AP/Keith Srakocic

How the term got hijacked, politically loaded, and calcified into America’s racial consciousness.

The phrase “black-on-black crime” gets tossed around so cavalierly these days that it can be hard to ascertain the intention behind it—no matter who says it.

When President Obama uses it, it may take on the tone of solidarity, especially when he’s speaking at a black church or HBCU. But thanks to social media, his voice carries. The words get copied and pasted into less-generous agendas, sans the care of the original context.

Some conservatives use it as a retort to—or a deflation tool for—“Black Lives Matter” narratives aimed at shining a light on the police killings of African Americans. Meanwhile, residents of black communities also use it, as they have for decades, to express concerns about safety in their neighborhoods. The African Americans in this latter group are often employing their “inside voices” when invoking the “black-on-black” issue—meaning within safe, black discourse spaces, and usually as a way of stirring black community.

How can one term shape-shift so abruptly and easily? Because it is a myth.

Many writers, notably Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Natalie Hopkinson for The Root, have done a tremendous service exposing the term as such. They correctly point out that what’s referred to as “black-on-black violence” is really a by-product of residential segregation and concentrated poverty: Black homicide offenders don’t kill people because they have dark skin, like a Klan member would. This may seem obvious, and yet the myth of black-on-black crime persists.

Clearly, though, there's more work to be done on the use of this highly charged phrase. Understanding the term’s origins helps further explain why it is so stubbornly entrenched in the public lexicon.

In December of 1970, Chicago Daily Defender columnist Warner Saunders wrote about getting invited to speak at a seminar on black-on-black crime. To prep for the talk, he caught up with a neighborhood hustler named “Fast Willie” and asked him why he “robbed and beat up black people who are brothers.” Willie’s response was an early indication of what we need to know about the supposed “black-on-black” phenomenon:

We go where the business is and where the man ain’t looking. Can you see me going up to Deerfield, black as I am, trying to stick up? The man would be on me so fast I couldn’t get a chewing gum wrapper. Out here the man is too busy whooping them Panthers and giving tickets to mess with me. Any way, he don’t care if niggers get ripped off. But you can bet he’s watching his ‘thang’ back in his own ‘hood.’

Deerfield is a north Chicago neighborhood that’s historically been predominantly white, and is 96 percent white today. The rest of Willie’s testimony is self-explanatory: He commits crimes against other African Americans because that’s who lives around him—and that’s what police will let him get away with.

Jesse Jackson also saw things playing out this way, and in that year rebuked white government officials and mainstream media for “their silence and ineffectiveness in dealing with the present black-on-black crime crisis,” while applauding the Chicago Daily Defender for its “courageous challenge of black-on-black crime.”

Jackson was complaining to local and state officials that the criminal justice system had been punishing black criminal suspects more harshly when their victims were white as opposed to when the victims were black. Pointing to the “killing of more than 70 black youths” that year, Jackson was illuminating a paradox that remains with us today: That black neighborhoods are often simultaneously underpoliced and overpoliced, with black victims of violence less likely to receive justice, as Mother Jones’ Edwin Rios and The Nation’s Kai Wright recently reported.   

Cook County criminal court judge Saul A. Epton attempted to dispel this perception in 1971, when he gave two black men the same sentence of 100 to 150 years in jail after each was convicted of murder—one for killing a white person, the other for killing a black person. Epton said at the time he did this to address “a fiction in the black community that the sentence will be less when a black person kills a black person than when a black person kills a white person.”

Those sentencings were reported in the mainstream daily Chicago Tribune newspaper, where the conversation around black-on-black crime had officially entered into the realm of white readership. And it was quickly expanding. In 1972, the African-American psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint, later known for his consultancy on The Cosby Show, tackled the issue in one of his first books, Why Blacks Kill Blacks, which included an introduction from Jesse Jackson.

Soon after, the tone of the conversation began to shift, from black writers chastising white officials for neglecting black victims of crime in black neighborhoods, to direct chastising of black communities themselves. Check out this editorial in the November 1973 issue of the African-American magazine Ebony, which declared that “The black criminal must be told in no uncertain terms that his assaults and his thievery and his dope-pushing and his murders will no longer be suffered in silence.”

