Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Last month, Tory Lowe walked from Milwaukee to Chicago to address ‘black-on-black’ crime, extending the mileage on this tortured phrase.
Last month, Milwaukee activist Tory Lowe walked from his local government’s city hall to Chicago’s city hall in protest of the rising homicide rates we all keep reading about. Whether such upticks are a disturbing trend or an anomaly in the larger scheme of things, communities are seeking answers for how to live with increased violence today. Last week, Chicago suffered its deadliest day in 12 years when eight people were shot, each of them in different districts across the city. It’s stories like this that ignited Lowe’s “Stop the Violence Walk for Peace,” which took him five days to complete.
Lowe is a familiar face at anti-violence vigils and rallies around Milwaukee, but is mostly unaffiliated with any major organization doing work in this arena. Speaking about his walk to Chicago with the Urban News Service, Lowe said, “We don’t pay enough attention to black-on-black crime, so I walked to find solutions to these senseless acts of violence.”
The phrase “black-on-black crime” is a troubling, and rather hackneyed term. Given that Lowe used it when speaking with Urban News Service, which caters to black news outlets, it could be that he was using it with his “inside voice”—conveying concerns in terms that resonate within black communities. Still, Lowe’s “black-on-black crime” justification arrives at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to direct attention to the wider systemic practices that result in violence against people of color. That movement is already getting cast by conservatives as a “hate group,” and by others as a network that’s working against liberal would-be allies.
Most distressingly, language like “black-on-black crime,” which suggests these problems are purely of African-Americans’ own making, could undercut the agenda to reform flawed urban policies. A recent Rasmussen poll of 1,000 adults found that 78 percent of all voters preferred the term “all lives matter” over “black lives matter”—as did 64 percent of black voters polled. Rasmussen also reported this year, however, that a slight majority of African Americans polled (56 percent) viewed police discrimination as a bigger problem than “inner-city crime”— at odds with 78 percent of white voters and 54 percent of “other minority voters” who saw “inner-city crime” as the bigger problem. Terms like “black-on-black crime,” which have been around since at least the 1970s, often let police and policymakers off the hook in these discussions.
Lowe isn’t trying to let anyone off the hook, though. Definitely not the police. When I ask him about recent efforts to beef up police presence as a way of mitigating violent crime, he laughs.
”No, I don’t believe more policing is the answer,” says Lowe. When poor white communities were engulfed in violence and crime in the early 20th century, white society had “empathy for their own people and began creating educational opportunities and jobs for those people,” notes Lowe. “Now it’s happening with black people, and you don’t feel the same empathy for black people. Instead, you throw them in prison.”
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture director and scholar Khalil Gibran Muhammad explores America’s history of empathy with white crime in his 2011 book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America. Here, Muhammad points to the research of late-19th-century researcher Frederick L. Hoffman, whose widely influential 1896 book Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro concluded that the high mortality rates among African Americans had to do with their “inferior constitution” and “gross immorality.” Writing about white mortality rates among European immigrants in U.S. cities, though, Hoffman contextualized it as a failure of government. Writes Muhammad:
Hoffman interpreted whites’ self-destructive behavior as a consequence of a diseased society, not of a “diseased manhood and womanhood.” White criminality was a response to economic inequality rather than a response to a “race proclivity.” On the white side of the color line, it would take nothing short of “emergency measures’ to save modern civilization from itself.
Hoffman’s emergent advocacy was bidirectional. On the one hand, he interpreted the data on black mortality as a race problem, a call to do nothing. On the other hand, he interpreted the data on white mortality as a social problem, a call to do everything possible—to “leave nothing undone.”
This bidirectional advocacy in many ways reflects the nation’s handling of the recent uptick in heroin abuse, seen most vividly these days among white suburban residents, compared with how the nation handled crack abuse in black communities in the 1980s.
Announcing a $10 billion federal program to treat the new heroin crisis, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton recently wrote in an op-ed, “Plain and simple, drug and alcohol addiction is a disease, not a moral failing—and we must treat it as such. It’s time we recognize that there are gaps in our health care system that allow too many to go without care—and invest in treatment.”
When her husband Bill Clinton was president, the federal government addressed drug and alcohol addiction by investing in prisons, decimating millions of already unstable black families in the process.
Lowe is well aware of this. During our talk, he brings up that Wisconsin was labeled the worst state in America for a black person to live, and he knows that black people didn’t make it that way on their own. He says that during his walk, as he passed through various cities, he noticed that the difference between white and black communities was that the latter were “filled with concentrated poverty.” He also says that, when attending city hall meetings in Milwaukee and Chicago, that he noticed that the people who controlled the “funding for urban poverty,” such as community-development block grants, were “not black people.”
Asked why he framed his work in “black-on-black crime” language while identifying problems as not black-controlled, he said, “It’s both. … When you have concentrated poverty with no jobs and poor education, and these young men look at [music] videos and want to have cars and girls, then [guns] become tools for hunting to get what they want. It’s because they’re in environments that are starved out, and so those [guns] become means to survive, so they’re committing crimes. It’s systemic as well as ignorance, too.”
In Lowe’s three-year plan to cut violence in black communities he lists “creating activities for our youth” and “overcome systematic barriers.” But he also lists “better parenting,” a prognosis that’s usually lumped in with the “black people are their own problem” category. From our talk, though, it was clear that his focus, and what he learned from his walk, was on the systemic problems.
“That’s all part of violence,” says Lowe. “Violence is the neglect of funding and resources whether for employment or education.”