The Black Deaths Nobody Wants to Discuss

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Black men are systemically shot and killed in New York City and no one seems to care because the triggers aren’t pulled by cops. If you say discussing this is a distraction from racism, you do it from atop a lot of graves. And how can anyone say that doesn’t matter?

The context is that New York City saw its bloodiest week in late April, with 46 separate shooting incidents, a 300 percent surge from the same week in 2020. These shootings were part of a 205 percent overall increase in shootings in NYC in 2020, the bloodiest toll since 1996. The body count continued to rise in early May.

Who is dying? Some 65 percent of homicide victims are black, though they make up less than a quarter of the city’s population. In the unsuccessful homicides, e.g., “shootings,” black Americans are over 70 percent of the victims. The dead include more and more young people. This is because gang-related activity drives the shootings in the city. Over 90 percent of black homicide victims were killed by another black person, not by the white supremacists or cops the media warns us about.

In 2020, 290 black people were murdered and over 1,000 were shot, almost all by other black people. By comparison, only five of the 20 years of the Afghan war killed more Americans of all races. In further comparison, in 2020 five of the people killed by New York City police were black.

You have to wonder which pile of bodies is really the distraction and which is really the more serious problem. This is what a systemic problem actually looks like.

A disproportionate number of the killings and shootings take place inside the vast public housing world of New York City, the 2,602 buildings controlled by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Because there are so many people living “off-lease,” no one knows the actual NYCHA population, but it is believed to be over 600,000. If NYCHA were its own city, it would have about the same population as Boston. While much of the public housing is in “bad” parts of town, not all of it is. The housing was built largely on city-owned and available land and was championed by liberals in the 1950s and 60s. Some of NYCHA’s worst residences sit across the street from million-dollar condos on the Upper East Side.

New York in general, and NYCHA in particular, is simultaneously one of the most diverse places in America and the most segregated. About 27 percent of the city’s households in poverty are white, but less than 5 percent of NYCHA households are white. In contrast, about a fourth of the city’s households in poverty are black but black households occupy 45 percent of NYCHA units. But even that does not tell the real tale. NYCHA is segregated building-by-building. Rutland Towers in East Flatbush is 94.9 percent black. Though Asians make up less than 5 percent of the overall NYCHA population, the La Guardia Addition at Two Bridges is 70 percent Asian.

NYCHA is also a very dangerous world. The NYPD counted 59 homicides in NYCHA properties in 2020, up 41 percent from 2019. The murder rate is far worse in the projects than elsewhere. As of late 2020, the projects had seen 15.5 homicides per 100,000 people, compared to only four per 100,000 elsewhere in the city. Police counted 257 shooting incidents in NYCHA projects in 2020, a 92 percent increase over 2019. Some 67 shootings were reported per 100,000 NYCHA residents, compared to 12 per 100,000 in the rest of the city. A lot of numbers that all add up one way.

The vast majority of these shootings are gang related, the gangs involved in some of the worst locations are black, and the beef is over control of turf to sell drugs inside the city’s vast gulag archipelago of public housing. The mayor’s office both acknowledges and sidesteps this uncomfortable truth by blaming the shootings on “interpersonal beefs.” Worried about the Thin Blue Line, when cops won’t testify against other cops? Try finding a witness inside the projects for a black-on-black gang killing.

It wasn’t always this way. The last time NYC saw a decrease in crime was in 1993 after black mayor David Dinkins implemented a “quality of life” initiative. This set the stage for what came to be known as “broken windows” policing. It posits minor infractions such as graffiti, panhandling, and public urination create disorder which, when left unchecked, gives the impression crime is tolerated. Aggressively punishing minor crimes creates a perceived intolerance of crime, thereby lowering serious crime.

The numbers support this. New York City experienced a steep decline in homicides from 1990 to 1999. Homicides peaked in 1991 with a mean of 22 homicides per 100,000 people, and fell to a low of slightly more than four per 100,000 in 1998.

Everything changed with the 2014 election of Mayor Bill De Blasio, who did away with broken window policing, and specifically outlawed the liberal use of stop and search tactics by the police. In the wake of BLM, New York also stopped locking people up for many crimes where they had previously been held for bail, and cut back on undercover and special police units.

Following these changes, complaints about discriminatory policing went down. But violent crime went up. Persons released under bail reform went on to commit 299 additional major crimes last year that never would have happened the year before.

Since lived experience is so important today, before De Blasio changed policing policy, I could walk my dog through a nearby NYCHA complex. No one was gracious, but I was left alone. Today if I go to the same place a young man will pop out to ask “You buying?” and when I say no he’ll growl “Get the f*ck outta here” in reply.

These NYCHA islands, once thought to be the solution, are now incubators of the problem. We can argue over why they exist, but only in the face of how absolutely nothing that has been tried over decades has made a significant change. The deaths of young black people persist.

It has proved near impossible to provide incentives that outdo what the gangs offer, including quick money, access to drugs, a sense of belonging, a lifestyle promoted by rap music, and protection from other gangs. That’s needed today more than ever as the police withdraw (this year the NYPD saw a 75 percent increase in departures and retirements, the loss of over 5,300 cops).

We have been squawking about longer term solutions for decades, with NYC providing one of the most comprehensive menus of such ideas in the nation—near-free housing, education, internships, public medical care, benefits to mothers and children, before- and after-school programs, pre-K, school breakfasts and lunches, college scholarships, help centers, free or reduced cost public transportation, renaming, canceled statues, and on and on. There is little of the lives of the people affected in New York that has not been touched in an effort to fix something.

The standard progressive response to white people talking about black-on-black killings is that it is a distraction from the real issues, a trick of misdirection, a way to minimize the real problem of police killings. That ignores the harsh light; the score in NYC is 290 dead in black-on-black homicide to five killed by the cops. You bandage all wounds, but start with the one most life-threatening.

Another argument is that black Americans already talk plenty among themselves about intra-racial violence, and that’s enough. But it’s our country and our city, too. We all live here, and—sorry to break the narrative—many of us care for others beyond ourselves. We can also talk about more than one thing at a time, especially if the media, politicians, and black leaders will give us the room to do so and stop trying to shut down the dialogue and keep the wound open.

White Americans talking about violence in the black community isn’t a palliative for other violence but an acknowledgment that complex problems exist which cannot be solved by ignoring some things and dismissing others with argument-ending pronouncements of racism and systemic bias, now reduced even further to code words like “1619.” The job is pretty easy when you blame everything on one thing, racism, as if it was really that simple.

Yet while we wait for all this to be sorted out, the young black men of NYCHA seem to face our choice between aggressive (“discriminatory”) policing that lands many of them raw in jail even as it saves lives, or light policing that allows young blacks to kill other young blacks as they wish. It’s almost as if their lives don’t matter when the politics of race are in play.

Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.





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