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by Peter Moskos

August 24, 2016

Enough with the "Fakery"

John McWhorter on the developing taboo of using the phrase "black-on-black crime." (Spoiler alert: "We need to nip the burgeoning of this new and useless taboo in the bud with all deliberate speed."):
"What’s wrong is to refer to black on black crime as evidence of something uniquely pathological about black people.
[But] to instead classify the term “black on black crime” as a slur, period — and this is what is happening of late — is illogical. Moreover, it detracts attention from genuine concern for black communities.
And finally, treating “black on black crime” as a new “bad word” will only create fakery, and the way we discuss race in this country already has enough of that. Enlightened people’s impulse to avoid causing offense to black people and to always demonstrate that they are not racists will force a certain attendance to the pox on saying “black on black crime.” It will become a cocktail party cliché to dutifully observe “But white people are more likely to be killed by whites!” and shrug, with the implication that anyone who doesn’t understand that is “one of them,” unenlightened, and likely willfully so, impeded by their inner racists from giving black people are fair shot.

But under the radar, plenty of people will always know that this taboo doesn’t really make sense, and that it even seems to pull attention away from what real black people living real lives think of as their real problems.

We should, to the extent we can, use language with clarity and honesty. Pretending it’s always wrong to refer to something called “black on black crime” is antithetical to that mission, and we need to nip the burgeoning of this new and useless taboo in the bud with all deliberate speed.
I came across this at the same time I was responding to a request for some data. Somebody asked if there was any hard data backing up an assertion I made that blacks want more (not less) police presence.

A quick search with the ol' googlay found this 2015 Gallup poll: 38 percent of blacks want more police presence (and this compares to just 18 percent of whites). Only 10 percent of blacks want less police presence. Wanted more police and wanting fewer bad police are not mutually exclusive, of course.

People -- particularly black people, particular people more likely to be victimized by violent crime -- want more police. So when you hear people say blacks are over-policed and want less policing, you might wonder for whom they speak. Meanwhile, the Movement for Black Lives (which is or overlaps heavily with Black Lives Matter) released a platform that is more concerned with the problem of Israel(?) than black-on-black crime. (Did I miss it? Is there really nothing in this platform about crime when not perpetrated by cops?) Fear of crime and criminals always trumps fear of police and over-policing.

A short while back another person with knowledge of crime issues asked me if it were really true that blacks are more likely than whites to commit serious violent crimes. It's good not to highlight this point out of context (lest racists go to town) since poverty and other variables account for much of the racial disparity, but indeed, yes.

In 2014 (latest UCR numbers, when homicides were fewer) 6,095 blacks and 5,397 whites were murdered in America. There are 42,749,0000 blacks and 247,814,000 whites in America. That comes out to a black homicide rate of 14.3 and a white homicide rate of 2.2 per 100,000. [Just FYI, last year the homicide rate in Baltimore's Eastern District was 100 per 100,000.] This is a huge disparity. Blacks are 6.5 times more likely than whites to be killed. I kind of thought this was common knowledge. But maybe I'm in too deep.

So this goes back to the usage of "black on black crime." I don't care to engage in semantic debates when lives are at stake. I won't be silent. But if it helps move the discussion toward solutions, I'm very willing to drop "black on black crime" and talk instead about black homicide victims or something. But talking about black homide victims begs the question of who the killers are. And since most crime is intra-racial, we're left with a certain circular logic that goes back to "black on black" crime! [And look, I just combined three questionable phrases in one paragraph! Along with "black on black crime," I'm not really certain if I did "beg the question" or if my logic was "circular." But my point is to get my point across.]

Not so long ago a friend of mine commented on the phenomenon of white folks who complain they can't use the "n-word." His point was "Why? You gotta ask yourself, why do you want to use it? What are trying to express that demands using this work?" (He was using the abstract "you" and not referring to me, just FYI.) If your point is simply to offend, then maybe it's best to keep your trap shut. See, the value of political correctness isn't to march in lockstep with some ideology, it's to not be an asshole.

