How millions of white Americans bought into a racist myth

“Black-on-black crime” is an invention that was decades in the making


Days after President Donald Trump mocked professional athletes taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality inflicted upon communities of color, namely former San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick who first kneeled in 2016, others followed suit. As national media coverage of the athletes’ protests intensified and the president doubled down on his provocations, which soon gave way to threats, the condemnation came. Outlets like the Washington Times implicitly questioned why did the athletes not turn their attention to a more pressing cause: the danger of “black-on-black crime.”

The Washington Times article is only the latest in a long line of attempts to use the racist trope of black-on-black crime to specifically discredit the Black Lives Matter movement and to invalidate very real concerns about police treatment of black communities across the country. Implicit in those attempts is a suggestion of the inherent criminality of black Americans.

This argument is a lie decades in the making.

Statistical data collected by the FBI in 2016 reported that 90.1 percent of black homicide victims were killed by black perpetrators. Similarly, 83.5 percent of white homicide victims were killed by other whites, a figure comparable to that for black victims. And yet the term “white-on-white crime” does not exist in American lexicon. According to Columbia University professor Carla Shedd, “All violence and crime is about proximity” to the point that the label “‘black-on-black crime’ is an unnecessary specification.” Furthermore, the extent to which black individuals are committing crime has been vastly exaggerated in the public imagination. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics maintains that less than one percent of all black Americans commit a violent crime in any given year, which, stated differently, means that 99 percent of black Americans do not commit crimes to contribute to the black-on-black crime categorization.

Unlike so many other aspects of his presidency, President Donald Trump’s enthusiastic exploitation of “black-on-black crime” is in lockstep with 50 years of conservative dogma. As Professor David Wilson made clear in his book, Inventing Black-on-Black Violence: Discourse, Space, and Representation, “black-on-black crime” is just that: an invention. An invention that proved to be an especially potent weapon in the hands of conservatives, who eschewed centralizing discussions of crime and other challenges around economics and poverty in favor of putting blackness itself on trial, for advancing an agenda and absolving themselves of accountability. Conservative and liberals constructed the myth of black-on-black crime, which proved to be an effective means of shaming and subjugating black communities.

The Reconstruction Criminal Injustice System

In the years after Emancipation, new opportunities for black freedmen were met with vehement opposition from white lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and citizens working in tandem, particularly in the South. Such collusion bore a “winking” justice system that protected black rights in theory, but assisted in abusing them in practice. Though repealed in 1866, the discriminatory “Black Codes” made a resurgence after the end of Reconstruction. These statutes transformed petty crimes and misdemeanors into felonies that commanded harsher punishments. The ostensible wave of black crime across the South lent credence to the fears of even the most progressive whites that blacks were unqualified for citizenship and inherently more inclined towards criminal behavior. Those fears in turn provided more justification for the criminalization of black life that entrenched Jim Crow.

At the same time, however, while law enforcement officers over-policed black communities for (manufactured) petty crimes, they overlooked or under-investigatedthe violent crimes that happened in those same communities. One Tennessean official captured the justice system’s disregard for black lives during Reconstruction with this despicable observation: “Nigger life’s cheap now.” Though black-on-black crime would not be officially introduced into the American lexicon until the 1970s, it was clearly on the mind of at least one Louisiana newspaper columnist who offered towards the end of the nineteenth century, “If negroes continue to slaughter each other, we will have to conclude that Providence has chosen to exterminate them in this way.”

Foundations for Invention: The ‘Negro Problem’ in Inner Cities

Decades later, black Americans escaped oppression reminiscent of slavery in the South only to find new challenges in the urban North and Midwest. But as in the South, prejudice thrived. Black labor contributed to the rise of the urban cities, which became bastions of American economic power and physical testaments to the boundless possibilities of the American Dream. By the 1950s, however, the dominance of America’s cities had been usurped by America’s suburbs. Once-reliable sources of investment for cities dried up and turned their sights elsewhere, giving rise to fears about urban decline.

Corresponding white flight from the cities to the suburbs and revived black settlement in those same cities further fueled these concerns. Writer Michael Harrington cautioned in 1962, “There is a new type of slum. Its citizens are the internal migrants, the Negroes, the poor whites from the farms, the Puerto Ricans.” Cities turned to public housing and urban renewal for solutions.