Trayvon Martin, Blackness, and America's Fear of Crime
I’ve written here, and elsewhere, that “black-on-black crime” as a specific phenomena isn’t a thing. Yes, the vast majority of crimes against African Americans are committed by other African Americans, and yes, black men face a higher murder rate than any other group in the country. But those facts are easily explained by residential segregation and proximity—people commit crimes against those closest to them—and the particular circumstances of many black communities, which are marred by concentrated poverty and nonexistent economic opportunities.
“But what’s the big deal?”, you might ask. “Why can’t we use ‘black-on-black crime’ as a shorthand for these particular problems?” The answer isn’t difficult. Violent crime in hyper-segregated neighborhoods doesn’t happen because the residents are black. Their race isn’t incidental—the whole reason these neighborhoods exist is racial policymaking by white lawmakers—but there is nothing about blackness that makes violence more likely. Focusing on the “black” part of the equation takes this violence out of the realm of policy, and into the world of cultural ills. “Black-on-black crime” describes a pathology—a social abnormality—that can’t be fixed by political action. “Those people are just that way,” and as such, we should leave them to their devices, and defend ourselves if necessary.
Indeed, if criminality is inherent to African Americans, then it doesn’t matter who you’re defending yourself against. At any and all times, you’re stopping someone who is, or could become, a criminal. It’s how you get policymakers like Michael Bloomberg and policies like “stop and frisk,” which says, in effect, that if you are black and male, New York City is justified in treating you as a potential offender.
Now, you could try—as Richard Cohen attempts in the Washington Post—to put limits on this suspicion. We only have to worry about urban African Americans, he argues. They are the criminal threat:
I’m tired of politicians and others who have donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist. The hoodie blinds them as much as it did Zimmerman.
But stereotype creep is inevitable, and within a few paragraphs, “urban crime” becomes “crime,” hoodies are the universal uniform of “thugs”, and all black men become justified suspects of either the law, or interested citizens:
Where is the politician who will own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males?
Again, when black pathology is your frame for understanding crime, any decision to pursue black men is justified, because by definition they are suspects. It’s why Cohen doesn’t have a problem with George Zimmerman’s fateful decision to stop and follow Trayvon Martin. It doesn’t matter that Sanford, Florida is a small town, or that the two were in a gated community—the only important variable, for Cohen, is Martin’s blackness.
American life is already defined by a steady fear of black men. The Monkey Cage, for instance, highlights a study that finds a plurality—40 percent—of white Americans who say that “many or almost all black men were violent,” compared to the less than 20 percent who said the same of black women and white men. The focus on “black-on-black crime” intensifies that, while ignoring the extent to which the things that drive black crime rates–including the hugely disproportionate share of murders committed by African Americans—aren’t particular to blackness.
Of course, if we were to acknowledge that African American crimes rates aren’t just a case of black people being black, then we would have to do something about it. And, in general, white Americans aren’t fond of devoting national resources to fixing racial problems.
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