When it comes to the causes of homicide among black people, there’s something a lot of black people are saying among themselves: It’s not all due to institutional racism. Few dare say it publicly, lest some animus-filled, right-wing conservatives hail you as their kind of black.
But the subject must be broached, especially now that homicides are spiking like mad in urban areas throughout the nation. If racist cops are part of an institutional threat to black people, there are also black men and women dying at the hands of people who look like them. It is the enemy within. Call out one, you have to call out the other.
In the District, there have been more than 100 homicides this year — a 30 percent increase from this point last year.
“People want to know why there has not been a clear answer given, and that’s not to say that there is an easy answer,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) told The Washington Post last week. “But first we were told by the mayor that it might be synthetic drugs or domestic violence, then it was illegal guns. . . . Layer over that changing explanations, and it gives people cause for real concern.”
People want a clear answer for what’s causing the homicides? It’s not illegal guns. It’s not the synthetic drug K2. It’s not “domestic” violence. It’s killers causing the killing — and a disproportionate number of those doing the killing are young black men between 18 and 29. They are deadly, reckless and irresponsible. They hide in our midst, growing ever more confident that you can get away with murder — especially when the victim is black.
Charnice Milton, a 27-year-old black woman, had been waiting at a bus stop after a long day’s work as a reporter for the Capital Community News.
A black man on a dirt bike approached and began shooting wildly at somebody and ended up killing her instead. A crowd of bikers was nearby, but no one has come forward with information that could bring her killer to justice.
Such homicides easily fade from the public eye when the killer is not quickly identified. Milton’s has been the rare exception, gaining coverage last month in the New Yorker.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has scheduled a news conference for Thursday, and she’s expected to announce new crime-fighting initiatives.
Whatever she comes up with, however, won’t work without solid community support. Referring to the increase in homicides as an “uptick,” as she did recently, suggests an emotional disconnect between her and her constituents, who are fearful, mistrustful and frustrated.
She desperately needs people who can win the trust of the troublemakers where they live and send them a message in terms they can understand: Black people cannot win the war on racism when black people are dying at the hands of other black people.
Only by naming the problem can the city start taking effective action.
In 1994, when the District was in the midst of an unprecedented wave of homicides, Eric Holder, then-U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, spoke about the violence at a Martin Luther King Jr. event.
Although crime “is born of poverty,” Holder said, “we must also realize that crime is generated by a lack of values that has largely gone unaddressed in our nation as a whole and in the black community in particular. Soaring unwed birthrates, absentee fathers, an aversion to work, an unwillingness to embrace societal standards and time-honored discipline — all these factors have contributed to the problems we must now confront.”
When Holder was appointed attorney general for the nation some two decades later, he began to speak more about the role of “systemic racism” in perpetuating “cycles of poverty, crime and incarceration that trap individuals, destroy communities and decimate minority neighborhoods,” as he put it during a commencement speech at Morgan State University last year.
But nothing he said then contradicted what he had said before. Both are true, and we need to spend as much time condemning and correcting black youths committing crimes as we do trying to convince white people of the impact racism has on black lives.
The former is doable; the latter, folly.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.