So it's fair to ask, "Why do you want to use the phrase 'black-on-black crime'?" And the answer is because too many people are trying to distract from a real problem. Like too many cops, I've seen the carnage of "black on black crime" first hand. Last year the homicide rate in Baltimore's Eastern District was 100 per 100,000. I, like many police officers, too often feel that we are the only people who actually give a shit. Murders don't make the papers; victims won't even tell you their names. Who else (apart from EMS, nurses, and doctors) spends most of their waking hours trying to save lives? Now this sentiment may not be true, but when you get home after hearing gunshots, canvassing for witnesses, and riffling through the bloody clothes of another young black male victim, it's an understandable sentiment.

Call it what you will, but rather than make another phrase taboo, we should, as McWhorter says, pay more attention to "what real black people living real lives think of as their real problems." Sometimes those voices are too hard to hear.


JPP said...

"See, the value of political correctness isn't to march in lockstep with some ideology, it's to not be an asshole."

Shane Taylor said...

Back when Occupy Wall Street was a thing, I remember someone described it as having an inner and an outer movement. The same could be said for the "anti-globalization" movement a decade earlier, which was more candid about the divide between reformist liberals and radical egalitarians (like the anarchists, for whom all states are fascist).

The reformists were arguably larger in number, but they were also broadly diffuse. They were not as likely to march in the streets, but they were more likely to be people the average American would know. The radicals may have been a minority, but they were not really a fringe. They could be found within the center of both movements. In the case of Occupy, they had a great deal of success in shaping the agenda and the terms of debate.

I view Black Lives Matter as another double movement. One crucial difference, however, is that the radicals have gotten much better at manipulating the movement. I suspect they owe their success, in part, to their masterly exploitation of white guilt. They also owe some of it to the moral and intellectual failure of liberal leaders to openly confront the illiberal left. The situation reminds me of the failure of the British center left to defeat the Corbynite left, which is now killing the Labour Party.

When liberal leaders fail to mark their differences with the far left (like, say, over the threat and use of political violence), demagogues on the right are more than happy to erase any distinction. They will gladly use the crimes of the far left to discredit and defeat the center left.

EA5 said...

Your calculation of the number of black people is off by a factor of 10 but thats probably just a typo.

I think frustration and growing taboo-ization (lets pretend thats a word) to the term black-on-black crime comes from a few areas. The first is the way it is used in the context of discussions of police killings and abuse. It does seem to often be used by opponents of police reform as a means of changing the subject. For instance, activists will point out perceived abuse by the police targeted at the black community and the opponent will then raise the issue of black-on-black crime. This is prevalent in Heather MacDonald's writing where she often implies that police reform activists have their priorities wrong. The basic argument is that police abuse isn't as serious an issue as black-on-black crime, therefore activists should shut up about it. This of course ignores the fact that many people in the black community, including supporters of police reform, are also active in violence prevention efforts. So its a pretty disingenuous way of telling activists that their priorities of issues in their communities are wrong while avoiding actually addressing or responding to any of their concerns.

The second is the way that black-on-black crime is used as a justification for racial profiling, and really any police action taken against black communities. An interesting and underappreciated aspect of crime, particularly violent crime and murders, is how concentrated it is in a relatively small number of extremely high crime neighborhoods in certain cities. These areas are overwhelmingly black or hispanic because of, to grossly generalize, decades of segregation and discrimination. But, the crime rate in these areas is used as a justification for racial profiling of people outside of these areas. So for some people, high rates of black-on-black crime becomes an acceptable justification for whatever happens to black people at the hands of police anywhere it happens.

So its difficult with a term like this which obviously has value for professionally discussing criminal justice issues, but has also accumulated its own sets of connotations within the political debate. At some point, the weight of people's assumptions about those who use a term overpower the use it had.

