Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The problem with "black on black crime"


Remember Rudy Giuliani? He decided to share some of his thoughts on the recent discussions of racial politics and violence regarding events in Ferguson:
The fact is that I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We are talking about the significant exception here [in the Brown case]. I'd like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this.
I think Giuliani is wrong here, though I think people often do a bad job of explaining why he is wrong. For example, the incomparable Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in response to Giuliani:
It's almost as if killers tend to murder people who live near them. Moreover, it seems that people actually hold officers operating under the color of law to a different standard.
The first point is of course completely apt, and as the Washington Post acknowledges, most murder is intra-racial. But that doesn't really weaken the force of Giuliani's critique; his point is that, if you want to prevent black people from getting murdered, it's best to protect them from black murderers. The claim that the best way to protect white people is to protect them from white murderers doesn't change this claim. (Of course, neither of these is actually a strategy, but a general point about the focus such strategies ought to have).

The second point might be true, that we ought to hold police officers to a higher moral standard, but I'm not sure it actually gets to the root of the problem with Giuliani's argument. Because even if a certain act is more morally objectionable, if another act or group of acts is in effect more costly, it is prudent and wise to concern ourselves with the costly acts rather than the more objectionable acts. 

Let me explain this with an example. Suppose it's a bad thing to litter in the park. Some people, who are really evil, might throw away their batteries on the park because they like doing bad things. Suppose this is more objectionable than somebody who just litters because they are careless, or they don't realize the harm that it does. If the vast majority of the litter in the park is done by careless litterers, and our goal is to protect and support the value of the park, it makes the most sense to focus our efforts on reducing the careless litter, rather than the minimal litter of the really bad actors.

In fact, we might see campaigns decrying the evil litterers, while ignoring the much more numerous casual litterers, as a kind of moral fetishism, an overemphasis on blameworthiness that actually distracts us from what is really most important: protecting the park. This, I think, is the claim that Giuliani (and so many others) are making when they bring up "black on black crime".

Although the structure of the claim is, on my view, valid, it misses out on some important details.* First, Giuliani is just mistaken that no one talks about crime within African American communities. Those discussion happen all the time but (1) many white people just don't care enough to listen and (2) these discussions happen within black communities that, unsurprisingly, do not include many white people. Discussions about police brutality and interracial violence will involve the whole country, so these will be the conversation that conservatives of Giuliani's disposition pay attention to, but that doesn't mean that other conversations aren't also going on.

And, perhaps more importantly, the problem of white supremacy and racial oppression is the context in which intra-racial violence among African American communities arises. As Coates has discussed at length, this is system of oppression has deep effects today. One of the effects, for instance, of a distrust of the (mostly white) police is that disagreements are handled with force and violence is allowed to escalate. And the general disadvantage that black people face in our society foments the ingredients of conflict.

The redirection to "black on black crime" is an attempt to obscure this, and hide the fact that any societal structures play a role in the oppression of communities and the perpetuation of violence. There are several motivations for this obfuscation, some of which I have discussed previously

But it's more pernicious than just obfuscation, because underlying this argument is the assumption that either black people or "black culture" is somehow deeply troubled and flawed. The conservative response to this is to prescribe blanket moral condemnation: "Fix your culture", "fix your community", "where are the fathers?". Instead, we might think that there are deep socioeconomic and broader cultural effects in play, within a nation whose history includes a legacy of racial animus. Thinking that violence is just a "black people problem" trivializes this history and is thoroughly patronizing.

It might seem here that I'm just turning from blaming one culture to another. To some extent that's true, though I'm much less interested in the moral condemnation of individuals here and more interested in understanding the dynamics of power and oppression that structure society. And while it is a racist fantasy to imagine that somehow African Americans just have an inferior culture and simply need to better themselves, it is uncontroversial that our society is the product of doctrines of white supremacy and cultural superiority.

The broader argument of Coates' piece (linked to above) is a bit strange. He makes an interesting analogy to the problem of "American on American" crime, which is far more common than crime from muslim terrorists. Yet so much more of our national conversation (and budget) exists around addressing the much smaller problem of Muslim terrorists. This analogy is meant to show that the Giuliani and similarly minded conservatives are hypocritical, and that the "black on black crime" argument reveals racial bias, because they don't make the connection to American-on-American crime.

It's an interesting point, but I think it cuts the wrong way for Coates. His brief discussion about American crime vs. Muslim terrorist crime is actually compelling. We do worry more as a country about terrorist attacks than we do about, say, gun control, which is plausibly to our detriment. So the suggestion would be that if conservatives are to revise their hypocritical views, the should worry more about American on American crime (which, in fact, conservatives do talk about a fair amount, though not in that language), not that their dismissal of police brutality and white supremacy is misguided.

For the reasons I've given above, I think this dismissal is misguided. But Coates, to whom I am intellectually indebted for much of my thinking on this topic, neglects these points in this post, with problematic results.

*Both of these point have been discussed by Coates previously, to who has greatly helped to clarify my thoughts on the matter. I don't mean to make any general critique of Coates here, who is exceptionally thoughtful on these topics--I simply mean to critique the brief argument I quoted above, which many have employed, but is in my view too flippant.

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