How Millions of White Americans Have Bought Into a Racist Myth About Black America
Days after President Donald Trump mocked professional athletes taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality inflicted upon communities of color, namely former San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick who first kneeled in 2016, others followed suit. As national media coverage of the athletes’ protests intensified and the president doubled down on his provocations, which soon gave way to threats, the condemnation came. Outlets like the Washington Times implicitly questioned why did the athletes not turn their attention to a more pressing cause: the danger of “black-on-black crime.”
The Washington Times article is only the latest in a long line of attempts to use the racist trope of black-on-black crime to specifically discredit the Black Lives Matter movement and to invalidate very real concerns about police treatment of black communities across the country. Implicit in those attempts is a suggestion of the inherent criminality of black Americans.
This argument is a lie decades in the making.
Statistical data collected by the FBI in 2016 reported that 90.1 percent of black homicide victims were killed by black perpetrators. Similarly, 83.5 percent of white homicide victims were killed by other whites, a figure comparable to that for black victims. And yet the term “white-on-white crime” does not exist in American lexicon. According to Columbia University professor Carla Shedd, “All violence and crime is about proximity” to the point that the label “‘black-on-black crime’ is an unnecessary specification.” Furthermore, the extent to which black individuals are committing crime has been vastly exaggerated in the public imagination. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics maintains that less than one percent of all black Americans commit a violent crime in any given year, which, stated differently, means that 99 percent of black Americans do not commit crimes to contribute to the black-on-black crime categorization.
Unlike so many other aspects of his presidency, President Donald Trump’s enthusiastic exploitation of "black-on-black crime" is in lockstep with 50 years of conservative dogma. As Professor David Wilson made clear in his book, Inventing Black-on-Black Violence: Discourse, Space, and Representation, “black-on-black crime” is just that: an invention. An invention that proved to be an especially potent weapon in the hands of conservatives, who eschewed centralizing discussions of crime and other challenges around economics and poverty in favor of putting blackness itself on trial, for advancing an agenda and absolving themselves of accountability. Conservative and liberals constructed the myth of black-on-black crime, which proved to be an effective means of shaming and subjugating black communities.
The Reconstruction Criminal Injustice System
In the years after Emancipation, new opportunities for black freedmen were met with vehement opposition from white lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and citizens working in tandem, particularly in the South. Such collusion bore a “winking” justice system that protected black rights in theory, but assisted in abusing them in practice. Though repealed in 1866, the discriminatory “Black Codes” made a resurgence after the end of Reconstruction. These statutes transformed petty crimes and misdemeanors into felonies that commanded harsher punishments. The ostensible wave of black crime across the South lent credence to the fears of even the most progressive whites that blacks were unqualified for citizenship and inherently more inclined towards criminal behavior. Those fears in turn provided more justification for the criminalization of black life that entrenched Jim Crow.
At the same time, however, while law enforcement officers over-policed black communities for (manufactured) petty crimes, they overlooked or under-investigated the violent crimes that happened in those same communities. One Tennessean official captured the justice system’s disregard for black lives during Reconstruction with this despicable observation: “Nigger life’s cheap now.” Though black-on-black crime would not be officially introduced into the American lexicon until the 1970s, it was clearly on the mind of at least one Louisiana newspaper columnist who offered towards the end of the nineteenth century, “If negroes continue to slaughter each other, we will have to conclude that Providence has chosen to exterminate them in this way.”
Foundations for Invention: The 'Negro Problem' in Inner Cities
Decades later, black Americans escaped oppression reminiscent of slavery in the South only to find new challenges in the urban North and Midwest. But as in the South, prejudice thrived. Black labor contributed to the rise of the urban cities, which became bastions of American economic power and physical testaments to the boundless possibilities of the American Dream. By the 1950s, however, the dominance of America’s cities had been usurped by America’s suburbs. Once-reliable sources of investment for cities dried up and turned their sights elsewhere, giving rise to fears about urban decline.
Corresponding white flight from the cities to the suburbs and revived black settlement in those same cities further fueled these concerns. Writer Michael Harrington cautioned in 1962, “There is a new type of slum. Its citizens are the internal migrants, the Negroes, the poor whites from the farms, the Puerto Ricans.” Cities turned to public housing and urban renewal for solutions.
