The circumstances surrounding this feigned interest are highly predictable. Another police officer or neighborhood vigilante shoots another black guy for jaywalking, seeking assistance after being involved in an accident, picking up a toy gun in a Wal-Mart, selling loose cigarettes on the street, playing his music too loud in a convenience store parking lot, or otherwise just being scary and in public. The thinking public responds with bewilderment at what appears to be another case of young black people being treated like less than human. Our right-wing troll then chimes in - "If you care so much about black people killed by guns, why don't you care about black-on-black crime?"
In Chicago, they'll remind us, a black kid is much more likely to be killed by another black person. The sheer numbers mean that our interest in the police murder of another black kid is misplaced. Our time would be better spent focusing on fixing the black pathology that leads to black people killing black people.
So let's dance. Let's discuss the nastiness that is black-on-black crime.
The claim that "we," the liberal, race-conscious element of the public, do not "care" about black crime victims is an obvious strawman with no basis in fact.
Perhaps more important, however, is an analysis of just what black-on-black crime is, what it represents, and how it relates to those increasingly not-rare instances when black people are gunned down by the authority figures who are sworn to protect them. Crime, it seems, is one of the many issues where people have intense interest but no real knowledge. Most people are far more willing to engage in a conversation about crime than they are to engage in the study of what's behind crime. From this we get the overly simplistic and unhelpful idea that crime reflects only personal defect rather than systematic environmental conditions.
Black-on-black crime could and should be called by another name - Crime. That is, black-on-black crime is, in almost every tangible sense, emblematic of all crime that takes place within a given society, and especially within American society.
Though popular television shows depict the psychotic murderer or plunderous burglar who victimizes a total stranger, actual crime plays out in a very different manner almost every time. Simply put - for almost every category of crime, you're more likely to be victimized by someone you know. If you have a two-year old daughter, she's some multitude of times more likely to be injured or raped by someone you've invited into your home than by a total stranger. You are more likely to be assaulted by someone you know than by someone you don't.
Crime, it seems, happens among people who live in close proximity. Because white folks just can't seem to stand living in neighborhoods suddenly populated by black people - the so-called "white flight" effect - America is very much segregated in this regard. When black people live with their kind and white people do the same, crime will tend to be intra-racial.
This is not particularly new. A 1985 study published in Crime and Delinquency found that of violent crime victims nationwide, 77-percent of white victims were victimized by white people. The study found that the same percentage of black victims were victimized by black people.
When you talk about black-on-black crime, and about "fixing" it, what you're really talking about is something much more complex. You're talking about the age-old question of stopping crime itself.
But what do we know about crime? Opinions vary on what causes crime, and it's unlikely that any one factor can be singled out. Still, international studies on crime have suggested that overall inequality in a society is an excellent proxy for high crime rates. This is not to say that poverty in the abstract begets crime. It is to say that poverty in a society with great wealth creates the conditions that promote crime.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's 2009 book The Spirit Level reviewed hundreds of studies before concluding, quite definitively, that crime rates correlate to income inequality levels. In those societies where there are major differences in economic starting points and outcomes, crime is much more prevalent. Of course, it's worth noting that correlation does not equal causation, and those societies that have low income inequality are also nations that have a tendency to invest in things like mental health services and drug rehabilitation. They're also more likely to have prisons that focus more on turning offenders into law abiding citizens, as opposed to American prisons, which tend to turn non-violent offenders into career criminals. Even with those limitations noted, there are legitimate reasons why income inequality will almost always track well with crime rates.
In societies where people are highly unequal, there exists a hope deficit. Would any honest person be comfortable walking into a low income neighborhood in a place like Ferguson, Missouri and telling the young black kids there that if they play by the rules, they're likely to rise up the ranks to the American middle class? It's a nice idea, of course, but it's becoming American fiction more and more.
The Brookings Institute lays out the macro-level data on black economic mobility. Even in a country where poor white children have a very difficult time rising the economic ranks, poor black children are significantly less likely than them to achieve any form of economic success. The situation isn't much better for children born into the middle class, as the hold of black families on that "American Dream" seems to be tenuous.
-More than one third (37 percent) of white children born to parents in the middle income group move up to the fourth or fifth quintile, compared to only 17 percent of black children whose parents have approximately the same levels of income.It's certainly true that a small percentage of black kids in poor neighborhoods play by the rules and climb the social and economic ladder. However, the overall trends are reflective of an opportunity gap. Don't think that this reality is lost on kids in these neighborhoods. While the average ten-year old in a tough urban environment might not be able to quote the stats according to Brookings, he knows all-too-well the outcomes of the older black men in his community. And if you tried to lie to him by suggesting that his prospects were rainbows and unicorns, he'd be right to laugh you out of the building.
