“If They Cared.” Confronting the Denial of Crime and Violence in American Cities

Troy L. Smith’s op-ed, Stop using ‘black-on-black’ crime to deflect away from police brutality, continues the irresponsible practice of rationalizing the problem of black-on-black crime. “If they cared, they’d be asking about crime within the African American community year-round,” Smith writes.

Houston police officers pay their respects to George Floyd at a ...
Houston officers pay their respects to George Floyd at a mural in his hometown

Right off the bat, I have to confess to, in part, making a version of Smith’s argument. In 2016, in the pages of TruthOut, I write, “Decrying Black-on-Black homicide after every high-profile killing of a civilian by a cop has become cliché for conservative pundits (and almost obligatory for liberals who want to be taken seriously). But it is entirely beside the point.” In blogs entries since I have walked back those sentences (Demoralization and the Ferguson Effect, The Problematic Premise of Black Lives Matter, Death by Cop Redux). Why? Because the science and moral imperative compelled me to.

Now I talk about the high levels of crime and violence in black-majority neighborhoods year-around. A lot of people do. Not because we want blacks to look bad. Because we care. Moreover, I am a professional criminologist. It’s my job to care. I have an obligation to strive to be right about this (and every) issue. You know who doesn’t care? The media doesn’t care. Those who want to abolish the police don’t care. We must ask ourselves, Why do those folks only care about black bodies when the killer is a cop? It’s not entirely beside the point.

Smith writes, “When an opponent of Black Lives Matters talks about ‘blacks killing blacks’ it’s almost always to deflect attention away from police brutality.” What is the evidence for this claim? Back in 2016, I wrote that the problem of black-on-black crime was cliché. I never meant to downplay the problem. I was focused on critiquing Heather Mac Donald’s thesis, which I now recognize as not only correct, but the definitive position on the subject. Smith just said he expected that, if we cared, we’d be asking about year-around. Which is it? That’s the dilemma that moved me.

Smith’s essay is chockfull of hyperbolic claims. “When someone commits an act of terrorism against in the United States, which rightfully leads to anger and sadness,” he writes, “no one asks, ‘Well what about how many Americans kill other Americans each year?’” But I hear that all the time. When I write about Islamic terrorism (which has, for the time being at least, subsided), people are quick to scold me with numbers showing that death toll from terrorism is minuscule compared to those who are killed every year by homicide in America by Americans—especially if the perpetrators are white.

“But, by all means, let’s talk about ‘black on black crime,’” Smith continues. “You’ve probably heard a statistic like this before—The majority of black people murdered are killed by other black people. That’s true, but also misleading. The overwhelming majority of white murder victims each year are killed by white assailants. So, when’s the last time you heard the term ‘white on white crime’?” Every time there is a serial killer on the loose. Every time there is a school shooting. Every time there is a mass murder. Then, even though whites are not proportionately more like to be the perpetrator in mass murder, the corporate media and social media is overflowing with op-eds and memes blaming white men for murder and wondering why we don’t call them terrorists (in fact, we do). (See Everything Progressives Say About Mass Shootings is Wrong…and Racist.) 

“White supremacists have attributed the fact that crime rates are higher among African Americans than whites to people of color being biologically more prone to violence. In reality, crime is directly linked more to poverty than race or any other factor.” This is a straw man. For sure, the biology thing is nonsense. Race is not a biological thing. It’s a social construct. But the poverty argument won’t work. There are three times more whites who live in poverty than there are blacks. Yet blacks are responsible for more than half of all homicides. What is more, blacks have been a lot poorer in the past—back when rates of black-on-black homicide were a lot lower.

Scroll back to the previous paragraph in Smith’s op-ed. Note that the character of intraracial crime is thrown out there without noting that less than 6 percent of the population is responsible for more than half of all murders in America. They are black men. That crime is intraracial in a de facto segregated society is not unexpected. That more than half of murders are committed by a small percentage of the population is. The homicide victimization rate for blacks is six times higher than for whites. Moreover, the intraracial character of the violence is greater than it is for whites.

Smith writes, “African Americans are two and half times more likely than whites to be killed by law enforcement.” This is true. But putting a statistic out there without explanation suggests a bad inference (I made this error in my 2016 TruthOut piece). Consider an analogy. Men are more likely to be killed by the police than women. Why? Because men are overrepresented in those serious criminal activities that are most likely to result in lethal officer-civilian interactions. Likewise, blacks are overrepresented in those serious criminal activities that are most likely to result in lethal officer-civilian interactions. Presenting this statistic without context lies at the heart of the false narrative that propels Black Lives Matter.

“When you step outside every day knowing you’re twice as likely to be killed by someone sworn to protect you just because of the color of your skin,” writes Smith, “you’re dealing with a different type of fear.” But that’s not how it goes down. You’re not very likely to be killed by the police by merely stepping outside your house. That almost never happens. Despite what the BLM rhetoric makes sound like, white police officers are not roaming the streets randomly targeting black men. However, one sharply increases his chances of being killed by the police (black or white) when he engages in serious criminal conduct. Especially if he’s armed. And if he threatens the police, his chances of being killed increase exponentially. A police officer, like every other person, has a right to defend himself from death or injury. And it’s not as if he is putting himself in harms way because he wants to. It’s his job to apprehend violent criminals. Society puts him in that position. Society needs him in that position.

The bottom line is, if Black Lives Matter wants to reduce the risk of black people being killed by police, beyond the common sense reforms that research and human decency suggest, then its leaders and members need to join with those seeking to reduce violence criminal offending in all our communities. Leftwing activists must stop apologizing for and rationalizing crime and violence and deal rationally with this issue. Smith’s op-ed doesn’t do that. On the contrary. It’s his op-ed that’s an exercise in diversion from the more serious problem of black-on-black homicide by reinforcing a false narrative about the racial disparity in police shootings.

If we care, we shouldn’t let another day go by without our leaders addressing the fact that black-majority neighborhoods are plagued by rampant crime and violence. Not only do black men murder more than any other race, black men are the victims of murder more than any other race. Don’t those victims matter? We should be talking about this year-around.

I understand why progressives want to distract others about this matter. The most dangerous places in America are our inner cities. They are mostly run by progressives Democrats. Progressive urban policy has failed city dwellers. I also understand why somebody would find the levels of crime and violence in these communities embarrassing. Nobody want’s their communities to look bad. I understand why it feels like victim blaming to talk about inner-city crime (in the long run, William Ryan’s 1976 Blaming the Victim probably did more harm than good). But we don’t save lives by denying and downplaying the significance of crime and violence. I refuse to do that anymore.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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