Hope for resolution quickly turned to frustration. Public housing was lambasted as perpetuating the welfare state and the slum-like conditions that necessitated such housing assistance in the first place. Urban renewal efforts proved to be especially counterproductive, often destroying more homes than they created and displacing more people than they resettled.
Problems needed a villain: The villain was found in the poor black communities. Black youth in particular were charged with running out potential investors and wealthier, white families. Concentrated in public housing complexes that were stigmatized as unsafe and debased, black families were blamed for the shortcomings of urban renewal and for keeping those same potential investors and wealthier families away. Speaking in 1999, the St. Louis Home Project captured the national mood of the 1960s and 1970s with this succinct, but explicit denunciation: “Businessmen move out. The African Americans remain.”
Those in the media, with the power to shape perceptions and realities, reinforced the villainization of black communities. Media actors covered the challenges facing America’s cities with narratives that placed black communities firmly at the center of the difficulty. Riots in Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the 1960s captured national attention, cementing, in the process, a relationship between black Americans and lawlessness in the eyes of wider society. With the beginning of the 1970s intense media focus on America’s cities transitioned from riots to steadily increasing crime. Elaborate reports on the intersections of murder, robbery, and declining ghettos were disseminated across the airwaves. After drugs, including cocaine and heroin, were introduced to these communities, images of drug-ravaged ghettos commanded the attention of the media and its audiences, leading many to fear “the threat of youth gangs in black areas” strung out on drugs and just itching to terrorize civil (and civilized), law-abiding, (white) suburban communities.
In the eyes of lawmakers, the media, and the public, the difficulties that complicated life in the city were cultural deficiencies on the part of black Americans. Perhaps no other entity more clearly articulated the danger of this culture than the 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” colloquially referred to as the Moynihan Report after its principal author Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “In a word,” the report cautioned, “most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped.” Black families were vulnerable to a “tangle of pathology” that was marked by a culture defined by emasculated men, matriarchal families, welfare dependency, and unemployment.
So the argument went that the arrested development of the black family bred crime and dysfunction. Speaking on the challenges that first gained traction in the 1960s and sounding virtually indistinguishable from the liberal Moynihan, the conservative Center for Reclaiming America opined in 1997s, “Of the last 3 decades… No one disagrees on the problem: high concentrations of poor and poorly educated families in substandard housing--many on welfare and out of work--in an environment rife with crime, dysfunctional families, and domestic violence.” Such cultural degeneracy was endemic to the poor black community. Their challenges constituted a unique “Negro Problem [that] represents a crisis within a crisis, a specific and acute syndrome in a body already ill from more general disorders.”
Destroying Cities: 'Welfare Queens' and the Rise of 'Black-on-Black' Crime
If the 1960s and '70s set the stage for the conditions that cultivated the myth of black-on-black crime, the 1980s created a social, political and economic climate that allowed the myth to absolutely flourish. No singular event contributed more to this development than the rise of Reagan conservatism. Amid mounting frustration towards the welfare state, the physical decline in America’s cities, and a very real spike in the frequency of violent crime, conservative Republicans saw an opportunity.
Conservative Republicans, including radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, Department of Education Secretary William Bennett, and President Ronald Reagan, responded to this palpable national mood much in the same way as the lawmakers and media figures of the previous decades: They blamed black communities. The country hardly needed convincing: Decades of stereotypes existed that communicated the undesirability of black families and black youth. But this generation of conservatives took it upon itself to more deeply embed the concept of a “culturally infected inner city space.”
Black families, according to conservative columnist Thomas Sowell, had been “decimated by three decades of disabling programs, welfare bailouts, and affirmative action,” hinting at the “tangle of pathology” admonished by the liberal Moynihan.
The age of the “welfare queen” had begun.
To President Reagan, the malaise of urban America was thanks in large part to the cheats who took advantage of the hard work of taxpayers by participating in programs with benefits of which they were undeserving and the welfare recipients who had eschewed the dignity of hard work for the comfortable dependency of welfare. These undeserving dependents became immortalized in the national consciousness as the welfare people, the pretending disadvantaged, and most famously, the welfare queens who burdened the inner cities, were wholly dependent on the federal government for survival like helpless children, and raised wayward black youths who turned to gang-based violence instead of stable, middle-class values. As Ronald Reagan uplifted the example of Linda Taylor, a black woman living in Chicago who had swindled the federal government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of social safety net benefits, time after time to demand stringent reform, it was clear whom he had in mind while demonizing other welfare recipients. While hard-working (white) Americans took initiative and carried themselves with dignity, welfare queens hid behind cries of racism and classicism in order to continue exploiting the government to support their hordes of children and T-bone steak dinners.
