By Ernest Ezeugo
In recent months, several tragic instances of police practicing excessive (sometimes fatal) force against black men and women have awakened a nationwide discussion about police brutality and how the justice system impacts the black community. This discussion has made a lot of people angry and defensive, and those emotions have led to some virulent responses and justifications.
Of all the empathy-void, compassion-less rebuttals to higher rates of police brutality against black men and women I’ve seen, “oh yeah? well what about black-on-black crime” is
my favorite perhaps the most egregious. I have a few ideas on why people who can’t/don’t want to understand the plight of communities concerned by recent events turn to this defense, but below are my thoughts on why citing black-on-black crime is not an acceptable counterargument for police brutality.
Black on black crime and police brutality against black people are not mutually exclusive.
It is entirely reasonable to care about black on black crime and talk about how police brutality and the black community are related. It’s similar to how you can be a fan of waffles and still want pizza for dinner: black-on-black crime and police brutality are two entirely different conversations that don’t need to happen at the same time.
It’s a practice in the politics of changing the subject.
Ta-Nehisi Coates does a lot of writing about the politics of changing the subject that is very much worth taking a look at. Simply put, the black on black crime defense–kin to the “don’t wear seductive clothing” defense and the “don’t dress like a thug” defense–is a form of respectability politics that irrationally turns the blame for the death and mistreatment of black men and women at the hands of the law back onto the community. At its most general, it transforms a necessary conversation about race and justice into a condescending, often blithering discourse on the state of the black community. This is a problem for many reasons that I’ll get into, but essentially at the top of those: it’s a scapegoat that prevents us from taking part in the tough but restorative conversations about race that America has needed to engage in since the Civil War.
It’s a false equivalency.
As this interview with David Rudovsky explains, an inherent conflict of interest arises when an officer takes a life while on duty, immediately disqualifying the notion that police brutality can even be considered in the same league as any level of citizen crime, black-on-black crime in particular. Police officers serve as defenders of the people, so when a police officer is responsible for the death of any civilian, several cogs move into place to assure that trust is maintained between law enforcement and the community. This phenomenon is the reason why we know how many officers were killed in the line of duty this year, but have no accurate measurement of how many civilians were killed at the hands of police. And, begrudgingly, I understand the intent behind it. It isn’t so much shadiness as it is a means of securing trust, and therefore peace, in a society. …But at the end of the day, it doesn’t make it right. And it means that black-on-black crime and police brutality against black people, by their very definitions, are an equivalency that has no merit.
Put succinctly: Black people who kill black people go to jail. Policemen that kill people often do not.
It implicitly suggests that black people are not a part of the State.
In perhaps the most atrocious attempt to relate black on black crime to police brutality of the year, former mayor Rudy Giuliani made some disparaging comments about the state of the black community in an interview with Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson. Chief among them was this thoughtless epitaph: “White police officers wouldn’t be (in your community) if you weren’t killing each other.”
Of the several things wrong with this comment, the most concerning is its implication. We know that police officers are meant to serve and protect all citizens. But when Giuliani asks Dyson what he is doing to heal his community, he proposes two dangerous and incorrect assumptions that many who conjure up the black-on-black crime defense similarly imply: that crime as it occurs in black communities occurs at the fault of the community rather than at the fault of the individual, and that black communities can do more to stop crime than they currently are, and for some reason choosing not to.
In the same way that crime in any other form of community is born, crime involving members of the black community is the product of an individual’s thoughts and desires. It’s for that reason that Giuliani’s assertion is so absurd. There is no superhuman connectivity between black people or paranormal mental Facebook that black people can log onto that allows us to control how often other black people commit crimes. And it’s not like black communities like crime, or aren’t working hard to stop it. We can only expect communities to do what they’ve already been doing.
All of this to say, it is not solely the black community’s responsibility to control crime among its people, just like it is not solely any other communities’ responsibility, because there is nothing that makes the black community different. Remember the police? It’s their responsibility. And consequently, it is their policies and procedures that have to be the first to called to question when the black community is jailed, sentenced, and killed at exponentially higher rates than any other community in the nation.
Talking about race is not easy. If it were, the discussion about race, justice, and law enforcement would have happened after Emmett Till, not at the end of 2014. If we’re going to get to the bottom of what it means to talk about and eventually resolve these issues, we have to be honest with ourselves about what a proper conversation looks like. It’s time to stop pretending that black-on-black crime has a place in the conversation.
Ernest is the founder of Thirty Eight Minutes.