Michael Brown, Chiraq & The Black-on-Black Crime Complaint
Weighing The Validity Of A Recurring Criticism Of Black Politics
By Dr. Albert Atkins (Macquarie University)
March 17, 2015 Picture: Amir Aziz/Flickr.
This article is part of The Critique’s exclusive Black Lives Matter: The Problem of Race and Police Ethics.
In an interview on the Fox Channel’s Kelly Files in November 2014, the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley gave this diagnosis of the situation surrounding the police-shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson:
“The left wants to use racism as an all-purpose explanation for what ails the black community. Certain situations fit that narrative, like Ferguson, certain situations do not, like Chicago.” The obvious conclusion to draw, he suggested, is that “we have so many dead black bodies in this country … not because cops are shooting them, but because other black people are shooting them”.
For anyone familiar with the interminable media “debate” about the racial politics behind policing in much of America, this response is now something of a mainstay. The usual template and timeline for these cases goes like this: during an incident the police kill a (usually young) black male. The police officers involved are usually not indicted, and when indicted seldom convicted. An outpouring of anger and frustration at the racial injustice of the situation follows. Various figures, often prominent, often of the political right, respond to these outpourings by suggesting that the real issue here is “black on black crime” and “black criminality”. The circumstances surrounding Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson went more or less to type.
An eighteen-year-old unarmed black male engaged in act of petty criminality was shot at least six times by a police officer. The officer – Darren Wilson – was not indicted. There were large outpourings of anger and frustration across the United States, but especially in his hometown of Ferguson where there was civil unrest. And if the FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) figures on police shootings are to be believed – and with a complete lack of mandatory reporting on fatal police shootings there is no obvious reason why we should be terribly confident that we are seeing anything like a full picture – Michael Brown was twenty one times more likely to have been killed in the manner he was than any of his white counterparts. Yet many Americans in this case, as with so many other similar deaths, seemed indifferent to the possibility that the racial undercurrent to these killings was worthy of proper investigation. Indeed, the response was to raise the issue of gang related murders in the predominantly black areas of South Chicago – the widely cited claim that in 2012, the homicide rate in Chicago outstripped American and Coalition troop deaths in Afghanistan led many to call the city “Chiraq”. Why, the question went, aren’t black Americans attending to this problem instead of worrying about a few police shootings? After all, the same FBI and BJS statistics that tell us a young black man is twenty one times more likely than a young white man to be killed by a police officer also tell us that over 50% of all homicide victims are black, and that roughly 90% of those black victims are murdered by another black person. To borrow from Jason Riley once more, the response to calls of police racism was that, “the issue here is black criminality, not the behavior of cops”.
So what are we to make of such an impasse?
On the one hand, the call is for us to show that we value black lives by drawing out the racism inherent in the treatment of black Americans by the police and to acknowledge the racial undertones that lead to young black men being killed by the police with such alarming frequency [See Blum on how to think about black lives mattering]. On the other, we are told that valuing black lives should start with the black community – black Americans must address the problems of “black criminality” and “black-on-black crime”, put their own house in order, and take some responsibility for the behaviors that mean police need to be in black neighborhoods in the first place. The problem with these two alternatives, however, is that like all the best Manichean diagnoses, we are presented with a dichotomy that on closer inspection simply doesn’t stand up. It would be a mistake to think that these two issues – police shooting black men, and black-on-black crime – should be treated apart as though they were different putative causes of a problem, rather than different symptoms of the same underlying illness. So let’s look a little closer here.