Crime was on the upswing in the 1980s. Mainstream news sources like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post treated violent crimes in the city like spectacles, covering the goriest details with specificity and frequency that created a national panic over crime and the black Americans that seemed to be at the center of it. Thus, black-on-black crime emerged as a racialized means of understanding this wave of violence and its confluence with continued urban decline. Not only had they placed a major burden on the resources of struggling cities with their dependency, they were making those same cities hotbeds of violent crime. Both lent further credence to the idea that there was something wrong with black communities. According to conservative St. Louis planner Joe Plann, the city’s deterioration in the 1980s, not unlike that of many others, was due to the fact that “kids became more unstable and started this ‘black-on-black violence’ stuff”.
The Reagan administration and its ideological allies used the pretense of this violence to build constituencies and advance preferred political objectives. Unstable kids, marked as such by their youth, welfare upbringing, and blackness, became known as “superpredators,” a term popularized by conservative political theorists William Bennett, John Walters and John DiIulio. Only one method could control this current wave of crime and the expectant surge that “superpredators” were sure to commit: more punitive policies. Large swaths of conservatives were swept into office on the strength of this rhetoric, including George Pataki in New York, Jeb Bush in Florida, and George W. Bush in Texas. The White House and Congress delivered: Among other measures, the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 increased the prison sentences and fines for selling or distributing controlled substances. Within two years Congress followed up with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which imposed new mandatory minimum sentences increased maximum sentences for drug trafficking and possession.
The result of the manipulated connection between dying cities and a culture of degeneracy, as denoted by black dependency and black-on-black crime, was that both were given local origins: each other. A culture of depravity within low-income black communities had bred violence that could be seen in the fact that 85 percent of black homicide victims were killed by other blacks in New York City in 1984 and in the destruction of the cities they called home. Or at least that is the message that conservatives circulated in order to downplay the power of structural impacts on producing such tragic realities.
“The truth is we are up against the limits of public policy,” wrote U.S. News and World Report chairman and editor-in-chief Mortimer Zuckerman in 1986 in implicit agreement with Joe Plann’s diagnosis. How else could one explain why “two decades of visible black progress, with billions spent in welfare and training, have also seen the explosive rise of an alienated black underclass whose rootlessness, violence and debased values dominate the ghetto”?
Truths of a Myth
The truth was that conservatives like Zuckerman and even liberals like Moynihan invented new truths that held black communities responsible for the conditions which centuries of slavery and decades of Jim Crow had a major hand in creating.
The truth was that crime was, and is, a reflection of social circumstances.
Previous studies have shown that areas with higher rates of concentrated disadvantage display higher rates of violent crime. Similarly, areas with higher income disparities tend to evidence higher rates of crime as well. To these points, the Department of Justice determined in a 2014 report that poor black families and white families were more likely to be victims of crime than their more financially secure counterparts and at comparable rates. Poverty, segregation, and income inequality each in their own right hamper individuals’ access to necessary resources. Those in power manipulated the levers of influence that, intentionally or unintentionally, kept black people from accessing these necessary resources. The same environment that allowed the myth of black-on-black crime to flourish kept black communities impoverished, segregated, unemployed, and vulnerable to the despair that makes crime a viable solution.
Construction of the black-on-black crime myth began as federal housing programs stimulated homeownership for whites in suburbia and conspired with real estate developers to discourage such ownership for blacks. In 1950, the National Association of Real Estate Boards maintained that “a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood… any race, or nationality, or individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.” Inspired by the efforts begun by the Federal Housing Administration, which created maps to indicate which areas were right (read: white) for investment for use by banks and private lenders, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation further entrenched discriminatory redlining as public policy, offering loans on a selective basis and insuring only those properties that agreed to restrictive covenants.
Chicago provides a particularly insightful case study into the depths to which state-sanctioned discrimination confined black Americans to concentrated poverty. Thanks to the city’s enthusiasm for restrictive covenants, nearly half of all residential neighborhoods in Chicago were inaccessible to black families by the 1940s. After the power to enforce restrictive covenants was compromised, Chicago relied on public housing to keep black communities in check. Between 1950 and the mid-1960s almost all (98 percent) of the public housing complexes built in Chicago were constructed in black neighborhoods.