-Startlingly, almost half (45 percent) of black children whose parents were solidly middle class end up falling to the bottom of the income distribution, compared to only 16 percent of white children. Achieving middle-income status does not appear to protect black children from future economic adversity the same way it protects white children.
-Black children from poor families have poorer prospects than white children from such families. More than half (54 percent) of black children born to parents in the bottom quintile stay in the bottom, compared to 31 percent of white children.
The worst thing a society can do is create a class of people without hope. Economic inequality does just that, reinforcing the notion that some are worth more than others. As a middle class white guy, I was reasonably sure that if I worked hard enough and got a couple of decent bounces, I would find economic success. Crime wasn't on my radar, but it's because I generally believed that the law respected me.
When a person grows up in a social order where his outcome might well be dictated for him regardless of how hard he tries, why would he respect the rule of law in that arrangement? Society has failed in some respects to give these individuals anything to lose. One of the strongest crime deterrents is the opportunity cost of committing that crime. A young, middle class white kid will know that by committing a crime, he's giving up the chance to go to college. He's giving up the opportunity to hold down a professional career where licensure requires a clean record. Those are some of the fabrics that bind people to the law in a reciprocal relationship. The law respects their ability, their humanity, and their worth. It says to them that their efforts will be rewarded. What we're experiencing is a fraying of those social fabrics in low-income communities. Crime, at least in some respects, is a conditioned response to a social arrangement where outcomes are largely dictated for most of the residents in the first place.
Wilkinson also cited a 2004 study demonstrating that the implicit social judgments made upon the poor in an unequal society can have tangible effects on health. Rising cortisol levels, fueled by the exclusionary nature of an income-unequal society, can lead to impaired learning and memory loss, further exacerbating problems already felt in poor communities. These problems are made even worse by the lack of available healthcare in poor communities. It's a vicious cycle where the poor are made poorer and unhealthier by the very nature of their poverty and bad health.
How does this all relate to Mike Brown and the situation on the ground in Ferguson? And how does it relate to black-on-black crime?
The research tells us that more crime will tend to take place in those societies with higher income inequality, and that crime will tend to be concentrated in the parts of that society that have, in essence, been thrown away. Black-on-black crime, then, becomes a symptom of the same insidious disease that contributed to Mike Brown's slaughter.
Mike Brown was murdered for, among other reasons, the fundamental truth that much of America simply does not highly value the lives of young black people. Darren Wilson might have acted alone, but he acted under the implicit authority of a country that's embraced the perceived economic utility of throwing away urban communities. Wilson and many officers like him pull the trigger ten times because young black life does not get the presumption of value. Because there's an understanding that's what's being taken is not something worth preserving.
In that way, Mike Brown serves as a symbol for all poor communities, and Darren Wilson one for the institutions that have forgotten those communities. White flight and property-tax based school funding have left many schools, including the one in Ferguson, without the funding to provide enough graduation gowns for students, must less stock classrooms with the technology needed to teach in the 21st century. We've experienced significant divestment in communities across the country, with the social safety net being slashed, lawmakers proposing that welfare benefits be tied to the grades of poor students, and many of the working poor falling into the Medicaid abyss created by grandstanding governors.
We've failed to provide adequate protection for people in these communities against the modern-day loan sharking done by payday lenders and traditional banks alike, which milk poor communities of any wealth they might have, in fees that pile up a few dollars at a time.
The message we've sent is loud and clear - you're not worthy of our time, our money, our ideas, or our attention. It's a disease that has many symptoms, with white-on-black police violence and black-on-black crime being two of the worst.
Why don't we talk about black-on-black crime? We do, you just can't hear it above your noxious pontificating about the moral failings of the black community. When we talk about divestment from poor communities and an economic reality that makes it somewhere between very hard and impossible for a poor kid to ever achieve financial success, we're talking about black-on-black crime. When we talk about creating a judicial system that treats people with humanity and fairness under the law, we're talking about black-on-black crime. And when we talk about the social consequences of a new economic order where economic opportunity is increasingly gobbled up by an insatiable machine under operation of the American oligarchs, we're talking about black-on-black crime.
Decisions have consequences, and when your policies reflect the comically small worth you give to the people in poor black communities, we end up cops acting out that reality. We also end up with "black-on-black" crime, or just crime, a social consequence of America's incessant greed.