Ebony magazine editorial, November 1973

African Americans and black neighborhoods had been robbed and plundered by white landlords and real-estate developers for decades before this point, especially in Chicago (see years of writing by The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates and Beryl Satter’s 2010 book Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black America). These conditions certainly set the stage for the “black-on-black crime” that Ebony and The Defender bemoaned. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the term began appearing right when white flight was in full bloom in cities like Chicago. Of course there was black-on-black crime: Black people were mostly those left behind in these cities.

Still, the burgeoning African-American middle class was wrestling with how to address the growing crime problems in their segregated communities. The NAACP passed a resolution on “black-on-black crime” in 1980, stating that it was “opposed to the perpetration of criminal activity regardless of who commits the crime.” While it acknowledged that “said crime may be the result of frustrations caused by high unemployment, poor academic training, and inadequate housing,” it still resolved that police and courts needed to “recognize that crimes committed by blacks—against blacks—are as unlawful, are as humanly devastating, and are as undesirable in our black communities as crimes committed by blacks upon whites, or any group.”

David Wilson, a geography professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that this early 1980s period is when the term “black-on-black crime” really began sticking to the public consciousness. As he explains in his 2005 book Inventing Black-On-Black Violence, the Chicago Tribune ran a multi-part news report that framed urban violence squarely as a problem borne of black youth. Black-on-black crime became an “effective vehicle for the rise of Reaganism,” Wilson tells CityLab.

”The term fit very well for that time period because it pointed to urban African Americans as being responsible for their own problems,” says Wilson. “There was no reason to racialize this. It could have been framed as economic or societal-driven crime—why not call it ‘oppressed youth-on-oppressed youth’ crime, or ‘the disenfranchised-on-disenfranchised’ crime?”

Some black organizations were careful to couch their stances in recognition of structural racism and poverty as contributing factors to rising crime. But as tough-love as the NAACP’s resolution was, it wasn’t much different than the words of the rapper Tupac Shakur, who once said in the early 1990s:

The same crime element that white people are scared of, black people are scared of. … So, while waiting for legislation to pass, and everything, we next door to the killer. We next door to him ‘cause we up in the projects with 80 niggas in a building. … Just ‘cause we’re black, we get along with the killers or something? We get along with the rapists ‘cause we black and we from the same hood? What is that? We need protection, too.

You can read in Shakur’s statement the unresolved tension of wanting to feel safe in one’s own community without black people, themselves, becoming branded as pathogens for crime and disorder. But right-wingers seized upon the worst part of the myth to justify the “war on drugs” and other tough-on-crime policies that proliferated through the 1990s. Another Fast Willie named Bill Clinton used such sentiments as cover to co-sign on policies that drove incarceration rates of African Americans through the roof.

Is this what Jesse Jackson was asking for when he appealed to government officials to intervene in 1970? Likely not, but Wilson believes that many well-intentioned black people like Jackson “fell into a trap” when they introduced “black-on-black crime” to the existing powers, which led to “a calcifying of the term in the American common consciousness.”

The term ended up contributing to the mass incarceration of African Americans, says Wilson, “because it helped normalize the notion that the ways and cultures of urban black youth are responsible for crime,” while “minimizing the structural problems that America created” that led to the crime in the first place.

While the words “black-on-black crime” may have first appeared in print in the 1970s and in policy in the 1990s, the sentiments behind the phrase were expressed long before that. In Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s 2010 book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, he finds that these notions were first raised in the late 19th century. This is when white scientists began manipulating data around arrests and imprisonment to equate blackness with criminality. This was done as something of a warning signal about African Americans moving to northern cities from the South. Writes Muhammad:

At the dawn of the twentieth century, in a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and demographically shifting America, blackness was refashioned through crime statistics. …

Northern black crime statistics and migration trends in the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s were woven together into a cautionary tale about the exceptional threat black people posed to modern society. In the Windy City, in the City of Brotherly Love, and in the nation’s Capital of Commerce this tale was told, infused with symbolic references to American civilization, to American modernity, and to the fictive promised land of unending opportunity for all who, regardless of race or class or nationality, sought their fortunes.

Black social scientists, and some white ones, tried fighting off these characterizations during this era, yet the notion that black = criminal prevailed—to the point where even some distinguished African-American thinkers began subtly adopting it.  