There is, I would suggest, a real problem with the way that mainstream American media constructs and propagates racial myths to such a degree that this myth-making lies at the heart of both “black-on-black crime” and racial police shootings. We can see just how racial myths are pervasive and resistant to facts or sober analysis by looking at the commonly made claim that there are more black American men in prison than there are in college. Since the early 2000s, we’ve seen the claim made as a way of raising the issues of the lived black experience in America, but we have also known for quite a while that the claim is simply wrong – the statistics that gave rise to it in the first place were wrong, the statistics today show that it is still wrong, and the number of black men in prison did not and does not outstrip the number of black men in college. Yet, we continue to see the falsehood repeated and propagated from all corners of the political spectrum. To his credit, one of the first to point out that the claim was wrong, Professor Ivory Toldson, continues to draw people’s attention to the falseness of this claim and the damage it does to the educational prospects of black men, but it clings on in there, and it contributes to a damaging narrative about blackness, black culture and black masculinity. The pressing point here, though, is that statistics about black-on-black crime are no different – they are part of the same myth-making narrative about blackness and black masculinity
Let’s take the claim that ~90% of black homicide victims are killed by black perpetrators to be true. The way this contributes to racial myth-making is that it is only part of the story, and thanks to the American media’s commitment to myth-making, it is almost always the only part of the story we hear. The part of the story that we don’t hear is that the same FBI and BJS reports that give us the ~90% statistics for black homicide victims also tells us that ~85% of homicides with white victims have white perpetrators – the statistics for white-on-white homicides run more or less on par with the statistics for black-on-black homicides.
You might respond that this misses the point – the ~90% claim is meant to point out to black Americans that the people they should fear the most are other black people; it doesn’t matter if a parallel claim is true for white Americans. But the concern is that without both statistics, we cannot hope to understand what the problem really is. Suppose, for example, that we are told that 65% of boys in our schools cannot read by the age of nine. We begin to worry, what is it about boys that means they are doing so badly in our school system? Is there something about the nature of boys that makes it hard for them to grasp the fundamentals of reading and writing? Too rowdy maybe, too interested in sports and horseplay to concentrate on study, unlike our serious and studious girls. Now suppose, by contrast, you are told that 65% of boys and 63% of girls cannot read by the time they are nine years old. Our worries are different. What is wrong with our school system? What is it about how we teach children that means we have left almost two-thirds of them unable to grasp the fundamentals of reading and writing? The same holds with these homicide statistics – it is startling that over 85% of homicide victims are killed by members of their own race, but “why are black Americans worrying about a few police shootings instead of attending to this problem instead?” isn’t the first question it raises.
The narrative that emerges when mainstream media creates and then refuses to challenge such racial myths is obvious. Here, so the story goes, is a community that is largely responsible for the murders of black people, and black people are murdered in disproportionately large numbers, but rather than challenge this culture of violence and crime – more black men are in prison than go to college after all – they would rather take on victim status and complain that police doing their job are acting out of racial bias. Little wonder, then, that many find it easy to shrug their shoulders and say that the black community has a problem, and the black community should solve it. But this myth-making has a much longer reach than that.
The narrative that frames black American culture as one of violence and criminality on the one hand, and as quick to act the victim and play the race card on the other, is damaging in lots of obvious ways. It is clear, for instance, that black Americans are concerned with the high number of black homicide victims and with crime in black communities, and claims to the contrary belittle their efforts. Similarly, we see genuine racial disparities and problems in the American criminal justice system that can never be addressed or resolved while they are written off as the result of a black culture of violence. And, as the work of people such as Ivory Toldson shows, whatever problems young black men are facing in schools and education, they cannot be properly addressed while black masculinity is falsely constructed as offering black men a life that forever threatens to collapse into incarceration and criminality. But the media constructed narrative makes its damaging influence felt in other less direct ways too. Indeed, the long reach of mainstream media myth-making looks like it even finds its way into the heart of racially motivated police shootings.
Consider, for example, research by Mathew Lieberman and his colleagues that showed how test subjects (regardless of race), when completing various matching tests with black and white faces, had heightened amygdale responses to black faces – fMRI scans showed that people respond to black faces as though there was a threat or a reason to be fearful. Interviewed about his findings in the New Scientist Lieberman commented, “I think the results are very specific to being raised in this society where the portrayal of African Americans is not very positive, on average. It suggests that those cultural messages are not harmless”. Couple this with what we know about “weapon bias” or “shooter bias” – when asked to make split-second decisions on whether or not a presented object is a gun or something harmless, test subjects misidentify harmless objects as firearms more frequently when they are shown black faces, or the object is held by a black person – and we can see the marks of the media constructed narrative about black Americans. Black criminality, the black culture of violence is so prevalent a notion that people of all races have a visceral response of fear to black faces. Little wonder that we are so primed to misidentify a harmless object in the hands of a black American as a lethal weapon. Unsurprising then that a young black male who encounters a police officer licensed to use lethal force in response to a threat is twenty one times more likely to be shot than a white counter-part. To emphasize Matthew Lieberman’s observation about the portrayal of black Americans, “those cultural messages are not harmless”.