I also just want to briefly comment on the desire for more vs less police. I think both views reflect a desire for better police. On the one hand, large numbers of people feel that the police aren't responding fast enough, aren't solving enough crimes, aren't patrolling enough, etc and they want more police. On the other hand, a different group sees the police, when they are present, engaging in activities that are, or are perceived to be, corrupt, abusive, and racist. That segment has given up on police as a legitimate source of law and order and just wants them out. So if I assume both sets of individuals have legitimate grievances, the solution would be more police but also more professionalism, training, oversight, and accountability for the police in general.

aNanyMouse said...

As usual, both Left and Right tell at most half of the story. Were McDonald etc. willing to be really honest, they’d concede that Blacks have some good reason to be “paranoid” of the White power structure, seeing that the fight vs. white-collar (esp. Wall St.) crime gets a fraction of the attention (from the power structure) given to violent street crime. (See thread in Peter’s recent post “Teach your children well”.)
Were BLM etc. willing to be really honest, they’d concede that this disparity between the attention given to white-collar crime, and that given to violent street crime, owes much less to Honky Racism etc., than to the fact that (the families of) Wall St. criminals mostly come from the same social class as do the others in the power structure.

If street cops could make more drug busts in White working class hoods than in Black hoods, the power structure class would still laugh all the way to the bank, thank you. But cops know good and well that any strong probing of drug dealers in Kenilworth, Il, or in the Hamptons, NY, will not be so well received, so cops go (and are sent to) where the easy busts are.

Seeing that virtually every criminal on Wall St. is white, any effort to crack down on Wall St. crime, or on drug use in the Hamptons, may well lead to a big boost in funding to the KKK etc., who would then have more coin to scream about this new escalation of the purported “War on Whites”.

This country is drowning in BS from paranoid axe-grinders, while prudent discussion of complex issues is drowned out.

Peter Moskos said...

Thanks, Steve. I meant 43 mil. My handy calculator only has 8 digits, which occasionally leads to such problems. Corrected.

aNanyMouse said...

Again @EA5
On “The basic argument is that police abuse isn't as serious….”: In fairness to McDonald, she is responding primarily to BLM, who pay no more attention to black violence prevention efforts than she does.

Also, note that a check of the Black Lives web site, to which Peter linked, shows it to say a huge amount about not only Israel, but also the whole range of the Far Left’s favorite foreign policy beefs, but, stunningly, absolutely zero about white-collar (incl. Wall St.) crime. Its only reference to Wall St. etc. is its call for reinstitution of Glass-Steagall, mainly for the aim of revitalizing Black Financial Institutions.

Is it that none of them have seen the epic film “Inside Job”, or that they’re so absorbed only in the simplest or most incendiary issues pertinent to Blacks, or what? It’s not as if the Far Left never says boo about Wall St. crimes! (Though of course they say zip about black-on-black crime.)

CollegeCop said...

BLM or whatever you want to call it is just Occupy dressed up in new clothes, the same Occupy was just all those anti-Globalization groups. My internal "in my own head" name for them is "the left continuum" lol.

As for what Mr. McWhorter is saying, he's spot on this time. What's funny to me is I recently had a conversation with a BLM supporter, a conversation from the twilight zone because that supporter (like many) was a white man and I'm a black man who happens to be in law enforcement. He trotted out the same "most whites are killed by whites" line as Mr. McWhorter mentioned and I remember having the same thought. ie "WTF does that have to do with what we are talking about"?

People don't want to talk about the real issues, they want to advance their agendas, which makes a lot of the discussion pointless. What makes it even more pointless is how a discussion of "Police/Community relations" always only focuses on the Police side. Never any talk of reforming the crime ridden communities full of able bodied people who choose crime even when work is available.

It's like making a married couple go to a marriage counselor then only talking to one of them and expecting that to fix the problem...

Alex Elkins said...

