Someone is always asking me, “Why don’t you condemn black-on-black crime?” Lately I’ve gotten the question in response to columns about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., but it’s a common reaction to any mention of injustice or inequality.
The answer has always seemed so obvious to me that I’ve not felt compelled to offer it up, but here it is: Crime is bad regardless of who is doing it to whom, and as a community and a nation we should work together to prevent it. Except, of course, I know that isn’t really what the question is about.
Depending on who is asking, it comes packed with other queries. Am I going to blame white people for harming black people while letting black offenders slide? Am I going to admit that black people are more prone to crime than anyone else? Am I finally going to say that white people have no role in black people’s troubles?
No, no and no. Mostly. But let me explain a bit more.
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Most crimes happen between people of the same race. With homicides it’s just over 90 percent in the case of black people, and something over 80 percent for white people. Why? Because we are so separate from one another, and crime (except for really big white-collar crime) tends to happen where people are in contact with each other or each other’s property.
It doesn’t happen because anyone prefers being victimized by someone of the same skin tone. Most people want police to deal with criminals, but don’t want to be dealt with like criminals if they aren’t.
Black people, and other people who are aware of the data and history of policing, do have a strong reaction to police interactions with people of color when they seem to fit the common pattern of abuse of power by police — abuse that often goes unpunished.
As a citizen, I’m more concerned about the potential for ill created when people sworn to uphold the law do wrong than by individual acts of wrongdoing. Individuals are harmed in both cases, but in one, democracy itself is damaged. Killing in the public’s name is a big deal.
The crime rate in the area of Ferguson where Brown was killed is especially high. It’s an area of concentrated poverty and lack of opportunity that tends to foster crime. That said, most people in poor communities are no more inclined toward misbehavior or crime than anyone else, but anytime there are lots of jobless young men without prospects clustered together, some will go wrong. Young black men are more likely to be in those circumstances than young white men — more likely to live in concentrated poverty and to be unemployed.
East Coast tenements during periods of high immigration from Europe also experienced high rates of crime and violence.
It’s not caused by race, or cured by ignoring racial fault lines. Moving people into the economic and social mainstream changes the dynamic.
Black people can and do work toward those goals. But often, as in Ferguson, it is white people who make government policy, control businesses, shape education and administer justice — all of which affect whether and how mainstreaming happens for people at the economic and social margins.
Disparities between black and white Americans existed before you or I were born. We aren’t responsible for causing them, but I believe we are accountable for whether our actions reinforce or erode the differences.
Everywhere individual black people, with the support of other black people, make it out of poor communities, into colleges and into jobs of substance. But that process would be greatly increased with broader support that reduced bias (in hiring, school discipline, law enforcement, voting rights, etc.) and thereby promoted equality of opportunity.
The question I began with suggests black and white Americans ought not to be concerned with each other, ought not to claim each other. That is a sad place to be after centuries together.
American-on-American crime is a tragedy. Human-on-human crime is a tragedy. We can’t successfully address any of it by walling ourselves off from one another. The frustration in Ferguson is about more than a single incident, it’s a cry for justice and against walls built on race and class.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org