False Categories: Black-on-Black Crime

Photo Credit: Flickr user Phil CrisologoI maintain that doubting and refining (and sometimes rejecting) one’s ideas is a fundamental part of knowing. Without those habits, ideas become brittle and dogmatic, and demagoguery becomes common. Without those habits, we can develop entire concepts with ready-made distortion built in. I think of these concepts as false categories: words or phrases where peripheral qualities are used to define a convenient set of things regardless of relevance.

Have you ever had someone ask you a rhetorical question that just made you think “that’s a stupid question,” but you couldn’t put your finger on why? Did you find yourself reluctantly pulled along by their logic, knowing full well that there was a flaw somewhere but unable to find it? This has been my experience when I encounter false categories—I recognize that there is a specious premise in the question, but it take a while to parse it out because it was hidden in the language instead of stated outright.

Of course, categories are useful and effective shorthand for thought and debate. This is why we rely on them so much. But human beings are also too enamored of categories; we think too little about them, and we overlook false categories that contain questionable implications. You can draw a circle around any convenient thing and call it a category, and we do, especially when there is an ideological motive for doing so.

Case in point, the phrase “black-on-black crime.” For white people, racial tensions they had mostly ignored have become much less ignorable in the recent past. For those white people motivated to dismiss the idea that racism still has any role in American society, “black-on-black crime” is a refuge. “Look!” these people can say, “there are proportionally more murders by black Americans of black Americans! Black-on-black crime is the real issue you should focus on, not [insert topic here].” Black Lives Matter? Then why don’t they focus on Black-on-Black Crime (and stop picking on George Zimmerman, or white people, or police officers)?

On the face of it (ignoring the false choice idea that you can only focus on one thing at a time) the category of “black-on-black crime” is apparently real. FBI crime statistics bear out that there is, indeed, more crime within races than across races, and more crime overall in black communities. So one could be forgiven, after a cursory glance at the data, for thinking the category of “black-on-black crime” is a natural category with real implications. Which is where a lot of people would stop, so let’s not.

The phrase “black-on-black crime,” especially when used in discussions about structural racism, implies a false equivalency between crimes motivated by racism and crimes motivated by poverty. To suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement should focus on “black-on-black crime” instead of structural racism in police departments implies that because more poor black people kill other black people than do racially motivated police, the latter should be somehow less important. Even the premise that you could focus on one and not the other implies no chain of causality between a community unable to trust its police force and the levels of crime within that community.

The phrase “black-on-black crime” carries with it the implicit limit of violent crime, the sort of crime where one or two people have one or two victims and there is direct interaction between them. If one includes fraud, embezzling, tanking the world economy, or various other kinds of white-collar (and mostly white-person) crime, the question of who counts as a victim becomes altogether muddled. White people often talk about white-collar crimes as “victimless,” but I think all the people who got stuck in foreclosure after being bamboozled into bad mortgages would disagree on that point.

The thing that bothers me most about “black-on-black crime” is that it is fundamentally a bait-and-switch. The category acknowledges that race is an important factor in the discussion, but then uses that importance to divert attention and avoid responsibility. It betrays a deeply separatist view of American society and carries the deep conviction that races are just different, which leads treacherously to the idea that some races are more criminal. Crime in white communities is painted as an aberration, but the implication of the phrase “black-on-black crime” is that crime in black communities is inherently tied to the racial makeup of those communities. Never mind that we know crime is actually tied to the density and socioeconomic makeup of communities, and societal structures and history have conspired to make poor urban communities more black than white.

This is why I believe “black-on-black crime” is a false category. Like many false categories, it takes an incidental factor and paints it as causal. Usually that’s just a mistake, a cognitive shortcut that we take so often that it’s tough to avoid. In this particular case, though, it echoes a long and shameful history of white people judging other races as inferior.

Some white people try to convince themselves that they no longer do this. Some try to convince themselves that racism isn’t a real part of society. “Black-on-black crime” does have something real to say about race, but what is has to say is that uncomfortable white people are trying very hard to look away. Racism, though, will not be buried in so shallow a grave; it will keep rising to the surface until we deal with it honestly, and structurally, and humbly.

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