This is a good piece on the history of "black on black crime": http://www.citylab.com/crime/2015/06/the-origins-of-the-phrase-black-on-black-crime/395507/

The phrase was first prominently deployed by black media for a largely black urban audience (though, as explained in the article, the idea or social problem had been invoked for decades for vastly different purposes). As neighborhoods deteriorated and crime began to skyrocket, especially street drug selling, in the late 1960s, black urbanites mobilized for more cops on the beat (professional cops and black cops, mostly). But the phrase, used in largely black circles, has a different meaning than when used by Rudy Giuliani or Heather MacDonald. That's why I think it's best just to speak to the issue of police protection, which is important, and not unintentionally blow the racist dog-whistle.

Peter Moskos said...

College Cop, The non-sequitur nature of "most whites are killed by whites" is crazy. It's like talking about the harms of the drug war and somebody saying, "but many drugs are usefully prescribed medications." Yes... OK.... and...?

But there's also a "no-duh" aspect. We all know most whites are killed by whites. (At least except for the complete racist idiots, eg: http://www.copinthehood.com/2015/11/right-wing-lies-xi-donald-trump-says.html)

Alex, you raise a good point. (Though I wouldn't group MacDonald and Giuliani in the same usage category. I think MacDonald's intentions are much better.) But you're right, and it's why I won't go the mat for my "right" to use "black-on-black crime." But that assumes we can talk about the issue in another less offensive way. Inasmuch as the phrase is a racist dog-whistle, I don't want to use it. But if the attempt to make the phrase taboo is an attempt to not deny there's a problem, then it needs some pushback. Because whatever phrase we do use will be similarly shamed. And then we're left only debating semantics when we could be trying to solve problems.

Consider the use of "thug," which as far as I know only became "racist" last year. Meanings change. And if "thug" is now racist, I'm not going to use it any more than I'd want to cling to outdated terms like Negro or Colored. Meanings change.

But white people can be thugs. (See Bill Buford's "Among the Thugs," for example.) We need a term to describe opportunist people who start riots, cut fire house, burn homes, loot drugs, beat up passers-by, and engage in general social misbehavior. And that can be linked to English football or the Baltimore riot.

The movement to make "thug" taboo was less about racism than an explicit attempt to defend, well, thuggery and defang criticism against people rioting. Thug was a race-neutral word that distinguished between those people doing bad things and everybody else. Attacks on the use of "thug" seemed less about the word than defending the actions of, well, people described as thug. And there was no alternative word to use, which was probably precisely the point. (Though honestly, Egypt has done more to make a mockery of the crime of "thuggery" than anything that has happened here in the US.)

aNanyMouse said...

Typo alert: ”… to make the phrase taboo is an attempt to not deny (accept?) there's a problem.

To elaborate on your semantics point: What a dirty shame it is that certain loudmouths are *allowed* to make ordinary words/ phrases like “Black –on-Black crime”, or “thug”, into radioactive slurs. Should “White-on-White crime" be similarly so? And if so, how can we talk about crimes among Whites without offending someone? Or must we not talk about such a thing?

If Blacks, the *vast* majority of whom are law-abiding citizens in good standing, want to be called Black rather than Negro or Colored, common decency requires them to be extended the *courtesy* of us calling them by their chosen designation, just as I expect to be called the name I designate, rather than “A**hole”. But if powerful pals of criminals resent these criminals being called thugs, too bad! Those who wantonly defy society’s rules *don’t* deserve the sorts of courtesies extended to law-abiding citizens. I’ll quite wager that the pals of criminals will eventually demand that “criminals”, instead be called “troubled souls” or “legally challenged”.

Given growing resentment of the dishonesty of such PC language-tyranny, the Left will have only itself to blame when a Trump uses this resentment to rise to power.

EA5 said...

I'm not actually sure that "thug" is race neutral in common parlance. I bet (hypothesize) that if someone were to run a text analysis on news and opinion pieces in the past few years, the word thug would and its derivatives would be strongly correlated with the race of subject. Among the left, the term thug is mostly viewed as a way to brand black people after an act of perceived police abuse, thus justifying whatever happened. So after something happens, social media is combed through and examples of "thuggery" are presented to the world without context and sometimes without accuracy (Trayvon Martin and The Game). Its seen as a way of winning in the court of public opinion before any investigation occurs.

