‘There’s No Such Thing as Black-on-Black Crime’

by Patrick Brennan

The Daily Beast’s Jamelle Bouie has a surreal piece criticizing those who have pointed out that inordinate attention has been accorded to the Trayvon Martin case given that the major homicide threat facing black men is not incidents like this one, but crimes committed by other black men. This point is almost clichéd by now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Bouie suggests that conservatives are obsessed with pointing out the phenomenon of “black-on-black crime” while:

There’s no such thing as “black-on-black” crime. Yes, from 1976 to 2005, 94 percent of black victims were killed by black offenders, but that racial exclusivity was also true for white victims of violent crime—86 percent were killed by white offenders. . . .

What [Breitbart writer Ben] Shapiro and others miss about crime, in general, is that it’s driven by opportunism and proximity; If African-Americans are more likely to be robbed, or injured, or killed by other African-Americans, it’s because they tend to live in the same neighborhoods as each other. Residential statistics bear this out (PDF); blacks are still more likely to live near each other or other minority groups than they are to whites. And of course, the reverse holds as well—whites are much more likely to live near other whites than they are to minorities and African-Americans in particular.

I don’t see why it’s particularly important whether conservatives and others “miss” that or not, because I don’t think any of them are arguing that blacks pick their victims for any particular reason — they’re just pointing out that there is plenty of gun violence in this country (though much less than there used to be), blacks are suffering a great deal of it, and it’s disproportionately being committed by blacks. Does Bouie think this is not a “thing,” either an actual fact or not one worthy of attention? He offers an exceedingly weak argument against the last point:

Nor are African-Americans especially criminal. If they were, you would still see high rates of crime among blacks, even as the nation sees a historic decline in criminal offenses. Instead, crime rates among African-Americans, and black youth in particular, have taken a sharp drop. In Washington, D.C., for example, fewer than 10 percent of black youth are in a gang, have sold drugs, have carried a gun, or have stolen more than $100 in goods.

Overall, figures from a variety of institutions—including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Justice Statistics—show that among black youth, rates of robbery and serious property offenses are at their lowest rates in 40 years, as are rates of violent crime and victimization. And while it’s true that young black men are a disproportionate share of the nation’s murder victims, it’s hard to disentangle this from the stew of hyper-segregation (often a result of deliberate policies), entrenched poverty, and nonexistent economic opportunities that characterizes a substantial number of black communities.

Relative to their share of the population, African Americans commit dramatically more crime, especially violent crimes and murders, than whites do. Nothing Bouie points to contravenes that fact. The fact that African Americans have been part of the downward trend in crime in the United States over the past few decades doesn’t mean they’re not still committing crimes at shockingly disproportionate rates (though I wouldn’t say “especially criminal” is quite the right way to put that).

This means, since people tend to kill members of their own race, as Bouie says, “black men are a disproportionate share of the nation’s murder victims.” You can’t disentangle that from the fact that blacks are much more likely to commit more murders than whites (for many reasons, of course, some of which Bouie points out). See the FBI’s chart here — there were 2,447 murders of blacks by blacks in 2011, almost the same number as white-on-white murders; when the former group is just one-sixth the size of the latter, it certainly seems like it should qualify as a “thing.”

Bouie’s right that black-on-black crime is basically just a reflection of who interacts with, lives among, and has relationships with whom (which is why white-on-white crime would equally be a “thing” – until you adjust for their share of the population and it becomes apparent that black-on-black crime is a special problem). But no one’s saying black-on-black crime is a problem because it reflects some particular animus black criminals have for fellow blacks — the point is just that lots of blacks are committing crimes and lots of blacks are suffering them, and that the appallingly high rates of these crimes, though they’ve dropped, deserve more attention (for which conservatives and liberals, of course, have different proposals).

And that’s exactly what many are saying about the Trayvon Martin trial — that racially motivated murders in America aren’t common, but murders of black men are. But those highlighting Martin’s death and downplaying the phenomenon of black-on-black crime would like you to think the former is a common-enough but neglected type of event that Zimmerman had to be charged, despite the weak case against him:

The idea that “black-on-black” crime is the real story in Martin’s killing isn’t a novel one. In addition to Shapiro, you’ll hear the argument from conservative African-American activists like Crystal White, as well as people outside the media, like Zimmerman defense attorney Mark O’Mara, who said that his client “never would have been charged with a crime” if he were black.

(It’s worth noting, here, that Zimmerman wasn’t charged with a crime. At least, not at first. It took six weeks of protest and pressure for Sanford police to revisit the killing and bring charges against him. Indeed, in the beginning, Martin’s cause had less to do with the identity of the shooter and everything to do with the appalling disinterest of the local police department.)

It’s worth noting that that was exactly O’Mara’s point — that Zimmerman was only charged because of the political outrage centering on the race of the victim and the shooter. Liberals wanted to make Martin’s death into a “thing,” unlike black-on-black crime, because it was something that could be used to make a political point about how the system is biased, Americans own too many guns, etc. I have no doubt that Bouie cares a lot about urban crime, but it’s unfortunate he’s implicitly dismissing a national tragedy — violence among blacks in our cities — as unimportant because it’s driven by mere ”opportunism and proximity,” and not by putative racial animus, like Trayvon Martin’s death.