You’ve likely seen the titular question pop up whenever police brutality against African Americans is in the news. It’s the go-to clap-back, a painfully predictable response that sidesteps one major issue to exploit another. The claim is that African Americans minimize a more pervasive internal threat (violence within their communities) while magnifying a smaller, external one (police brutality, race targeting, sentence disparities et al.).
This narrative is not only entirely untrue, but it adheres to a mutual exclusivity that does not exist—at least not in the way it’s being asserted. The underlying thesis here is that if African American leaders were able to get the crime in their neighborhoods under control, police brutality would disappear, but the reverse has far more truth to it: If the systemic machinations that allow for inequality within law enforcement were dismantled, crime would decrease.
Inequality within the criminal justice system is one of the primary issues that feed into maintaining the cycle of poverty; it’s flat-out steroidal in its influence. And with poverty, comes crime. The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report in 2012 that found that individuals living at or below the poverty line had more than double the rate of violent victimization than those in high-income brackets. Moreover, as Michael Harriot mentioned in The Root, the same report found that the rate of violence among poor whites was actually slightly higher than that of poor blacks: 46.4 per 1,000 and 43.4 per 1,000 respectively. And these numbers extend to urban areas: blacks: 51.5 per 1,000, whites: 56.4 per 1,000.
Recent investigations by the DOJ into law enforcement agencies in Chicago and Baltimore found both departments (the 2nd and 23rd largest in the country) were guilty of rampant civil rights violations and quotidian discriminatory practices.
So when one compounds the decades of injustices blacks have experienced in criminal justice including the poor-plundering insanity of the current bail system, with the decades of loan discrimination, housing discrimination via redlining, and extreme inequality within education and employment, a picture begins to emerge—and it’s not a pretty one. Many of the issues surrounding race in this country are often pushed back onto the victims, and it’s certainly not a new occurrence. Historically, the people who have been in power in this country, most of whom have been white and male, have made a common practice of dehumanizing black people. They did/do this to excuse and validate their racist policies.
They frame racism and societal imbalances as reactions rather than causes.
High crime rates in certain inner cities is the result of generations of government-aided inequality; it’s a product that police brutality has reinforced. Furthermore, the notion that African Americans do not care about crime within their neighborhoods is absolutely ludicrous. It’s addressed constantly at the local level. Throughout the country, there are community centers, mentoring programs, and systems of support in place, even though the funding is quite scarce, and is set to decrease dramatically under Trump.
Unfortunately, even before Trump these programs rarely ever received the funds they needed to be widely successful, and they only garner national news attention when they are about to be eliminated.
But even if neighborhood violence wasn’t being addressed, that doesn’t, or rather shouldn’t, have any bearing on any stance taken against inequality in law enforcement.
Police brutality is wrong.
Race-targeting is wrong.
Race-based sentencing disparities are wrong.
The bail system’s exploitation of the poor is wrong.
Inadequate legal representation for the poor is wrong.
The “what about black-on-black crime” line is nothing new, it’s existed in various forms for centuries and it’s merely another tendril of white fragility. It follows the same trajectory of the rhetoric that has been used to demonize and oppress African Americans from slavery through Jim Crow and firmly into the era of mass incarceration.
Different words, same old meaning.
Written by Jesse Mechanic
Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.