Pundits like conservatives Bill O'Reilly and Dr. Ben Carson as well as liberals like Don Lemon and Juan Williams are making much ado about so-called "Black-on-Black crime" as the new "civil rights issue" of our times. Some (not Williams) even support racial profiling by police officers, and have criticized a federal judge in New York City for "handcuffing" cops through her finding that NYPD's stop and frisk practices have been carried out in an unconstitutional way -- by NYPD officers singling out mostly black male youths for questioning and searches.
Oddly, some of the biggest voices in support of such racial profiling by police -- agents of the government -- simultaneously claim they are "color-blind" when it comes to public policy and government's affirmative use of race to advance racial equality. The New York Post, for example, known for its rabid opposition to affirmative action quotas -- and in favor of strict color-blindness on the part of government -- nevertheless backs NYPD's racial profiling. In its recent editorial, the newspaper actually endorsed race-based profiling by cops in the guise of wanting to send cops where the problems and the likely criminal suspects are -- i.e., siccing cops on innocent black and Hispanic youths in the darker neighborhoods, as a way of deterring the mostly black and Hispanic predators of the black community.
How do you spell n-u-t-s?
The Post's viewpoint is block-headed. It countenances the affirmative use of race even when the media describe suspects involved with garden-variety violent crimes. The thinking is that identifying suspects by their skin color tells the truth about the "nature" of crime and how most criminals are black male youths. The black teens, in other words, are the nature of the problem. And they're destroying the black neighborhoods. I beg to differ and to dissent from this errant racial nonsense. Hyperbole aside, by inveighing race as "explanation" or context for "understanding" criminal behavior actually perpetuates and popularizes stereotypes about blacks and about the supposed "racial" nature of crime. The truth lies elsewhere; as many cops will confirm -- too often crime victims' and eyewitnesses' accounts of the "race" of suspects are notoriously unreliable and often wrong. The "race" of the Boston Marathon bombers, for example, was initially reported wrongly. More recently, the media leaped to the conclusion -- observation? -- that three black teens were arrested for the cold-blooded murder of Chris Lane, the Australian student; later, the "race" of the suspects was corrected -- one of the three "black" suspects is white. Indeed, the annals of criminal justice and civil rights mishaps are replete with innumerable examples of the mis-identification by race of criminal suspects, including outright fabrications by alleged crime victims, regarding the race of alleged perps.
In truth, race is hardly ever a relevant or accurate factor in reporting either garden-variety or horrific crimes. That is why the professional journalistic organizations caution against the reflexive and casual identification by race of suspects and warn the media against being mere stenographers of police bulletins. Such groups as the Society of Professional Journalists contend that the use of race is especially suspect by the press whenever that information is not likely to advance the community's understanding of the nature of the crime or is not likely to aid in the actual suspect's identification and capture. The AP Stylebook also takes exception to identifying criminal suspects' supposed "race" when race is neither pertinent to the story nor a factor in the motivation behind the crime (such as is the case with "hate" incidents). So, the press' loose lips about criminals' so-called race opens the door to breaching the ordinary standards of journalistic ethics.
Among the most vociferous advocates for this race analysis of garden variety felonies are pretty prominent blacks, conservatives and liberals alike. I just don't understand this alliance or cooperation of ideological opposites. These pundits' knee-jerk explanation goes something like this:
"The black community is ravaged by black criminals. Blacks by and large kill other blacks. There ought to be less attention on hate crimes and more attention -- from a civil rights perspective -- (they say) of 'black-on-black' savagery."
These commentators cite the exasperated, introspective big voices of Dr. Bill Cosby and other such celebrities who see as a problem the predominance of single-parent black families and objectionable miscreant conduct by black teens. These voices also argue that to overcome this pathology blacks must focus on the moral repair of their own (the black) community and give less attention to race prejudice and discrimination as an explanation for lagging equality between blacks and whites. Similarly, Dr. Ben Carson, a darling of those conservatives who at all other times eschew race as a factor to ever consider (when it comes to ending discrimination, for instance) has weighed in with surmising about how Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. himself would agree with him, and with they in the black world he supposedly speaks for. Dr. Carson wrote this: "If [Dr.] King could be resurrected and see what was going on in America today... I suspect he would be disappointed about the epidemic of "black-on-black violent crime," which Carson attributes (sans sociological authority) to the "significant deterioration of vales in the black community."
