America’s Refusal to Address the Roots of Violence

But class and economic inequality are not the whole story and never have been. Going back to the field-defining work of the African-American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois at the turn of the 20th century, the problem of greater rates of Black crime, he calculated, was capitalism plus racism. Low-income white people with higher crime and violence rates relative to higher-income white people experienced economic insecurity, but not the added burden of systemic racism. Excessive rates of Black violence were caused by prejudice and a common belief that “the Negro is something less than an American and ought not to be much more than he is,” Du Bois wrote.

Today’s educational segregation, real estate steering, predatory banking, health care discrimination and “community” policing amount to daily forms of systemic racialized oppression that low-income white people do not experience. And once upon a time, when these systems did prey on persecuted and despised Irish and Italian immigrants, their rates of crime and violence were much higher than their native-white peers.

Sometimes Black and white conservatives wax nostalgic about the Jim Crow period to counter the evidence of systemic racism today. They use history to evoke a false past of a law-abiding, respectable Black community with little crime before welfare and liberalism corrupted Black people. The idea being that in the face of old-school, real racism, Black people did not succumb to violence. And yet, as Currie highlights, Du Bois said while in Philadelphia that he “lived in the midst of an atmosphere of dirt, drunkenness, poverty and crime. Murder sat on our doorstep, police were our government and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice.”

In many places long before the War on Poverty supposedly corrupted the morals of Black America, a slew of researchers found high rates of violence. In Richmond, Va., 88 percent of murder indictments between 1930 and 1939 “involved Blacks killing Blacks,” Currie notes, citing the work of Guy B. Johnson. “The same was true of 75 percent of murder indictments in North Carolina.” With circumstances this bad a century ago, white segregationists’ howls of Black rapists and murderers in their midst must have been right all along, or so it seems.

The great insight of Currie’s book is tracking historically how systemic racism — what the researchers John Dollard and Allison Davis called caste in the 1930s and 1940s — was an accelerant for violence within Black communities. Caste, they argued, prevented Black people from directing their aggression toward the state or from mobilizing politically against the white citizens who subordinated them. Community violence became both a normal and expected response to the alienating effects of anti-Blackness and the disabling effects of the majority population’s monopoly on power and violence.

In this system, some people comply, others pursue a higher-class status within the caste and still others turn inward. Dollard explained that “some of the hostility properly directed toward the white caste is deflected from it and focused within the Negro group itself.” Internecine violence and “disunity” made the “Negro caste … less resistant to the white domination,” Dollard wrote. “Evidently, the whites did not consider security of life and person for the Negroes a very important issue.” In the 1960s, the researcher Kenneth Clark described America’s ghettos as internal colonies. The violence within was an expression of the powerlessness of people who killed their “friends and relations,” he wrote. “This may mean that the victim of oppression is more prone to attack his fellow victim than to risk aggression against the feared oppressor.”

Near the height of the crack epidemic and drug wars of the 1980s, the sociologists Judith and Peter Blau confirmed the findings of the pre-civil-rights-era researchers. As Currie observes: “Violence, then, was not just a reaction to material deprivation. It was nurtured by the sense of ‘injustice, discontent and distrust’ generated by the highly visible reality that other people were doing better not because they were worthier but because they were, in this case, whiter.”

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