Black People Are Not Ignoring 'Black on Black' Crime

The politics of changing the subject
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Ferguson, Missouri, August 15 (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

I'm slowly catching up on my reading on the week's events in Ferguson and trying to get my head around what exactly happened. In the meantime, one idea creeping into the discourse—that black people are unmoved by intra-community violence—deserves to be immediately dismissed.  Eugene Robinson, reacting to the tragic murder of Knijah Bibb, offers an incarnation here:

We’ve been through this so many times. Brown, from all reports, was a good kid who had just graduated from high school and was about to enroll in college. But young black men are automatically assumed to be dangerous thugs—and are not given the benefit of the doubt that young white men are accorded. This is racist and wrong, and it must change.

But we should be just as outraged over Knijah’s death—and just as determined that this kind of killing should never happen again.

The entire Prince George’s County police force—not just the homicide division—has been working long hours to try to find Wallace and is motivated by what a police spokesman called a “sense of moral outrage.”

That feeling should be universal. The near-constant background noise of black-on-black violence is too often ignored. Yet it continues to claim victims at a rate that our society should consider outrageous and unacceptable.

There are a number of things wrong here. To the extent that killings by the police generate more outrage, it is completely understandable. Police in America are granted wide range of powers by the state including lethal force. With that power comes a special place of honor. When cops are killed the outrage is always different than when citizens are killed. Likewise when cops kill under questionable terms, more scrutiny follows directly from the logic of citizenship. Great power. Great responsibility.

More importantly Robinson's claim is demonstrably false. The notion that violence within the black community is "background noise" is not supported by the historical recordor by Google. I have said this before. It's almost as if Stop The Violence never happened, or The Interruptors never happened, or Kendrick Lamar never happened. The call issued by Erica Ford at the end of this Do The Right Thing retrospective is so common as to be ritual. It is not "black on black crime" that is background noise in America, but the pleas of black people.

There is a pattern here, but it isn't the one Eugene Robinson (for whom I have a great respect) thinks. The pattern is the transmutation of black protest into moral hectoring of black people. Don Imus profanely insults a group of black women. But the real problem is gangsta rap. Trayvon Martin is killed. This becomes a conversation about how black men are bad fathers. Jonathan Martin is bullied mercilessly. This proves that black people have an unfortunate sense of irony.

The politics of respectability are, at their root, the politics of changing the subjectthe last resort for those who can not bear the agony of looking their country in the eye. The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these factsthey evidence them.

This history presents us with a suite of hard choices. We do not like hard choices. Here's a better idea: Let's all get together and talk about how Mike Brown would still be alive if Beyoncé would make more wholesome music, followed by a national forum on how the charge of "acting white" contributes to mass incarceration. We can conclude with a keynote lecture on "Kids Today" and a shrug.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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