It is obvious that there is substantial moral and social rot in America -- and we see that decline in white families, too, and surely among celebrities and youths of all colors. Drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, self-destructive behavior, a reduction in religious affiliation and church attendance, youthful rebellion against social mores -- are not racial or black problems per se. Blacks share in the larger society's social decay and economic malaise and downturn. And, as usual, blacks are disproportionately impacted by such forces, struggling against historical and systemic skin color discrimination and their marginal status by reason of living in, too often, low-income, low-status communities, working for less pay than their white counterparts, and attending inferior, failing, and segregated public schools. Their place in American society -- despite all the racial progress -- is by and large not a fully integrated one. Only recently has the nation allowed transracial adoptions, and blacks still mostly hook up with and marry other blacks, lagging behind greater color-blind dating and marriage participation rates of other ethnic groups. If Dr. King were living today, I suspect he'd have something powerfully upsetting and unnerving to say about why blacks are not yet equal in standing and perception -- partly, it's because there are some black role models and leaders who dismiss e pluribus unum for the comfort of going to Congress or to other elected offices as representatives of "their own" racial group. Dr. King would surely be dissenting from such racially gerrymandered and race-based voting instincts because, after all, he was an integrationist -- and wanted everyone to evaluate each other on the basis of our character and not on the basis of skin color.
Certainly, Dr. King would not be thrilled by this regressive, hardly new campaign to call out, blame and target blacks for differential law enforcement on the grounds that "the black community" is being ravaged by other "blacks." Say what? We can infer such from Dr. King's life work in combating the social and human problems associated with ghetto living and efforts to open up closed neighborhoods. Dr. King understood perfectly the multiplicity and dissection of the social and moral problems that beset the beleaguered black community, even as he tried fervently to bridge the racial divide and as he argued for the abolition of ghettos. In this regard, Dr. King was an advocate of affirmative action (and excellence) as means to help achieve the very racial progress and more integrated society about which the nation is proud 50 years after his great speech at the Lincoln Memorial. His idea was that affirmative action programs that did not downgrade standards could speed up the correction of patterns of racial exclusion and of tokenism in government and other major American institutions, such as colleges and professional schools. The considerably higher numbers of black physicians, lawyers, "airline pilots, construction foremen, news anchors, and school superintendents" -- as Dr. Ben Carson listed them -- did not come solely from individual success at breaking through institutional barriers. Laws and voluntary efforts helped to break the back of Jim Crow in America. At the same time, Dr. King and his colleagues who headed the major civil rights groups in his day, such as the NAACP, CORE, and the Urban League, lambasted racial profiling by the police. The leaders made clear that blacks as individuals were entitled to the full protections of the Constitution against unreasonable searches and seizures. They subscribed to the due process guarantees of the Bill of Rights as much as they fought for equal opportunity, racial justice and dignity under the 14th Amendment.
King, and Roy Wilkins -- moderates -- did not hesitate to answer those who urged them to pay less attention to blacks' entitlement to the equal protection of the law. When King and Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, appeared together on NBC's "Meet the Press" ahead of the March on Washington in 1963, they used their time to rebuke those pundits -- including the show's reporters -- who had suggested that "the Negro" should go slow, for fear of losing whites' support, and that the March on the nation's capital itself might descend into a violent episode. Indeed, tens of thousands of blacks headed to DC in 1963 was unsettling to the guardians of the status quo and for many Americans who harbored their own stereotypes and fears of the black masses. No violence occurred -- and the rest is history, but not because the blacks and whites who showed up at the Lincoln Memorial for jobs and freedom all came from "first-class" households and intact families.They were intact in their resolve to raise public consciousness about the extent and the tenacity of racial prejudice, and they were not deterred from marching for jobs and freedom by the vicious stereotypes about themselves and about "the Negro" back then.