What the city of Chicago could not accomplish through legislative means, the white residents took upon themselves. White residents formed neighborhood organizations with an eye towards keeping black families away. When appeals and pressure failed, some white residents employed violence. Others simply left the neighborhoods empowered by the social mobility guaranteed by whiteness. Fleeing white families took the prospects of investment along with them. With the white families gone, black families moved in only to have their neighborhoods officially redlined and their property values reduced. Fewer investments meant fewer jobs.
Employment for black Americans in cities was already an issue: By 1950, black unemployment was 7 percent compared to 4 percent for whites. More than 41 percent of black Americans were poor in 1966, making them over 31 percent of the nation’s poor. Liberal politicians responded to this growing unemployment problem with a number of programs like Head Start and Job Corps. Both were introduced by President Lyndon Johnson to shore up black Americans’ educational and employment prospects in the War on Poverty. However, as historian Elizabeth Hinton argued, these programs proved ineffective because they focused, as the Moynihan Report did, on unhelpfully challenging a culture rather than the forces that kept black employment comparatively low and kept black communities in segregated neighborhoods deprived of resources. Doings so allowed the Johnson administration to, as Hinton wrote, distance “itself from accountability for the de facto restrictions, joblessness, and racism that perpetuated poverty and inequality.”
Disparities endured even with employment. Median annual income for black households in 1967 hovered around $24,000, which meant that those households earned only about 55 percent of what white households did. A 1990s study analyzing the employment patterns of youth in Atlanta found that poor job opportunity was connected to neighborhood crime because, as economics holds, crime becomes more attractive in the absence of reasonable, legal alternatives.
Clearly those in power were unaware of the relationship between crime and a barren employment landscape: The riots, which were motivated by economic concerns as they were by those over police brutality, convinced the Johnson administration that, rather than jobs, black communities needed an elevated police presence. This enhanced federal funding to local departments in urban areas marked the transition from the War on Poverty to the War on Crime. Federal funding went towards providing police officers with the resources with which to literally hover around in black neighborhoods rather than the recommendations of the Kerner Commission, which was created in the wake of the riots, including the creation of two million jobs, a universal basic income, and the construction of six million units of affordable housing.
To be sure, violent crime was increasing: The nation’s murder rate and robbery rate increased 30 percent and 26 percent respectively between 1970 and 1974. Black homicide rates specifically were at least 10 times higher than those for whites in 1960 and 1970. But black poverty was up comparatively as well: 30 percent of black Americans were poor in 1974 in contrast to 8 percent of whites.
It was in this context that President Richard Nixon launched his promise to restore “law and order” in the form of the War on Drugs in 1971, justified, as the entrenchment of Jim Crow was, by an ostensible increase in black involvement in crime. The War on Drugs enhanced the presence of drug control agents and, most damagingly, introduced mandatory minimum sentences. The result was a stark increase in the nation’s prison population. An interview with John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, recently surfaced in which he confirmed what many knew all along: that, again, like Jim Crow, the War on Drugs was executed to criminalize black life. Nixon and his allies saw themselves as having “two enemies: the antiwar left and black people” and that “by getting the public to associate… blacks with heroin… we could disrupt those communities.” “Did we know we were lying about the drugs?” Ehrlichman said. “Of course we did.”
Nixon’s War on Drugs spoke to the essential paradox of black American experience with the criminal justice system: Drug use among black communities was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but murder in these same communities was practically ignored in a throwback to the justice system that defined Reconstruction. One journalist testified to the Kerner Commission in 1968, “If a black man kills a black man, the law is generally enforced at its minimum.” Journalist Jill Leovy made the case in her book Ghettoside that the ineffective justice system described by the journalist is responsible for the preponderance of black-on-black crime. Black Americans, implicitly or explicitly deemed disposable by broader society and, consequently, the law enforcement apparatus, have historically been deprived of protection under the state’s monopoly on violence, the exclusive of the state right to use physical force, which preferred to control them rather than protect them.
Reflecting on the “winking” criminal justice system of Reconstruction that used its power to uphold white supremacy, Leovy suggested that people deprived of resources are more likely, not less, to turn against each other. The absence of legal recourse for individuals who were citizens in name only meant that they often administered justice on their own terms, creating a feedback loop of crime in black communities and police negligence. After all, law enforcement officers refused to “go through the areas where most Negro homicides occur.”
