John McWhorter Gets “Black-on-Black Crime” All Wrong

His recent Time piece on the Christopher Lane case continues the unfair demonization of young black men.

Last week, Time published “Don’t Ignore Race in Christopher Lane’s Murder,” a piece by well-known commentator John McWhorter with the oh-so subtle subtitle “The association of young black men with violence doesn’t come out of thin air.” When I come across writing I don’t readily agree with, I have a personal policy of reviewing it twice, and then perhaps a third time, to see if I missed a major point that may help me see the author’s point of view.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this piece.

Christopher Lane’s death was a senseless act of violence. Full stop. The suspects who committed the crime (in this case, three teens, two of whom were black) should be tried under the law and convicted. Full stop.

Beyond these two very basic points, it seems that McWhorter and the individuals on “the right” he references are conflating the issues. Somehow, a piece about Lane’s death devolves into criticisms that perhaps black communities and “black America” are self-serving, if not delusional, when it comes to talking about crime, because “black on black” crime exists.

Except it doesn’t — not in the pathological sense these commentators imply.

Victims of crimes generally share the same racial identity — i.e., whites generally kill whites, blacks generally kill blacks, Asians kill Asians, etc. This fleshes itself out as you begin to look at data about where people live, residential isolation across racial lines, and the socioeconomic status of neighborhoods. If you look at violence in relation to competition for resources, it’s easy to see why violent crime occurs less frequently in communities with higher incomes. (Because, let’s be clear, crime does happen in high-income communities.)

In fact, both Politico and the Daily Beast note that crime rates among black youth have taken a sharp drop. “Since the early 1990s, homicide deaths and arrests have plunged by 70 percent among black youth in Chicago and nationwide,” says one report.

So despite McWhorter’s statistic that “Young black men murder 14 times more than young white men” from the super credible-looking conservative website that used the album cover art of a defunct horrorcore rap group — didn’t know that was a genre, did you? — to emphasize its point that black men are scary, the failure is in the radio silence in discussing black men as victims of crime. Instead, the focus, like McWhorter’s, rests solely on their roles as perpetrators, bolstering the idea of black criminality, which is used to justify disastrous policies like stop and frisk.

And that’s what gets people angry.

McWhorter was generous enough to note that black communities aren’t in “complete denial” about what’s happening around them, but says “black America isn’t nearly as indignant about black boys killing one another or whites as about the occasional white cop killing one black boy, even though the former wreaks much more havoc in black communities.”

With stop and frisk turning black neighborhoods into small police states, it might be hard to believe that the law is working on your side. And in Philadelphia, like in many other areas, the police can’t even keep witnesses safe. Nobody wants to be a prisoner of their community, but if the police can’t do their job to protect and serve, they’re going to have a hard time getting the widespread civil cooperation and allegiance needed to turn neighborhoods around.

McWhorter says that we need to be “thinking about how to keep black boys from going wrong.” I’m not sure how much work he does with youth (or if he knows any young people at all) but calling them “black thugs,” which he is careless enough to do, isn’t a great place to start. Working with young people changes them. Educating young people changes them. Listening to young people them changes them. Loving young people changes them. Investing in young people changes them.

We have to move away from the romanticized idea that “coordinated nationwide movements” are the only kind that elicit changes. Localization is key.

“Organizing is for the long term. It’s registering voters, contesting disenfranchising efforts, defending funding for public schools,” says Dr. Blair L.M. Kelly, a historian and professor at North Carolina State University. “Organizing is fighting to defend the social safety net, fighting for greater access to higher education, contesting the prison industry. Mobilizations fuel awareness, raise consciousness. Not everyone is in the same place, and we must educate folks who don’t do this every day.”

Whether he knows it or not, people — teachers, social workers, counselors, community activists, volunteers, students, writers, youth organizers, nonprofit organizations — are doing this work. Every day. With and without the media spotlight. I hope Mr. McWhorter, in light of all of his concerns, will join us.