Staff Opinion: If Black lives matter, what about ‘Black-on-Black crime?’
Aisha Alexander-Young, Vice President for Strategy & Equity, Meyer Foundation
The past two weeks have been difficult in what has already likely been the most trying year of my life. I feel as though I am surrounded by tragedy; my social media threads are filled with messages of “rest in peace,” with photos of people taken too soon and the memories their families and friends will now hold instead of their loved ones. This summer, like almost every summer I can easily recall, has been one marked by gun violence in Black communities.
When things like this happen there is often outcry about the Black Lives Matter Movement and it’s perceived preoccupation with state violence over intracommunity violence that causes so much death and pain in our communities. These cries are sometimes heard by well-meaning Black folks that have very real concerns about being victims of violence in their own communities, and more often in my estimation, by white people hostile toward the movement for Black lives and who seek to delegitimize the work and progress gained by organizers across the country. There are a few myths that need to be debunked in this conversation:
- “Black on Black Crime”: The phrase “Black-on-Black crime” is a lazy analysis that is racist within itself. Most crime is homogenous in nature because people commit crimes against people they know in their own communities. You can look up the stats on this, but generally speaking, Black people commit crimes against Black people, white people commit crimes against white people, Asian people commit crimes against Asian people, and Latinx people commit crimes against Latinx people. Yet, we only see the phrase “Black-on-Black crime” used in media and in conversation. This language communicates Black people as being inherently violent. Perhaps most importantly, this phrase and the rhetoric that typically follows it, denies the contributing factors and root causes of why Black people are more likely to live in poverty, and why violent crimes are more prevalent in poor communities. People living in households that have an income level below the Federal poverty threshold have more than double the rates of violent victimization compared to individuals in high-income households, and this stays constant whether the individual is Black, white, or another race. With poverty being keenly linked to violent crime, we cannot overlook the role of systemic racism and its intentional financial devastation of Black homes and communities when designing a solution.
- “Where’s the Outrage for Murders Committed by Black People?”: There are countless organizations and community leaders who have dedicated their lives to solving intracommunity violence, including the Movement for Black Lives. The strange fruit produced by state-sponsored police violence hangs from the same tree, with the same deeply intertwined roots as the rotting fruit of violent crime that has poisoned our communities. We know that the safest communities don’t have more police officers, they have more resources. The call to divest from the police is a call to reinvest those funds into resources that have the ability to help Black communities not only become safer, but also thrive — for example, high-quality schools and healthcare, mental health services and addiction treatment, quality affordable housing co-located with well-paying job opportunities and, even further, community stabilizing ideas like universal basic income. The lack of these resources contributes to the likelihood of encountering adverse childhood experiences, leading to an onset of trauma combined with a culture of survival, all begetting violence. While not entirely excusable, this is rooted in the continual systemic and policy failures that decimate Black communities and lives. While Black people who commit crimes from petty theft to the most violent acts are prosecuted to the full extent of the law, state-sponsored violence often goes unchecked, unacknowledged, and unpunished. Black people have the right to be angry, to mourn, to protest, and demand action and justice when our people are killed on the streets by police officers and within the carceral system with impunity. We also deserve real efforts to create a world in which systems that harm us are abolished, in favor of systems that will heal us and make us whole.
- “Only Policing Can Stop Violence”: One alternative to policing that the Movement for Black Lives suggests is investing in roles like “community-based violence interrupters.” Violence interrupters, like Crystal McNeal, use deep community engagement, direct relationship-building with those at risk of committing violence, and connections with resources and services to disrupt and prevent cycles of violence. On July 4, 2020 in DC, Crystal and our community tragically lost a beautiful, bright light; her son, 11-year-old Davon McNeal. I can’t imagine the deep pain she must feel. Though no one, be it a violence interrupter or a police officer can stop a drive-by shooting like the one that took Davon from us at the very moment it takes place, violence interrupters like Crystal have done things like broker five truces and ceasefires between rivaling blocks that lasted over a year. Who knows how many lives that saved. DC’s Office of Neighborhood Safety & Engagement (ONSE) contracts with three organizations to provide only 26 violence interrupters in the District, in comparison with 3,800 MPD officers. ONSE reports several of the specific communities the violence interrupters serve have seen significant drops in murders and assaults with a deadly weapon. Yet, the 2021 budget put forth by the Office of the Mayor called for cuts of $805,000 to the violence intervention initiative within the ONSE, while at the same time adding more than $17.5 million to the $540 million police budget. Despite the signaling of the approach’s success, violence interrupters are underpaid, understaffed, and extremely under-resourced and we won’t know the true breadth of their impact until we change that.
Many of the racial injustices that harm Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color are predicated and perpetuated by myths that become codified in policies, practices, institutions, and interpersonal relationships. We have to interrogate the myths we have been told and subscribed to; ask ourselves how and who they help and harm; who do they protect and who do they destroy. We, the people, in order to form a more perfect Union and establish justice, must let go of these myths and believe in the power of our imaginations and intellects — particularly the imaginations and intellects of those who had no power in creating the societies and communities in which we exist — to design better systems and create a new social contract that works for all of us.
Aisha Alexander-Young is Vice President for Strategy and Equity at the Meyer Foundation. She acts as an internal subject matter expert in racial equity, strategy design, and thought-leadership. She also serves as the Advancement Director for Dream Defenders, a movement founded in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, focused on building power and a new vision of freedom and safety in Black, Latinx, immigrant, and working-class communities.