Behind the Numbers on Black Crime

By Gregg Barak

Vol. 8, No. 6, 1986, pp. 8-9

According to FBI figures for 1985, the four largest cities in Alabama--Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, and Montgomery--all registered increases in their crime rates that exceeded the national average of four percent. An overall increase in the crime rate of ten percent in Montgomery was the largest increase, more than doubling the national average.

Montgomery's Mayor and the Chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, Emory Folmar, equated the increase in crime with the persistent problem of black-on-black crime. Referring to the annual FBI report or crime index totals, Folmar said, "if you look behind the numbers, you'll see the major problem is still black-on-black crime." The implications of his statement, heard not only in the South but in the North, East, and West as well, is that: if blacks would only stop murdering and raping each other then the problem of crime, for the most part, would go away.

The problem with Folmar's analysis and that of so many other politicians and media commentators alike, including the law-and-order right, the neoconservative centrists, some of the more liberal democratic left, and far too many members of the black middle class, is that this analysis never actually looks either behind the official numbers of crime or behind the incidences of black-on-black crime. There are at least three related problems that arise out of these oversights.

First, everyone who takes these kinds of official explanations of crime seriously, fails to comprehend other dangers in the South and throughout the U.S. which pose far greater harm and threat to the vast majority of Americans, black or white. Second, these types of "blame the victim" analyses of crime tend to mystify black-on-black crime by focusing almost exclusively on the "symptoms" rather than on the "roots" of the problem. Third, by misdirecting our attention these explanations support the call for the expansion of public policy practices which have already increased the political and legal repression aimed not only directly at the victims and perpetrators of black-on-black crime, but also indirectly at the rest of the so-called law-abiding society through a reduction in all of our individual, constitutional, and civil rights. In a nutshell, these explanations of crime are dangerous precisely because they feed ammunition to those strategies of "crime control" which serve to exacerbate rather than to ameliorate the problem, inside and outside of the black community.

Crime, black-on-black or white-on-white, is not simply a question of individual "free-will" nor is it a question of racial and cultural "determinism." Making sense out of all forms of "crime," including those defined as against the law as well as those protected by the law, requires that we also examine the political and economic arrangements of a given neighborhood, community, state, region of the country, etc. All of these factors and others are important in sorting out the "roots" of crime, and all must be addressed if we are seriously interested in turning-the-tide against crime, whether we are talking about "street" crime or "suite" crime, whether we are talking about child neglect or wife abuse, environmental pollution or drug abuse.

Much of the distortion or mystification about crime has to do with the way criminals and crimefighters are portrayed in the news and on TV shows alike. AB the Washington Post has informed us, for example, "TV crimes are almost twelve times as likely to be violent as crimes committed in the real world." Even when the media and various politicos are not focusing attention on black-on-black, brown-on-brown, or poor-on-poor crime, they are still misrepresenting the problem. The current preoccupation with drugs focuses almost entirely upon illicit cocaine and marijuana rather than licit alcohol and tobacco.

Sometimes, however, even the middle class and the affluent are depicted as engaging in ordinary, everyday criminal activity. But here the media, especially TV, once again misleads us by erroneously suggesting that these crimes take place in the streets rather than, more accurately, in the American workplaces and in the executive suites. This wrong impression sustains a false consensus that represents the dangers of crime as stemming from the relatively powerless rather than the relatively powerful.

As a consequence of these projections, blacks and whites alike are falling victim to the myth that black-on-black street crime represents the single most dangerous threat to the survival and well-being of the black community. In other words, to discuss black-on-black homicide without discussing homicide or crime in general, is to provide a partial picture of the crime story at best, and at worst, it is to be guilty of what Rev. [Joseph] Lowery of the SCLC has called "another form of racism." By placing the statistics of black-on-black homicide in particular and of murder in general into a larger framework than the one provided by the FBI or the major networks, we are able to understand how the dangers of violent crime are distorted by emphasizing the killings in the street, especially those among the black underclass. After all, are there not other forms of external victimization to blacks, involving homicides and other assaultive acts short of death, that pose equal or more serious threats to the survival and unity of the black community?

We could discuss, for example, police homicides of civilians where blacks constitute forty-five percent of the

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deaths even though they represent about twelve percent , of the population. The Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., informs us that more than one-third of the killings of blacks and whites by the police have been unrelated to any type of crime whatsoever. AB for the state of affairs here in the South, Bernard D. Headley, formerly a Research Associate and Principal Investigator at Atlanta University's Criminal Justice Institute, has recently written that "specific incidents of police homicide involving blacks as victims can be recalled ad infinitum."

We could also cite victimization at the workplace or economic victimization in general to further dispel the myth of black-on-black crime or of poor-on-poor crime as the most disturbing threats to working class communities, black or white. AB Jeffrey Reiman's well-documented book, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison (1984) reveals: workplace injuries cause some 14,200 deaths annually, and some 100,000 people die each year of diseases that can be traced to coal tar, dust, asbestos, and other substances. Almost all of these deaths are preventable by safety devices and/or by the enforcement of existing and non-existing laws designed to protect workers' hearth. In the South where unions are weak or non-existent and where "right to work laws" prevail, it is a safe bet that we receive our disproportionate share of workplace victimization. The point, in any event, is that street crime may take a life every twenty-three minutes, but a death resulting from a preventable industrial cause occurs every four minutes.

With respect to economic victimization, we could argue as Headley has done "that the daily rip-offs that black and other low-income groups experience at the hands of ghetto merchants represent an even greater economic and material threat than do 'street' property crimes." Whether we are referring to bait-advertising of goods that are sold out, refusals to return deposits, misrepresentative sales contracts or coercive pressures on buyers, these types of market relations and others like them as David Caplowitz has argued in his book The Poor Pay More, occur with the full connivance of major banks and other lending institutions.

These larger political and economic arrangements cannot be severed from street and suite crime; market relations are responsible, in part, for the alarming rates of black-on-black crime. Most people, unfortunately, prefer the simplistic analyses of crime that, on the one hand, ignore altogether the ever-present dangers of occupational and corporate "crimes," and on the other hand, implicity or explicitly argue for the class-based and racist explanations that attribute crime to some inherent difference between poor people, especially poor black people, and the rest of us. Rather than seeing the South's higher crime rate as reflected in her higher rates of functional illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, and impoverishment, or in her lower expenditures per capita on education, health care, and other essential services, it is still politically preferable, at least in Alabama, to point fingers at the individual offenders rather than at the institutional arrangements of the old and new South alike, I and at the same time, to call for stricter forms of punishment where severity is already the name of the game.

Contrary to the wisdom of some of our leaders in the South and elsewhere, the problem of crime cannot be reduced to the problem of black-on-black crime nor will it be resolved by the get-tough strategies of the law-and-order right. Such policies, in vogue for more than a decade, have already proven themselves inept in the "war on crime," only as of yet nobody has had the political courage to officially declare them bankrupt. In the final analysis, as long as people in the South and elsewhere refuse to view crime and punishment in its totality, black-on-black crime in particular and poor-on-poor crime in general will continue to serve as very convenient scapegoats for the many problems that confront us here and across the country. So long as we remain locked into a mind-set that sees our collective well-being as threatened by isolated individuals and not by organized political, economic, and social relations, then all forms of crime and punishment as we have come to know them, will continue to eat away at the very foundations of this great society of ours.

Gregg Barak is Chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at Alabama State University, Montgomery, and is the author of In Defense of Whom? A Critique of Criminal Justice Reform (Cincinnatti: Anderson, 1980). This article is adapted from a speech delivered before the Alabama New South Coalition, a black political organization, in Birmingham in October 1986.