In an appearance on “Meet the Press” Sunday, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani engaged in a memorable exchange with Michael Eric Dyson over the situation in Ferguson, Missouri and over the relationship between law enforcement and the minority communities that they are sworn to protect.
The debate grew emotional when Giuliani shifted the terms of the debate to the separate issue of black-on-black crime:
“The fact is that I find it very disappointing that you’re not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We are talking about the significant exception here (in the Michael Brown case). I’d like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this.”
“Why don’t you cut it down so so many white police officers don’t have to be in black areas?” Giuliani went on to ask in what became an emotional exchange with Dyson. “The white police officers wouldn’t be there if you weren’t killing each other 70 to 75 percent of the time.”
Let’s see if we can talk about these issues a little more calmly and analytically than is possible in a two- or three-minute TV segment. And let’s begin with the observation that Giuliani is correct: Most young black male homicide victims are killed by other young black males. It’s an indisputable fact and a major problem.
However, there are several problems with Giuliani’s use of that data.
One is the implication that black-on-black crime is somehow being ignored, that nobody wants to do anything about it and that as a result, such crimes are spiraling out of control. None of that is remotely true. Since 2003, the number of black-on-black murders has fallen by 21.6 percent, according to FBI statistics. In fact, the black murder rate in the past decade has fallen faster than the white murder rate, although it remains significantly higher. (It would be interesting to see that data controlled for poverty, which throughout history has been associated with higher rates of violence.)
The second problem with Giuliani’s argument is relevance. By raising the issue of black-on-black crime, Giuliani is attempting to change the subject, not illuminate the subject. What young black males do to each other has nothing to do with whether government allows police officers to abuse their state-granted authority to use violence. Black-on-black crime, while a major problem in its own right, has nothing to do with the situation in Ferguson, which involves allegations of police misconduct in a police department with a record of racially disparate enforcement.** You cannot use one problem to justify the other.
If you’re driving down the street in Ferguson or any other community, you ought to be able to do so as an individual, with the full panoply of civil rights and protections available to every other individual. That’s the whole idea behind this country: You ought to be judged by your own behavior. The fact that you may be black or Hispanic, and that other people who share that racial background may have committed crimes, should not make you, as an individual, more prone to harassment, arrest or even a long prison sentence.
But that’s not the reality. For example, extensive research documents the fact that white Americans are just as likely if not more likely than black Americans to use illegal drugs, yet black Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for that crime, and once arrested much more likely to be given a prison sentence. That has profound implications, because once you’re arrested for such a crime, it becomes much, much harder to get a decent job, to go to college, etc. The damage done to lives by government in such situations probably outweighs the damage done by black males to other black males, although Giuliani and others would clearly prefer we not discuss that.
Yet that’s the kind of ongoing disparity that created the tinder for conflagration in Ferguson, even if it turns out that the specific spark for that fire turned out to be more tragic circumstance than flagrant injustice.
Overall, however, I think the problem can be boiled down to one particular word uttered by Giuliani in the heat of his exchange with Dyson, at a moment when the normal filters are bypassed and inner truth is revealed. That word is “you,” as in “the white police officers wouldn’t be there if you weren’t killing each other 70 to 75 percent of the time.”
When Giuliani looked at Michael Eric Dyson in that moment, he didn’t see a 56-year-old author and professor at Georgetown University with a Phd in religion from Princeton University and a long record of social involvement, including work with urban kids trying to show them a better way. He didn’t see the individual. Giuliani instead saw Dyson as a “you”, as one of “you people killing each other.”
It was the most revealing moment in the entire exchange.
** Let’s remember the data, as reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“Ferguson police are much more likely to stop, search and arrest African-American drivers than white ones. Last year, blacks, who make up a little less than two-thirds of the driving-age population in the North County city, accounted for 86 percent of all stops. When stopped, they were almost twice as likely to be searched as whites and twice as likely to be arrested, though police were less likely to find contraband on them.”
And as the newspaper also points out, the numbers for some other St. Louis communities are even worse.