It never fails. Whenever a story breaks about a police officer shooting an unarmed Black male, or a white supremacist committing a vicious hate crime, you’ll hear it. Literally every time.
“But what about Chicago?”
Those who offer this query will then mention something about how a dozen people were shot in the Windy City over the weekend — all of them Black — but because other Black folks shot them, we who talk about racism remain silent. Supposedly we only care about Black lives when taken by White folks or by agents of the state. Black-on-black violence, they proclaim, is irrelevant to us.
Even when such folks manage to keep Chicago out of their mouths, they remain firmly committed to pushing the larger black-on-black crime trope. The assumption is that so long as Black people kill more Black people than White people kill Black people, worrying about the latter is an unaffordable luxury at best. At worst, it’s a leftist disinformation campaign rooted in anti-white animus or hatred for cops.
But this default position — so instantaneous it is almost a reflex, like when the doctor taps you on the knee, and you kick — is marinated in incredible bad faith, a deceptive deployment of data, and the reliance on well-worn stereotypes about Black criminality that are false. Ultimately, its only function is to downplay the problem of White racism, or at least minimize the sympathy that attaches to Black folks when they do end up victimized by it, given all the horrible things they do to themselves.
First, the bad faith. Does anyone believe that when Donald Trump rants about Chicago being “more dangerous than Afghanistan,” it’s because he cares about the people who live there? Does one assume he could even point on a map to the Black neighborhoods experiencing the bulk of crime and violence in that city if his life depended on it? Has he ever ventured into that part of Chicago? Does he know anyone there?
Of course not. Donald Trump’s Chicago is limited to the building there with his name on it. You know, the one R. Kelly lives in, totally unironically. To Trump, dissing Chicago is about dissing Barack Obama, who is associated with the city, or dissing Black folks generally, which is who most White folks think of when we hear of it. It’s who we’ve always thought of when politicians mention it, just as we did when Ronald Reagan talked about a “welfare queen” from there who drove a Cadillac to pick up her government checks while wearing a fur coat.
Chicago is code, that’s all, and conservative concern-trolling about crime in Black neighborhoods there has nothing to do with them losing sleep over the issue. Even less does it track their willingness to help find solutions for the problem — other than the old stand-bys of three-strikes laws and letting police rough up suspects, as Trump has suggested.
Meanwhile, and contrary to what they would like most folks to believe, there is no shortage of dedicated individuals and groups in the city of Chicago working day in and day out to address the crime problem. The same is true in every major city in the country: Black folks mostly, doing the unheralded and largely ignored community-building, violence prevention, gang intervention, and conflict resolution work about which White America knows almost nothing. The media doesn’t cover it — it’s not as sexy as a drive-by or mass shooting at a house party — but it’s happening every day. Black people are trying to help their communities and make them better, without any attention, let alone assistance from White folks, and especially the ones who use Black communities as props in their racist social narratives.
Ironically, some of the most consistent work in this regard in Chicago is being done by the very forces most castigated by White conservatives: people like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, and Father Michael Pfleger at St. Sabina Catholic Church. The same people who call out white racism and police misconduct are the ones who do the community self-help work about which the right is so animated. Yet they never praise such individuals or their efforts because they don’t care about crime and violence in Black communities, except as a rhetorical tool to justify more prejudice.
As for the deceptive use of data, the “black-on-black crime” trope is inherently disingenuous. Of course, more Black people are killed by other Black people than are killed by White people, let alone White cops. But this rather misses the point. Crime tends to be intra-racial (that is to say, black-on-black and white-on-white) because criminals tend to be creatures of opportunity. They victimize the available, which means people who live around them and with whom they come in contact. Given our history of racial isolation and segregation (de jure or de facto), those we find ourselves around tend to be racially similar.
But how is that a rebuttal to the idea that the killing of Black citizens by police is also a problem to be addressed? How is that a rebuttal to the notion that racist hate crimes are a serious and legitimate concern? As Ta-Nehisi Coates has noted, Americans kill far more Americans each year than the 9/11 hijackers murdered in 2001, but that doesn’t mean the latter wasn’t a big deal or worthy of our attention. Surely, there can be multiple things about which we express concern at the same time.
