past.
Easy enough if you are not born into a community that has been cut off from ''mainstream'' education, health care and economic opportunities since the days of slavery. Segregated enclaves have always played a role in warehousing the black folks that the larger society does not quite know what to do with. But now as cities across the United States gentrify, more than ever, Wilson says, black ''ghettos'' are playing a functional role: ''That is to warehouse populations that are non-contributory to the 'go-global' movement. If the population is 'non-contributing' stash them somewhere in the city that is isolated. They need to be isolated because they cannot be allowed to contaminate these areas that are showy and diverse.''
And then even if you are black and among this coveted ''creative'' class, terms like ''black-on-black'' violence put you in the same pathological box.
Thankfully, the use of the term has subsided from its 1980s heyday. But it still pops up whenever there is a high-profile rash of urban violence: Think Aiyana Jones in Detroit; Derrion Albert in Chicago. Then there's Oakland, where recently someone created a Facebook group against black-on-black violence.
We should take a page from journalists in the United Kingdom. The stylebook of the Guardian newspaper bans the use of the phrase ''black-on-black violence.'' The stylebook explains, ''imagine the police saying they were 'investigating an incident of white-on-white violence between Millwall and West Ham supporters.'''
Indeed. The term ''black-on-black violence'' is a slander against the majority of law-abiding black Americans, rich and poor, who get painted by this broad and crude brush. I've been black all my life, but no, actually, I don't have to ''do better.'' I've never handled a gun in my life. And if some knucklehead points one my way, I'm entitled to the same level of outrage and swift police response a white victim would get. So do Shelby County's recent murdered residents Sergio Leary, Ja'cole Wilson, Karon Barrow and Leon Thurman Jr.
If we don't challenge these assumptions we only ask Shelby Star readers like ''Bodecia'' to come to the following conclusion:
''It is about race—when one fraction of the community is killing off their own people that is a problem with their race and a problem that they must take responsibility for and clean up. Myself, being white [I] will absolutely NOT be visiting the 'knot' to offer assistance. I don't have a suicide mentality… I applaud the black community for speaking out and making this a topic of conversation. The black leaders need to be sure this stays on the front page (in the face) type of coverage.''
Natalie Hopkinson is a media and culture critic based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.