Community Voices: Trayvon tragedy shows need for deracializing violence
When it comes to America’s racial past and present, lies and snake oil are sold in many colors.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, conservatives in media have sought to deflect from the racism and racial profiling that precipitated his untimely death by referencing the broader social malaise of supposed “black-on-black violence.”
On a recent episode of “This Week” on ABC, Washington Post Columnist George Will said that despite the Martin tragedy, “150 black men are killed every week in this country,” and “about 94 percent of them by other black men.”
Will parroted arguments made by many conservatives, his intended point being that black-on-black crime remains the real problem our nation should address. The half-truth he spoke went curiously unchallenged by the panel – including former White House adviser Van Jones – largely because the meta-narrative of black-on-black violence is widely accepted in journalistic and political circles.
Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host and one-man propaganda machine, recently interviewed Columbia University Professor Marc Lamont Hill to discuss similar claims from Wall Street Journal Contributor Shelby Steele, who wrote in “The Exploitation of Trayvon Martin” that “black teenagers are afraid of other black teenagers, not whites.” O’Reilly vehemently defended Steele’s premise that the Martin case is an anomaly.
“Blacks today are nine times more likely to be killed by other blacks than by whites,” Steele wrote. He went on to attack the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for “exploiting” Martin’s death in an effort to promote a “liberal” agenda — a point that O’Reilly was all too happy to expound.
Steele’s perspective, though myopic and misguided, remains pervasive and embedded in the broader social consciousness. This red-herring approach is not new. But in the face of Martin’s death, these obstructive tactics require an equal and opposite response.
What Will, Steele and O’Reilly failed to mention is the exacting truth that white Americans are just as likely to be killed by other whites. According to Justice Department statistics, 84 percent of white people killed every year are killed by other whites.
In fact, all races share similar ratios. Yet there’s no outrage or racialized debate about white-on-white violence. Instead, the myth and associated fear of black-on-black crime is sold as a legitimate, mainstream descriptive and becomes American status quo.
The truth? As the largest racial group, whites commit the majority of crimes in America. In particular, whites are responsible for the vast majority of violent crimes. With respect to aggravated assault, whites lead blacks 2-1 in arrests; in forcible-rape cases, whites lead all racial and ethnic groups by more than 2-1. And in larceny theft, whites lead blacks, again, more than 2-1.
Given this mathematical truth, would anyone encourage African Americans to begin shooting suspicious white males in their neighborhoods for fear that they’ll be raped, assaulted or murdered? Perhaps George Zimmerman’s defenders should answer that question. If African Americans were to act as irrationally as Zimmerman did, would any rationale suffice to avoid arrest?
And why is no consideration given to the fact that Martin, and millions of black boys and girls like him, harbor a reasonably founded fear of whites but are hardly ever provided the deference and dignity that victimhood affords?
The term “black-on-black crime” is a destructive, racialized colloquialism that perpetuates an idea that blacks are somehow more prone to violence. This is untrue and fully verifiable by FBI, Department of Justice and census data. Yet the fallacy is so fixed that even African Americans have come to believe it.
In Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” she explains that the term was coined in the 1980s as American cities underwent transformation as a result of riots, white flight and the onslaught of the drug trade.
David Wilson, a professor at the University of Illinois, documents the phenomena in “Inventing Black-on-Black Violence.” Wilson says that instead of attributing increased crime activity to poverty, inequality and disenfranchisement, the media chose to blame “a supposedly defective, aberrant black culture.”
In a 2010 piece published by The Root, “The Myth of Black-on-Black Violence,” Natalie Hopkinson opines that journalists should follow the direction of the United Kingdom, where the Guardian newspaper banned the use of the phrase. A Guardian stylebook asked authors to “imagine the police saying they were investigating an incident of white-on-white violence.”
Hopkinson concludes, “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.”
Martin’s tragic death reveals the worst ills at play within America’s criminal-justice system. Not only was he murdered in large part because of dangerous, persistent stereotypes, but the failure of police to judiciously respond to the crime underscores the inequities that characterize institutionalized racism.
Those who respond to the tragedy by retreating to narratives of black-on-black crime seek to promote it as a defense against an innocent child’s violent homicide. This reveals how entrenched the lies have become and how eager too many people are to absolve both Zimmerman’s guilt and their own tacit consent.
African-American media and policymakers have been equally complicit in promoting a black-on-black crime anecdote, thinking that it could help address some of the community’s problems. But what it has actually done is provide support for racial profiling and promote the disproportionate policing of black criminality as “legitimate” and “acceptable.” This over-policing has led to disproportionately higher rates of arrests in black communities, reinforcing the idea that blacks commit more crimes.
If we were to talk about white-on-white crime, then at least we’d be addressing issues like gun violence in a racially neutral way. That doesn’t happen because too many Americans remain convinced that black or brown people are the problem. Respected journalists like Will further perpetuate lies as fact when they make blanket statements that support an ill-conceived narrative.
It seems that the media in general, and white American society in particular, prefer to focus on crime perpetrated by African Americans because it serves as a way to absolve them from the violence, prejudice and institutionalized discrimination engendered for generations against blacks. It offers a buffer against responsibility, a way to shift blame and deflect cause and effect. But the truth and numbers tell a different story.
The myth of black-on-black violence has become a stain on the sociopolitical consciousness and indelibly imbues mindsets as well as public policy. At the heart of an increasingly violent society is not a subculture among blacks but the violence and criminality of many Americans, and whites in particular.
No one seems to speak about this. Why? Because the snake oil was duly purchased and consumed. It is time for race-based pseudo-facts to be challenged and dismantled.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist and political analyst for MSNBC and a former investment banker. This commentary initially appeared on “The Root.”