Take this quote from the 1930s:

The failure of large cities to provide adequate bathing and recreational facilities has placed upon us the burden of protecting our property from roving trespassers whose ignorance or lack of self respect permits them uninvited to impose upon residents who bought their homes for the benefit of their own families and friends.

Those words are from Frederick Douglass’s grandson Haley Douglass, who was developing a beachfront oasis, of sorts, in coastal Maryland for elite African Americans seeking refuge from what they considered the criminal element of black folks.

Likewise, these words:

Where as a colored person can I go? If I go among white people, how much rest is there going to be under real or fancied or non-existent but anticipated discrimination? If I go among colored people, what kind of colored people are they going to be? Am I going to meet educated and well-bred folk, or am I going to run into gamblers and makers of eternal whoopee?

That’s from W.E.B. DuBois, in a 1937 op-ed in The Pittsburgh Courier.

”That anxiety about order and respectability within the black community has analogues across time,” Muhammad tells CityLab. “The internal debate about good guys and bad guys or respectable people and criminals is deeply historical and deeply American.”

However, says Muhammad, “We cannot understand the origin of urban segregation without understanding that policy decisions and urban practices were driven directly by this idea of black people as criminals,” during this time period.

That idea continued to cement as African-American migration increased throughout the 20th century, though. Given that black migrants arrived in northern cities preordained as innately criminal, this helped fuel the white flight that, by the 1970s, created the segregated city conditions that drove Jesse Jackson, Ebony, and others to demand that policymakers intervene. In that respect, “black-on-black crime” was for America a self-sealing premise.

Poverty doesn’t entirely explain why more African Americans have been hard pressed to improve their lots in life. As this 2011 Brown University American Communities Survey report notes:

The low incomes of blacks are not the main source of either residential segregation or disparities in the resources of the neighborhoods where they live. A central new finding is that blacks’ neighborhoods are separate and unequal not because blacks cannot afford homes in better neighborhoods, but because even when they achieve higher incomes they are unable to translate these into residential mobility.

African Americans have literally been trapped in segregation and seclusion for generations, which provides the appropriate context for what media and policymakers refer to as “black-on-black crime.” As The Nation’s Gary Younge wrote, “A more honest term than ‘black-on-black crime’ would be, simply, ‘crime.’”

Despite so many misapplications of the term, it refuses to go away, like a tattoo of a misspelled name. Just recently, the National Institute of Justice and Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety released a report urging the media to stop using the term. Their reasoning sent a mixed message, though:

The term “black-on-black” violence, while statistically correct, is a simplistic and emotionally charged definition of urban violence that can be problematic when used by political commentators, politicians, and police executives.

It is only statistically correct to the extent that racial segregation in America is statistically correct. And yet the word “segregation” doesn’t appear once in the 24-page report.

To its credit, the policing and public safety committee at least acknowledges in its report some of the nuances of city-level violence that aren’t colored by race, emphasizing that “Research has consistently documented that violence driven by conflicts within and among gangs, drug-selling crews and other criminally active groups generate the bulk of urban homicide problems,” and that such groups generally constitute very small percentages of a city’s population. Just 1 percent of Boston’s 14-to-24-year-old population were members of street gangs involved in gun violence in 2006, according to the report.

So, while “black-on-black violence” is not the correct name of the problem, violence within segregated black communities is. This is exactly the kind of nuance that people like Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter activist network, has been trying to address. Contrary to most readings, Black Lives Matter is not just about police killings of African Americans. As Cullors told the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s black press service:

There’s lots of Black people, for the last 40 years, who have been figuring [out] how do we deal with harm inside of our communities. …But our conversation—it looks like an internal conversation—is about what do we do to take care of ourselves? Where are the spaces that we fight for our communities to have what they need so we don’t harm each other? ‘Black Lives Matter’ means a new way of fighting for freedom.

That internal conversation is perhaps the safest space to discuss crime and violence happening in black communities without it turning into policies that end up further destabilizing and devastating their environments. But, as Muhammad puts it, “It is hard to disentangle the relationship between our policy drivers and certain attitudes within the black community.”

Understanding the origins of some of these commonly held ideas around race and criminality just might help straighten some of these matters out.

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