White Americans suffered from the ineffectiveness of the criminal justice too. However, relative to black Americans, they were more likely to have jobs and wealth that helped them participate in the above-ground economy and empowered them with the autonomy to simply move away from each other. State-enforced segregation forced black Americans into ethnic enclaves that rendered them an “occupied people”. When it came to drugs, the criminal justice system acted swiftly and decisively, but allowed murder with few consequences. “It is at once oppressive and inadequate,” Leovy observed. Ironically, as the number of black homicides in cities surged, energizing the black-on-black crime fears of politicians, residents, and media figures, the justice system ostensibly turned a blind eye: During the 1960s and 1970s, prison terms per unit of crime plummeted nationally, recalling the 1968 testimony about the limited enforcement of black crime.
Having engineered a narrative that cast poor black communities as villains responsible for city decline and “superpredators” that preyed on unsuspecting innocents, President Reagan and his conservative allies once again turned to these racist tropes to justify implementing an agenda. Bringing America’s cities back from the disrepair inflicted upon them by the criminality of black youth and the dependency of black families required fiscal conservatism. Fiscal conservatism called for weaning black “welfare queens” from the government teat, a call to which Reagan and his congressional allies responded to with enthusiasm. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) rendered at least half of the almost 500,000 Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipients ineligible to participate in the program, while simultaneously cutting the benefits for an additional 40 percent of AFDC families. All told, estimates indicate that OBRA added 600,000 people to the denizens of the nation’s poor in 1982, having forced them below the federal poverty. Reagan’s assault on the welfare state was far from complete, however: His administration cut the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development by half between 1980 and 1987.
Residential instability, in which families transition in and out of housing for reasons including an inability to continue to afford rent, falling into foreclosure, or losing access to public housing, can encourage higher rates in violent crime.
From state-enforced segregation to the War on Poverty, conservatives and liberals in power effectively perpetuated the conditions that kept crime in black communities high, cutting them off from investment, employment, and other financially-stabilizing opportunities. At the same time, they laid the blame at the feet of the black families themselves, offering a racialized explanation for these conditions, inherent black dysfunctionality, that absolved them from actively interfering on the behalf of black communities. Indeed, conservative and liberal constructions of the black-on-black crime narrative “banished” important discussions on the effects of racism and poverty on conditions in city communities that effectively “imposed a massive silence” on black communities. Racism, understood in its most extreme forms, was a thing of the past, argued Conservative constructions. Further discussions of it achieved “nothing but [gave] criminals carte blanche to prey on society,” according to columnist Walter Williams in 1985. Suggestions that racism or structural barriers were obstructions to social and economic mobility were no longer acceptable. They had to give way to what Indianapolis conservative politician Stu Rhodes called “the reality of personal responsibility.” In this reality, black communities were responsible for their own living conditions.
From Invention to Incarceration
What is perhaps most devastating about the myth of black-on-black crime was the degree to which it was so undeniably successful. Manufactured public perception of black Americans as villains spilled over into tangible policy that shaped human lives. As during Reconstruction, claims of black criminality became self-fulfilling prophecy as those claims unfairly led to the actual incarceration of black Americans. Johnson’s War on Crime, Nixon’s War on Drugs and Reagan’s “tough on crime stance,” and President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which expanded the death penalty and the availability of law enforcement officers across the nation, made the prison-industrial complex the monster it is today.
The years between 1980 and 1994 witnessed a massive expansion of the prison population from 500,000 to 1.5 million. Black representation in the prison population increased from 14 percent in 1980 to 51 percent in 1992. More than 32 percent of black men were involved in the criminal justice system in one way or another in 1998. As the prison population grew, resources to other areas fell: California, for example, spent more to incarcerate a child in 1998 than to educate one, $32,200 against $5,327. America compromised its ability to provide for its children’s futures in order to further marginalize black communities.
Conservatives, liberals and their allies built mass incarceration under the pretense of combating black communities misdoings only to, again, more deeply embed the conditions that promoted those misdoings. Black Americans are more likely to be caught up in the net of the criminal justice system, made vulnerable by poverty, unemployment, and what tends to be a higher police presence. Mass incarceration preys and feeds on them, only to spit them back out again into a world that will not hire them, offer them welfare benefits, or allow them to maintain stable housing (private or public) because not only are they poor, they also have criminal records. The myth of black-on-black crime made black life cheap.