Its also seen as way of associating peaceful protestors with rioters. In the past few years, there have been a handful of anti-police riots, and hundreds if not thousands of peaceful BLM marches and rallies. But read right-wing news for a few weeks and you'll see the phrase "Black-lives-matter thugs" pretty regularly, whether talking about riots or talking about protests (note, i'm including civil disobedience like blocking highways in the protest column).

So yeah, the term black on black crime has picked up baggage because its been used as a way to deflect from legitimate grievances about police abuse. And "thug" has picked up baggage because of the way its been used for political branding. In either case, using those terms is a good way to ensure that you won't be part of a substantive or civil discussion.

Alex Elkins said...

It so happens that McWhorter was interviewed on the usage of the word "thug": http://www.npr.org/2015/04/30/403362626/the-racially-charged-meaning-behind-the-word-thug.

An excerpt:
MCWHORTER: Well, the truth is that thug today is a nominally polite way of using the N-word. Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again. And so anybody who wonders whether thug is becoming the new N-word doesn't need to. It's most certainly is.

aNanyMouse said...

“…it is almost *impossible* today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair.”
Really?? Try Googling news for “skinhead thugs”. No, the news orgs calling skinheads "thugs" aren’t thereby calling them "ni**ers".

Of course, “the word thug would… be strongly correlated with the race of subject” in a country where *street* crime is disproportionally committed by folks of a certain race. Under such conditions, there may *never* be a word which refers to street crime which is race-neutral.

But I’ll quite bet that the MSM does use “thug” more often to diss skinheads etc. than to diss Wall St. thugs. After all, Wall St. thugs wear ties from Brooks Brothers, just like MSM brass!

aNanyMouse said...

If the most vivid saying in the Hood is "Tell the mayor I'll bomb his house and rape his wife!", the most vivid aphorism on Wall St. is along the lines of "the easiest way to rob a bank is to be a manager of one!"

aNanyMouse said...

Peter: Lest anyone fear my critique of Wall St. to be coming from a Sandersist viewpoint, I want to clarify this by stating that, my fears of another (*criminally*- and stupidity- concocted) ’08-type crisis owe much to the arguments of such prescient observers as Gary Savage (of Smart Money Tracker), whose deep understanding of the Markets' shenanigans has made/saved his subscribers *major coin* in recent years.

(For starters, you might Google "Yellen Put". My favorite politician is Ron Paul. At least he does a bit more than scratch the surface, on some key issues.)

aNanyMouse said...

Make that *shenanigans*!

Peter Moskos said...

McWhorter wrote that right on April 30, 2016, right after the black mayor of Baltimore referred to some rioters as thugs. I don't think she was being racist. She just hadn't gotten the memo yet. Obama used it too. He wasn't being racist.

McWhorter is arguing that, like the n-word, blacks can use the word "thug" and white people can't. I don't buy that. "Thug" is not the n-word. "Thug" is not historically rooted in racism. And, unlike the n-word -- which I never feel compelled to use -- thug is a word with meaning for which there is no good replacement. We do need a word to describe what Obama and the mayor (or Bill Buford) describe.

Why, I'm old enough to remember when thug just meant "tough guy who doesn't play the rules and uses violence." "Thug life cradle to grave," as graffiti in the Eastern proudly proclaimed back in 2000. Still, as EA5 alludes to, this is probably a fight not worth fighting. Once again, goddmamn racists done screwed everything up for everybody.

Peter Moskos said...

Shane, nice comment way back up there. Somehow I missed it until now.

aNanyMouse said...

White guilt may well be at the core of all this. One way to tackle this, once and for all, may be to say to the Black Left:

OK, guys, how much Reparations coin will it take to get you to call it all even, so that we henceforth can make prudent public policy, free from debates about it being haunted by the legacy of slavery?

aNanyMouse said...