Who knows exactly where else the long reach of racial myths ends up, but there are reasons to suspect that the way the mainstream media constructs and preserves its narrative has all kinds of effects. Everything I’ve said so far, for instance, has focused on a simple racial divide, but the racial myth-making surrounding black-on-black crime and black criminality is distinctively and insidiously gendered too. We all, quite rightly, know about the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Oscar Grant, or Amadou Diallo at the hands of police officers, but how well known are names such as Tyisha Miller, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Tarika Wilson, Alesia Thomas, Latanya Haggerty, or Frankie Perkins? These women, amongst many others, died at the hands of the police too. Some were choked to death, some had harmless objects mistaken for weapons, so why aren’t these names so prominent in the mainstream media? The answer, I think is simple – the constructed narrative is one of violent black masculinity; the racial myth-making fixes its intent on the young black male. The deaths of black women at the hands of police officers challenge the narrative in the same way that the white-on-white crime statistic derails the black-on-black crime statistic. And as a result, while the media debates what black Americans should do if they really value black lives, the lives of black women who die at the hands of police are, by and large, ignored by the media.
Should black Americans focus their attention on police shootings, or on the issue of black-on-black crime? This is the question the mainstream media would have us wrangle over, but it is, so far as I can see, a stitch up. The question only makes sense given a certain set of racial myths about black Americans, but those myths are just that – myths. Instead, the hollow narratives constructed by the mainstream media not only frame statistics about crime in ways that obstruct any clear understanding of the problems, and belittle the concerns of black Americans working to solve them, they actively contribute and distort the nature of police racism and race-related police shootings. Should black Americans focus their attention on police shootings, or on the issue of black-on-black crime? Neither – all Americans should look at the racial myths that have built up around both of these problems, work out the extent of their impact, and set about asking the right questions in the right way.
Footnotes & References:
 See, for example, (2011) BJS: Bureau of Justice Statistics Homicide trends in the United States 1980-2008 by Alexia Cooper and Erica L Smith, BJS Statisticians.
 See, for example, ProPublica’s analysis of FBI statistics – http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white
 See, for a very small sample, Amnesty International (2003) United States of America: Death by discrimination – the continuing role of race in capital case (AMR 51/046/2003, April 2003); D Crocker (2003) “Addressing the Real World of Racial Injustice in the Criminal Justice System”. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 93:4. 827-79; M. Cholbi (2006) “Race, Capital Punishment, and the cost of Murder” Philosophical Studies. 127: 255-282; R. Austin and M. Allen (2000). “Racial Disparity in Arrest Rates as an Explanation of Racial Disparity in Commitment to Pennsylvania’s Prisons”. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 37:2. 200-220.
 I.A. Toldson and M Ebanks. (2012). “Collateral damage in the classroom: How race and school environment influence teachers’ attitudes and behaviors toward their students”. The National Journal of Urban Education & Practice. 6: 1. 20-39.
 M. Lieberman, D., Hariri, et. al (2005). “An fMRI investigation of race-related amygdale activity in African-American and Caucasian-American individuals”. Nature and Neuroscience.8. 720-22.
 “Brain Scans Reveal Racial Biases”. New Scientist. May 8th, 2005.
 See, for example, B.K. Payne. (2005). “Conceptualizing Control in Social Cognition: The Role of Automatic and Controlled Processes in Misperceiving a Weapon”. Journal of Personality Social Psychology. 81. 181–92; B.K. Payne. (2006) “Weapon Bias: Split-Second Decisions and Unintended Stereotyping”. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15. 287–91.