Black lives matter.
That’s the powerful and relevant message that a loosely organized group of young activists have used as a clarion call to bring attention to the crisis of police violence against black citizens, usually unarmed black men. And its mere utterance is a scathing commentary on the current state of race in America, a reminder that it must be said. Shouldn’t it be obvious that black lives matter as much as white ones?
That’s true, by the way, no matter how those black lives are snuffed out, whether by powerful figures acting under the color of law, or by other black men who are angry, violent and unrestrained. The senseless loss of black life demands a response.
So let’s talk, too, about the surging rate of homicides in certain big cities around the country, including Baltimore, Milwaukee, Chicago, and New Orleans. The crimes are occurring mostly in poor neighborhoods, and the victims — and perpetrators — are overwhelmingly black.
This is a sensitive subject, a topic rarely broached in public by prominent black political and civic figures. Perhaps that’s because ultraconservatives, especially the racial provocateurs among them, use the numbers as a bludgeon, hammering away in order to muddy the debate about police violence. They try to excuse police brutality by evoking black criminals — as if law enforcement officials should not be held to a very different standard.
Moreover, they fail to note that violent crime is largely intra-racial — that is, committed by people against their own ethnic group. In other words, whites tend to assault and kill whites, while blacks tend to assault and kill blacks. “From 1980 to 2008, 84 percent of white victims were killed by whites and 93 percent of black victims were killed by blacks,” says PolitiFact, the fact-checking organization.
In any event, the ranting of right-wing rabble-rousers is no reason to shield our eyes from the worrisome incidence of black homicides and their debilitating effect on black families and neighborhoods. In 2013, the last year for which figures were available, homicide was the leading cause of death for young black men between the ages of 15 and 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a special 2014 report, “Black Homicide Victimization in the United States,” the Violence Policy Center wrote: “Blacks in the United States are disproportionately affected by homicide. For the year 2011, blacks represented 13 percent of the nation’s population, yet accounted for 50 percent of all homicide victims.” As stunning as that statistic is, it doesn’t adequately convey the shattered lives, the broken families, the decimated neighborhoods it represents.
If homicide were a disease wiping out black people at this alarming rate, we’d be demanding research, solutions, a cure. If a foreign enemy had laid siege to poor black neighborhoods in the same way, we’d send in massive manpower to root them out. But we’ve been peculiarly passive in response to black-on-black homicides, as if there is nothing we can do, as if it’s too difficult and too controversial to tackle.
Certainly, there is controversy aplenty, starting with legitimate differences among law enforcement experts about how to tackle the problem. Indeed, there are those among law enforcement officials who insist that heavy-handed police tactics, such as New York’s “stop and frisk” policy of random searches, are a useful tool in curbing criminal activity.
That seems unlikely. If oppressive policing were the solution, a city such as Cleveland ought to be one of the safest, given its documented history of out-of-control cops. Instead, it’s one of the most dangerous, according to FBI statistics.
But well-trained and diverse police departments, staffed by officers committed to treating citizens fairly, are certainly one part of the solution. Curbing our cultural obsession with guns would help. And, undoubtedly, so would ameliorating the root causes of the frustration that breeds violent crime, including joblessness, poor educational opportunity and inadequate housing.
None of those fixes will come quickly or easily, but they won’t come at all unless we find the will to acknowledge the problem. Publicly.
Black lives, including those lost to black violence, matter.
(Cynthia Tucker Haynes won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected])
Photo: The All-Nite Images via Flickr