Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and NFL stars Ray Lewis and Jim Brown struggle with whether being black is really an issue in discussions about violence.
It seems that people will continue riding the “black-on-black crime” train, and the wheels may never fall off of it. But if we can’t get rid of the tortured phrase, the least we can do is bring some clarity to why it’s used. That’s what legendary NFL Hall of Famer/movie star/social activist Jim Brown tried to do Wednesday during the Redefining Public Safety Summit in Newark, which was set up to address violence in marginalized communities. Brown told reporters at the event:
Either you have compassion for your community or you don’t. It’s not ‘black-on-black’ crime. It’s really people killing other people. I would hope you would not center your response around ‘black-on black.’
Brown said this while flanked by Ras Baraka, the Newark mayor who apparently surprised The New York Times by actually being an effective public servant, and former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis. Despite Brown’s comments, he participated in a panel discussion with Lewis and Baraka at the summit entitled “The Real Root Causes of the National Epidemic of Gangs/Black-on-Black Violence.”
The fact that Brown repudiated the named premise of the panel testifies to both how troubling and how ingrained this term is in the American lexicon. He had to further break the term down on the All in With Chris Hayes, where he and Baraka spoke on a segment entitled “What About Black-On-Black Crime?” Responding to Hayes’ question about the term, Brown said, “It isn’t that the people are black, it’s that there are certain people living in certain conditions, and if you don’t change those conditions, the people are not going to change.”
Those conditions needing change, as Brown explained to Hayes, are, that “If the jobs are not there, and you don’t emphasize the education, and the fathers are not there, and those of us like myself and the mayor don’t substitute, then what are the kids supposed to do?”
Baraka twice mentioned an “unresolved trauma” among black communities in his responses to Hayes’ questions about violence. It was a vague reference that he explained to some extent as “a cycle of violence initiated by poverty and five decades of unemployment.” You could tell, though, that there was more to this “unresolved trauma” diagnosis that Mayor Baraka couldn’t go into, but that perhaps a pre-elected official Baraka could.
That’s no shade— all politicians have to temper their personal discourse around third-rail issues. This perhaps goes especially for black politicians (or else certain Key and Peele sketches wouldn’t be so funny, and so enjoyably endorsed by President Obama).
It’s those often-buried issues of white privilege and white supremacy implicit in Baraka’s invocation of “unresolved trauma” that Black Lives Matter activists are trying to extract. And it’s that kind of digging from Black Lives Matter disruptors that is frustrating politicians, from members of Congress, like Bernie Sanders, to mayors, like D.C.’s Muriel Bowser.
Baraka would have been a front-and-center spokesman for the Black Lives Matter movement had it started before he took office. Few would argue that spirit is not still in him. The challenge he has now, as mayor, is converting that Black Lives Matter energy into local policies that illuminate the obfuscated trauma he speaks of in ways the city can rally around—and resolve it in the process.
Brown has been working at this challenge for decades, though never from an elected office. He convened a summit in Cleveland in 1967, which gathered sports greats like NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and boxer Muhammad Ali with community leaders to pursue solutions to urban violence.
At the Newark summit, Brown said that he was passing his social-activist torch to former NFL star Ray Lewis, who is credited with helping broker peace in Baltimore during the riots. (Though some might argue that Lewis was more of a scold than a change agent.)
Where was Ray Lewis' Baltimore riot critique in 2013 after the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII? Retirement riots are okay?— Anderson Campbell (@andycampbell) April 28, 2015
Lewis probably didn’t help himself in comments to the press from the summit. Like Brown, he also wanted to omit “black” from the discussion around urban violence, but for different reasons.
“Remove the word ‘Black’ and say ‘Lives Matter,'” said Lewis.
The New York Daily News reported Lewis saying, “I walk around, I see black-on-black lives. If black-on-black lives really matter, I'm sending a world call out to all black people: Stop killing each other then."
That probably won’t resonate well with the Black Lives Matter movement. And Lewis isn’t the only high-profile African American taking this position. Actress Nia Long recently caught a flurry of dissent when she invoked #AllLivesMatter on her Instagram page.
But as historian Michael Javen Fortner notes in his new book Black Silent Majority, there is a sizable black population that is moved by this kind of inward-looking troubleshooting. And they vote on Election Day—as do the protestors and disruptors—which is why Baraka stood by Lewis when he made the comments, but hasn’t shied away from Black Lives Matter, despite his perch.
As Baraka told NPR, “I think some people take offense to people saying ‘black lives matter.’ … It doesn't mean that you have no respect for other people's life. What it means is that you want black people to have justice in the community just like everybody else.”