Everyone (like me) worried about the metastasizing influence of race-panderers can give thanks that so many are so completely, and indeed stupefyingly, incompetent. Otherwise, merchants of division like Northwestern University journalism faculty member Arionne Nettles and her enablers at The New York Times might be overwhelming favorites to tear the country apart for good. All the same, the more they push claims (I’m getting fed up with the pseudo-sophisticated term “narrative”) that are not only flagrantly phony but transparently contradictory, the more they obscure genuine and important failures and inequities that need fixing.
Nettles and The Times editors who considered her piece on African American victims of “gun violence” worthy of publication in this form took only a paragraph and a half to blow up their own case that big cities across the United States have seen a recent “rise in gun violence – perpetrated both by civilians and police officers” that’s taken an especially heavy toll on black children and teenagers.
They’re of course right about these tragedies and their scale. But the obvious insinuation that “civilians and police officers” share even remotely comparable blame is demolished by the observation that
“In one especially alarming spree last summer, Chicago police officers shot five people in just two months. And shootings and murders in the city were up more than 50 percent overall in 2020 compared with 2019; 875 people died from gun violence – a record high. A majority of the city’s victims (78 percent) were Black.”
Let’s assume that every one of the five Chicago police shootings mentioned here was totally unjustified. Let’s also state categorically that unjustified shootings by police are way more disturbing than other types of shootings because law enforcement must be held to a much higher standard. Are Nettles and The Times still seriously contending that the two categories of violence are on anything like a par, even as threats to African American lives?
More important, these and similar passages – along with Nettles’ interviews with African American mothers who have lost children to such violence – add powerfully to the evidence that, as I’ve argued before, the overwhelming problem here isn’t “gun violence” at all. Instead, it’s a culture of violence and broader irresponsibility that’s gained a strong foothold in too many Black neighborhoods, and whose importance keeps being ignored by supposed champions of American minorities.
A handful of data points from recent (2018) national (FBI) law enforcement statistics clinch this case. First, of the 328.24 million total U.S. population estimated by the Census Bureau that year, 76.3 percent were white and 13.4 percent African American. That’s a ratio of nearly six-to-one. Yet that year, reported Black homicide offenders in one-on-one incidents actually slightly outnumbered their white counterparts in absolute terms (3,177 to 3,011).
Almost as stunning: Of the 2,925 Black homicide victims that year, nearly 89 percent were killed by other Blacks. Nearly 81 percent of the 3,315 white homicide victims in 2018 were killed by whites, so it’s clear that American killers principally go after members of their own race. But relatively speaking these figures – combined with Nettles’ accurate observation that Blacks are much likelier to die in firearms incidents than Whites – reveal not a gun violence crisis afflicting so many African American communities. They reveal an African American violence problem.
No one can reasonably doubt that racism’s legacy and the resulting lack of economic opportunity and poverty play a big underlying role. As I (and many others) have written, the racial wealth gap alone is yawning, owes much to discrimination, and generates affects that have lasted generations. It should be just as hard reasonably to doubt, however, that something other than poverty is responsible.
Look at Chicago. In 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, its Black poverty rate was 26.3 percent – that’s much higher than the overall poverty rate for the city (16.4 percent), or the national African American poverty rate (18.8 percent). So even though there seems to be a Chicago-specific problem on top of a poverty problem, even in Chicago nearly three fourths of the Black population lives above the poverty line. That hardly means affluence, but it’s hardly destitution, either.
Moreover, the Chicago Black poverty rate is down considerably from 2010’s 33.6 percent (although the city’s overall poverty rate fell faster during this period). Yet the city’s numbers of homicides and its homicide rate have roughly doubled during the subsequent nine data years, and in Chicago, the vast majority of the killers (as with the victims) are African American.
As suggested above, moreover, Nettles’ ham-handed treatment of the “gun violence” and homicide issue is all the more inexcusable because the author’s interview subjects do a decent job of reinforcing the case that there does exist a serious race-based policing problem in this country. Not that the African American women with which the author spoke are entirely free of denialism about what’s plaguing their neighborhoods. There’s Shanice Steenholdt, who seems to believe that Australia-like gun control laws would turn her city of Houston into a replica of the small Australian town in which she lived for a time where she “didn’t feel like [she] had to worry about gun violence.” There’s Chicago’s Diane Lasiker, w appears to think that the big problem in her city is that it seems “to want to keep the Police Department separate from the community.” Her fellow Chicagoan Chez Smith and Flint, Michigan’s Marcia McQueen put much stock in “offering conflict resolution techniques” to their communities’ youth.
But the story told by Atlanta’s Cora Miller of her husband’s arrest (in Minnesota) reinforces the case that it’s much too common for completely innocent African Americans to be mistreated by police. As I’d written last August, I’ve heard first-hand accounts of such episodes from Black friends who have experienced it first hand – on top of South Carolina Republican U.S. Senator Tim Scott’s experiences with Capitol police. If these individuals – who are all highly successful by any reasonable definition – can be harassed for no good reason, imagine how often everyday folks just trying to get by face these indignities and indeed dangers.
So let’s by all means get policing up to snuff. Let’s by all means identify the most effective ways in which government and business can help foster opportunity in needy Black (and other) communities. But let’s also never forget a voice who has passionately argued that
“no matter how much money we invest in our communities, or how many 10-point plans we propose or how many government programs we launch — none of it will make a difference, at least not enough of a difference, if we don’t seize more responsibility in our own lives.”
In case you’re wondering, his name is Barack Obama.