Even at the height of lynching, segregation, and enslavement, it’s likely true that more Black people were killed by other Black people than by White people. And again, this would be because of proximity. But would that have justified downplaying the evils of lynching, segregation or slavery? Of course not.
Likewise, there were more Black folks killed by Belgium’s King Leopold in the Congo than by White folks in the United States, but that would hardly have rendered the architects of American apartheid less worthy of condemnation or overthrow. Indeed, the White man who referenced the Belgian empire’s crimes each time the NAACP protested lynching in those years, would have been a grotesque and puerile apologist for the inhumanity of his own people, not a bold truth-teller deserving of our consideration.
That somewhere in America a few Black people were likely felled by other Black people on August 28, 1955, is of no importance when it comes to how we understand the death of Emmett Till that day at the hands of deranged White men in Mississippi. It does not make their crime less important, and it surely does not suggest that those who used his murder as a rallying cry for the civil rights struggle, including his mother, were somehow “ignoring the real problem” of Black violence.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was not, for all those years, “missing the bigger picture” when she raised the issue of lynching and led the struggle against it. She understood it all too well. That virtually no conservatives have even heard of her is all one needs to know, and frankly, it should disqualify them from opening their mouths to speak on issues of race ever again.
As for the misuse of anti-black stereotypes, the simple, if misunderstood truth is this: crime has been dropping nationwide and in Chicago, and Black crime has fallen specifically. In Chicago, although there was an uptick in homicides in 2016, that now seems to have been an abnormal year. In 2019, according to the Chicago police, murders were down 13 percent and have dropped three years in a row. Today, homicide rates are one-third below the 2016 mark, and roughly half of what they were in the early 1990s. Crime has fallen so much in Chicago, in fact, that almost 90 percent of the national decline in homicides in the past three years is attributable to improvements in that city alone.
And, it should be noted, those improvements came not as a result of Trump’s suggestion that police should crack heads or do more stop-and-frisk. If anything, they’ve been doing less of that in recent years. Instead, the falloff in crime rates has come during a time when the local prosecutor has endorsed less punitive measures for minor crimes. Chicago is seeing crime fall even as the city imposes less harsh punishments on its people and diverts offenders from felony convictions whenever possible.
Nationally, violent crime is also down considerably. According to data from the Justice Department, since the early 1990s, crime rates are down by more than three-fourths from around 80 victimizations per 1,000 people to fewer than 20 per 1,000 today. And Black crime, both against other Black people and against White people, has fallen by more than 80 percent since 1994.
In other words, America and Chicago are getting safer, not more dangerous. That isn’t to say that the problem of violence and crime has been solved because it hasn’t been, and especially in specific, economically devastated communities where concentrated poverty is the norm. So too, if one has lost a loved one to gang violence in the past few years, the fact that such violence was 2–3 times more prevalent thirty years ago will provide little solace. That said, it matters that Black America and America writ large are experiencing less criminal victimization than a generation ago.
It matters because it gives the lie to racist propaganda and those who spread it. Even as the nation has become less white, crime has dropped. Even as hip-hop — which gets blamed for Black misbehavior — exploded into the dominant cultural and artistic form in the country, crime has dropped. Even as the nation became more secular (as right-wing Christians lament) and more “crass” (as whiny Boomers complain), crime dropped.
And every day, Black Chicago and Black America are trying to take care of themselves as are Baltimore and whatever other places white conservatives seek to make into props. Rather than moralize, lecture, and use the people in these cities as chess pieces in their racist game, they are welcome to join the fight to make things better.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for them to do it.
. . .
I’m an antiracism educator/author. I Facebook & tweet @timjacobwise, podcast at Speak Out With Tim Wise & post bonus content at patreon.com/speakoutwithtimwise
Previously published on Medium.com.
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