Freedom for these leaders, and their ranks, entailed, for them, protection from police abuse -- in the South and in the North. Negro youth in the urban ghettos of the 1960s, frequently complained of being singled out and hassled by cops who readily broke up their social gatherings; and black youths and adults resented cops' illegal move-on orders. When riots broke out in the black sections of several cities -- some over police misconduct -- Wilkins joined the Kerner Commission which investigated and issued a report about race in America and the underlying problems associated with negative attitudes and stereotypes towards blacks on the part of of cops and the media. Wilkins, the moderate, took a deep breath, and translated the recommendations and commands of the Kerner Commission Report, summarizing its recommendations in plain English: Racial justice, he said, would not be measured by white Americans being kind to their black cooks.
Police attitudes, and media misreporting and misinterpreting "the Negro," needed adjustment. Crime was not to be reported by calling attention to the skin color of the suspects. Likewise, ending invidious and systemic discrimination towards blacks--it was touted could not be achieved by shifting the focus away from the civil rights news whenever anyone was attacked or beaten because of the color of their skin (white or black or other). In truth, there is no such thing as "black-on-black" crime unless you believe that there is such a thing as "the Negro" who's in need of moral repair. Black-on-black crime is no more a civil rights issue than white-on-white, Hispanic-on-Hispanic or Asian-on-Asian crime. In fact, when our cities were ravaged by crimes committed by Italians and the Irish, it was not the common wisdom much less a sensible law enforcement strategy for the cops to start rounding up and frisking Italian youths or Irish youths or, for that matter, blaming Italians or Irish as a community for the garden-variety and heinous crimes of muggings, theft, drug pushing, and homicides.
The civil rights issues today remain essentially what they've been for the past 50 years--opening up jobs without regard to one's race; improving and lifting the racial identity from schools; ending slum conditions; changing segregated neighborhoods through open housing and rezoning; curbing police misconduct, and stamping out governmental policies and institutional and personal attitudes that besmirched the character and which stereotyped the behavior of "blacks" as either criminally-prone or as culturally different because they supposedly come from less-than-quality households. Which family unit is perfect? In America the nature of the family structure has also changed, with changing times, because of positive changes in adoption, because of child-rearing and different social units, including same-sex households -- which has zilch to do with a family's skin color.
Dr. King, I know, was tired of and appalled by racializing the human condition; and he was leery of the lackadaisical attitude from any quarter that regarded black people as "different" from other Americans because of their skin color or "cultural" deficits. Blacks do not have a single gene much less color-coded culture; we are Americans beneath and above our skin color; as citizens of the same race -- the human race -- we share and contribute to the American culture and to its history, civilization and social institutions alike. Neither blacks nor whites are monolithic; skin color discrimination is the problem, because it sets into motion a differential and esteem-lowering, coarsening life experience for the targets and victims of skin color prejudice -- whatever their color. Obviously something amiss happening in America; that is what the Australian officials meant when they decried the violence against their citizen who was visiting Oklahoma when he was so senselessly gunned down by teens -- three punks, not three blacks or one white and two blacks. Unless we want to sow racial discord and exploit ethnic polarization, there is no cause to identify the so-called race of criminals. except in the limited circumstances when the suspect's race may explain the crime, such as a race-based lynching.
Obviously, there are some blacks and whites who are angry and others who are despondent. But being angry or despondent is not a reason or an excuse to dishonor and abuse our humanity or deny our individuality. Dr. King did not believe in a "black community" or "white community." He worked tirelessly to transform the country's vocabulary and its understanding of "race." He sought to dismantle the dual society -- black and white, separate and unequal. We who have inherited his mantle should not now be seduced into either ghetto-thinking or race-based prejudices of a newer variant. A people with hope and resolve to finish Dr. King's work will honor his call to individual excellence, to racial reconciliation, and to the betterment of the beloved American community.
Michael Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition