“Chicago” has been thrown into so many sentences lately that I’ve stopped caring to keep track. It usually follows as a rebuttal for #BlackLivesMatter activists—“Well, what about Chicago? Black on black crime is wild over there.”
And then that’s it. That is all we hear about Chicago. The arguer doesn’t spend an ounce of his time talking about those murders he thoughtlessly brought up. He usually moves on to discuss absent fathers, rampant drug addiction, violent hip-hop lyrics, or whatever to awkwardly explain why black people (like all other people) have violence in their communities. They don’t bring up Chicago or “black-on-black crime” because they care. Instead, these arguments have been used as popular devices against what is almost a completely separate issue—criminal justice reform and race relations. But you know what? I’m glad they brought it up because now I can talk a little bit about it.
America loves “black-on-black crime”. Yes—LOVES it. In fact, America created black-on-black crime. It is something that is entirely unique—not because of the realities of black men killing each other every day (which is tragically true), but because of the language that is used to paint violence with a color. “White-on-white crime” doesn’t exist because America doesn’t want it to. It’s not that white men aren’t killing each other every day, because they are. But, rather, our rhetoric, media outlets, and public discourse won’t allow it to exist.
“White-on-white crime” sounds silly; it’s cumbersome on the tongue and out of place in its meaning. The public knows, logically, that white people participate in murder. But there’s no language to describe it—not quite like the volumes of words used to describe, expound, and exaggerate the violence that occurs in black communities. Black-on-black crime was an invention—an assault by words to portray violence as being a part of a black image.
Because of decades of media imagery the term “black-on-black crime” is loaded with images of ghetto streets, drug sales, prostitutes, broken homes, gangs, and rampant poverty. With as little as four words, the American psyche explodes with stereotypes of black people. A fully packed image of black America is delivered straight to our minds. Americans, when hearing black-on-black crime have conjured an idea of what the shooters look like, sound like, dress like, and what kind of neighborhood they live in. Most have already assumed whether or not the shooters were fatherless, if the mother was on welfare, or if they dropped out of school. But, when “white-on-white crime” is brought up (which, let’s be honest, it never is), we aren’t given any mental imagery whatsoever. We might think of a few mug-shots and news lines here and there, but we don’t develop a mental image of an entire culture. It stands alone as words without baggage; without assumption or hype. It is not seen as a hopeless epidemic. White-on-white crime, to the American mind, doesn’t mean anything.
I can already hear my critics screaming through their monitors, “We use the term ‘black-on-black crime’ because African Americans represent the leading demographic in violent crime by ratio!” Which is true—by ratio, representing 13% of the total population and also being convicted of incredible rates of murder—with the majority of those murder victims being black, one would assume that it would be incorrect to not to use the term black-on-black crime. And I used to think so, too, but then I started thinking, what about whites? Not in terms of murder, but in terms of the crimes, problems, and disease where they are the leading demographic (both by population and by ratio). Why haven’t we heard of these things? It is no mystery to the public when it comes to thinking about the problems consuming black communities. Ask anyone on the street and they will rattle off a list of problems about black people; highest in AIDs, prison population, violent crime, diabetes, infant mortality, etc. etc. Yet, our minds draw blanks when thinking about white people—and it’s not that their communities don’t have outstanding problems. For example, white males are the leading demographic of people convicted of rape and other sex crimes. This is both by population size and ratio. Yet, there is no mention of “white-on-white rape” as being an epidemic. Sure, rape is being recognized as an epidemic—but white males aren’t portrayed as the leading identity in this crime. There is no media hype or racially loaded terms; no endless news reels of white convicts going to prison. There aren’t any scholars debating about a failed pathology among white men. There aren’t any authors writing volumes about the destructiveness of white culture. There aren’t any mentions about the white household, drug use, or joblessness when it comes to this crime where white males dominate. Simply put, we don’t scream white-on-white crime, even when it would make sense to do so. However, we use black-on-black crime almost reflexively—it is considered absurd by our society not to.
But that’s not the reason why America loves “black-on-black crime” most. America loves “black-on-black crime” because it is an expedient slogan. It is convenient and is used almost reflexively. Once exploited it becomes an instrument of public policy. Bill Clinton and his wife abused this term in his 1992 ascension into power. Comments about “super predators” and the pervasiveness of violence in the black community was used to push for the infamous bipartisan crime bill of 1994—a crime bill which resulted in the most unprecedented prison boom in world history. All throughout his campaign, Bill Clinton pointed to the black community while shouting at white swing voters, “black-on-black crime!” Yet despite the hype and panic in the prospect of American streets being overrun by violent black gangs/criminals, the prisons were packed with low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Similar uses of the slogan have helped assemble public policy at local and state levels as well. School budgets were gutted to fund prison expenses. City governments expanded police departments and invested in them with military-grade weaponry. It became an election strategy for judges and prosecutors to double-down on crime. Municipal courts were placed as center pieces of “broken-windows” policing efforts. The general American psyche developed a heightened paranoia to crime as media pundits, day in and day out, showed images of violent black offenders. As a result, the term black-on-black crime became the cornerstone of criminal justice expansion and earned a permanent spot in America’s vocabulary.
Black-on-black crime is usually argued to be the result of a deficient culture of fatherlessness, laziness, ignorance, and something inherently animalistic—something hopelessly intangible from civilized influence. This slogan is thrown around to point an unwavering finger to black communities as a way of saying, “All of you are responsible for this.”
Such a view is disastrous because it becomes an excuse to avoid addressing deeper, systemic, and non-cultural issues that contribute to these crimes. We tend to ignore what legacy segregation, racism, and slavery left in many of our neighborhoods today. The impact of intentionally designed ghettos, redlining districts, roll-backs on affirmative action and busing programs, the depletion of jobs, the disruption of the drug economy at the introduction of crack, the unprecedented number of schools that were shut down in place of detention facilities, severe slashes in government assistance programs, the on-going housing crisis, the school-to-prison pipeline of children, the mass incarceration of their fathers, aggressive (and militarized) policing practices, and the general level of poverty in black neighborhoods that isn’t present in other neighborhoods might lead one to believe that crime would be an inevitable symptom of greater issues. And, of course, personal accountability is important—no one is arguing against this necessary component in crime prevention. But in light of the issues addressed, it is foolish to suggest that these systemic issues had absolutely no effect on the community and that young black men, and every black person in America, are moral failures. Unfortunately, the slogan black-on-black crime is used to divert our attention from the very serious political and economic problems grappling with our inner cities.
The black-on-black crime narrative gives ordinary citizens a moral “pass.” With this slogan we are led to believe that we don’t have to care about what is happening in many of our cities. In fact, the tragedy of black youth murdering each other every day doesn’t alarm anyone. The nearly 500 murders that took place in Chicago in 2015 aren’t discussed as a national emergency. Instead, those murders are exploited to argue about the inferiority of black culture. These tragedies are used to silence #BlackLivesMatter activists who are advocating for almost a completely separate issue—and that’s it. There is no compassion when news pundits bring this up. Instead, they, politicians, and the general public mock the black community—constantly reminding it of its problems without offering legitimate or progressive help. No solutions are offered because America doesn’t see black-on-black crime as its issue. Its hands are washed of all responsibility. Urgency is none. In cities like Chicago, where citizens constantly live under duress and terror from uncontrollable levels of violence, our society, instead of constructing meaningful policies and public awareness efforts, coldly replies, “Do it yourself.”