Meaning, to BLM etc., "Sh*t or get off the pot!"

Alex Elkins said...

"Thug" is a charge that sticks. It need not to. But I find people use the term to not merely criticize bad behavior but to demonize the person behind it. That can have worrisome implications for penal policy. Mass incarceration has locked up thousands for bad behavior and thousands branded as "thugs," with some overlap. If we want to scale back dragnet enforcement, we should rethink our use of the term "thug" as it may encourage the use of such dragnets in neighborhoods where thugs are thought to prowl.

(The McWhorter excerpt was meant in a self-consciously silly "gotcha" sort of way, not as serious argument. I don't think that "thug" is the same as the n-word, though some likely do mean it in that sense. Again, context matters: Jill Leovy made this point well in a recent interview, I thought, when she said that well-heeled, well-meaning liberals would be surprised, perhaps discomfited, to learn the terms that poor folk use to describe bad behavior on their blocks.)

Thos Wallace said...

In a way, it is shocking that the phrase 'black on black crime' is now considered taboo and racist. This is only a short step from saying that addition is racist. Or, 'noticing' is racist.
Consider the AP Stylebook regarding when it is appropriate to mention race in crime reporting. http://www.poynter.org/2012/ap-stylebook-updates-entry-on-racial-ids-in-news-stories/166506/ "When the suspect is found or apprehended, the update says, the racial reference should be removed."
Social media and bloggers don't pay attention to the AP Stylebook. So the main stream media has lot whatever control it once had regarding this information. I agree that there is a strong connection between political correctness and manners. People want to be fair and acknowledge some nuance and context regarding the subject of race. On the other hand, " Like too many cops, I've seen the carnage of "black on black crime" first hand."

Liberaltarian . . . said...

I don't have any problem with saying or talking about black on black crime. The problem that I have, however, is the idea I've seen expressed that you shouldn't talk about police misconduct and in particular shouldn't talk, think, criticize or worry about police wrongfully or unnecessarily killing black people because if you really cared then you would first focus on black on black crime. Talking about black on black crime--fine. Using black on black crime to attempt to evade scrutiny for police killings--not fine.

CollegeCop said...

No one said anything about not talking about police misconduct.

The problem is the ideological scapegoating, the pretending like police are so horrible they are the number one evil facing black folks (and the only evil worth protesting/rioting about) when those same black people are WAY more likely to be murdered by someone from our own race that isn't a police officer. It's like a strange "reverse Willy Horton scenario". White people have always been more likely to be murdered by whites, but it's the picture of a scary black criminal that wins elections (a picture of a scary white felon would not have had the same impact), likewise many black folks are scared of police despite the obvious and easy to document truth that police are one of the least of our worries.

David said...

Peter, your language is offensive and unacceptable:


Honestly drives me insane. I'm weak that way.

(On the real point, I think Alex nails it.)

Liberaltarian . . . said...

The SF Police Union letter to the NFL is an example of is an example of what I was referring to. https://cbssanfran.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/letter-to-nfl-commissioner-and-sf49er-president-ceo.pdf If talking about black-on-black crime is becoming taboo, then you have people like the SF Union who use it to criticize critics of cops to thank for that.

Roman Acleaf said...

Early into the first shift I ever worked in uniform my FTO told me:
"Police are the SNOOZE BUTTON of societies ills. You will spend the rest of your career getting out-of-control situations under just enough control that you can hand them back to the rightful "owners" (he often spoke of people "owning" their actions or circumstances), only to see the court, or the hospital, or the parents mess it back up. That's why it's called crisis INTERVENTION. We intervene a lot, we step into the middle of things. Sometimes we get to be early, and prevent a crisis. A few times we get to see things through and resolve a crisis. But mostly we step into the middle, get the two sides separated into opposite corners, and wait until the same set of circumstances presents itself again and brings about the same results. We give society another 15 minutes of peace until it's ready to wake up and face reality."