“Black on black” violence is not a thing. Not. A. Thing. It is a racist trope, a story deployed by the chief spokespersons for white supremacy (I see you, Fox News) as part of a rhetorical strategy to avoid responsibility for the grievous historical crimes committed on its behalf and, most recently, to derail criticisms of the police.
Yes, it is a fact that 93% of black homicide victims are killed by black perpetrators. But we should all know by now that statistical facts are only meaningful given a particular context or theory. And of course, if the fact supports an existing cultural narrative, it may be seen as basic common sense, making it that much more challenging to question. The 93% statistic is part of the “common sense” of black on black violence which in turn springs from a deep and well-practiced story of black criminality that goes back to Reconstruction.
The story of black criminality began to take hold soon after the end of legalized chattel slavery in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. In the absence of slavery, white U.S. Americans had to contend with the fact that four million people had gone, practically overnight, from bondage to freedom. And these were people that generations of Americans had been taught were naturally childlike and servile based on the color of their skin. This created a national crisis of sorts. White America had invested an enormous amount of psychological and moral capital in its construction of itself as a chosen race, destined to spread across the land, manifesting its Empire of Liberty.
White America solved its conundrum with the story of black criminality. As Khalil Gibran Muhammad argues in The Condemnation of Blackness, beginning with the 1870 census, white academics and politicians began to deploy crime statistics todemonstrate the inherently inferiority of black people. The statistics were already meaningless in relation to what they purported to show. After all, this was at a time when the black codes were being used to round up black men in the South to supply labor for the convict leasing system. Regardless, this new narrative became quite popular, and justified ever more intense policing of black communities in the South and North, resulting in more statistical ammunition for the narrative.
Another landmark event in the construction of this story occurred in the 1930s when the U.S Department of Justice developed its Uniform Crime Report, which tracks all crimes in the U.S. and reports them according to the racial identities of victim and perpetrator. From the beginning, the reports agglomerated various European immigrant groups into the category “white,” rendering their ethnicity-specific criminal behavior essentially invisible at a time when crime and violence were rampant within working class ethnic enclaves in Northern cities. The statistical assimilation of European immigrants was of course part of the more general 20th century expansion of whiteness to include ethnic groups from eastern and southern Europe. Meanwhile, as Gibran Muhammad explains, with respect to European immigrant communities, “struggling neighborhoods were considered a cause of crime and a reason to intervene [e.g. building libraries and community centers]. Among blacks, they were considered a sign of pathology and a reason for neglect.” (p. 76)
The story of black criminality is directly responsible for the dominant culture that easily accepts stop and frisk, the school to prison pipeline, and mass incarceration while shouting “tyranny” about universal health care. The story was decisive in providing justifications, explicit and implicit, for practices such as redlining, loan discrimination, urban renewal, and interstate highway construction, which created the economically and socially isolated black neighborhoods that are now subject to educational neglect and over-zealous policing.
This extreme residential segregation along with the failure of Civil Rights era reforms to improve the situation, led to a number of civil uprisings in the late 1960s. These events exacerbated white fears, which were then mobilized by “law and order” politicians, to launch the war on drugs, which has, from the start, been a war on black communities. As Heather Anne Thompson explains, the drug war is directly responsible for the epidemic of violence experienced by these communities in recent decades.
The violence in inner-city black communities has, thankfully, been in decline, but this has not led to a corresponding reduction in police violence. The U.S. is now experiencing a new uprising of black people who are fed up with the violence perpetrated on their communities, not only by police, but by an entire system that some believe is bent on their eradication. The murder of Mike Brown in August 2014 was the latest (but not for long) in a tragic series of police and vigilante killings of unarmed black men stretching back to Reconstruction. The rallying cry #BlackLivesMatter is reverberating across social media, letting the world know that the treatment of black people as inherently threatening and/or ultimately disposable must stop.
After four centuries of dehumanization under de facto and de jure white supremacy, during which every one of the above-mentioned policies and practices were rationalized by conservative voices citing statistics and anecdotes absent any meaningful historical context, the pseudo-post-racial compassion of calls to focus on black on black violence ring hollow. Before we even bother to quarrel the with these moralistic invocations, however, we must recognize their essential racist intent. Once you accept the notion that black on black crime is a thing, you have already bought into a 150 year old story, the purpose of which has always been to justify institutionalized and culturally sanctioned violence on black bodies.