So let’s talk about it.
According to the numbers, the most recent of which come from the FBI’s 2014 crime report, the critics are right. Black victims of homicide were overwhelmingly killed by black offenders. This occurred in almost 90% or 9 out of 10 homicides and includes both male and female victims and offenders.
This is also true of white on white crime.
In fact, most victims of homicide are killed by someone of the same race or ethnicity. For white people, more than 8 out of 10 homicide victims die at the hands of another white person. And though Latinos have the highest rates of inter-ethnic homicide, 7 out of 10 victims still succumb to a fellow Latino.
So while it is true that black on black crime accounts for most black homicides in America, racial congruence between homicide victim and offender is hardly unique to African-Americans.
What is unique is the rate at which African-Americans are killed by police.
Let’s review the evidence.
Most data on police-related deaths come from the FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics. The FBI counts deaths they term “justifiable homicides” or incidents in which the victim was a felon shot in the line of duty. The Bureau of Justice Statistics data is more robust, in that it includes deaths resulting from any use of force while a civilian is in law enforcement custody.
However, these agencies have been criticized for generating unreliable and out-dated data. For example, the exact number of “justifiable homicides” are difficult to pinpoint in any given year, because the tally relies on precinct reporting that is largely voluntary and often incomplete. And the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ most recent metrics are from 2009, and have since been replaced by the Death in Custody Reporting Program, whose latest data is from 2012.
This lack of accurate data clouds the public’s ability to understand the racial context surrounding recently publicized police-related injuries and deaths, and may be leading some to short-sighted conclusions.
The good news is, people are working on it.
Powered largely by news reports, social media announcements, and civilian tips, crowd-sourced databases and other open access portals are keeping public records on incidents of police violence and most importantly, providing real-time, interactive access to the critical numbers necessary to appreciate the size and scope of the problem.
But one database in particular, Mapping Police Violence, is leading the way in illustrating how this issue uniquely affects African-Americans.
These findings are alarming. But what is more disconcerting are assertions that the deaths of some Americans are not “real” problems because those same people face additional threats to health and safety in their communities.
It is certainly easier to indict “cultural” pathologies instead of confronting systems that serve us – systems we pay for and participate in – to demand for our neighbors what we demand for ourselves. But the legacy of racism that results in poor, communities of color suffering heightened risk of violence, displacement, and resource scarcity, continues to structure vital access to justice and safety.
Thus, perhaps the “real” problem is our collective inability to feel empathy on behalf of communities facing complex and compounding traumas, traumas we contribute to through our general apathy for a people and their color.