Ongoing protests against police brutality have revealed how distorted the American discourse on crime is. The biggest myth animating this discourse is black criminality: the notion that black people commit more crime, and therefore deserve more heavy-handed policing. Just a few weeks ago, on NBC’s Meet the Press, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani chided the network, saying, “I find it very disappointing that you’re not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks.” Persistent black-on-black crime “is the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community,” he continued. After a heated exchange with author and commentator Michael Eric Dyson, who pushed back against his arguments, Giuliani responded, “White police officers won’t be there if you weren’t killing each other 70 percent of the time.”
This myth relies on shaky evidence and a selective definition of crime that ignores crimes committed by powerful institutions and the people who run them, many of whom are white men.
Blaming the crime problem on black people is unfair and ill-founded. On one hand, according to FBI homicide data, African Americans commit more homicides than other racial groups. In 2013, there were 5,375 black homicide offenders versus 4,396 who were white and over 4,000 whose races were unknown. However, that is a very small percentage of the national black population, which is over 40 million people. The vast majority of black people do not commit any crimes.
Moreover, so-called black-on-black crime has decreased over the decades. In the past 20 years, black-on-black homicides decreased by 67 percent—a sharper decline than white-on-white homicide—and “[a]mong black youth, rates of robbery and serious property offenses are the lowest in more than 40 years,” according to Demos. Throughout the country, crime has continuously fallen since the 1990s. Plus, black-on-black crime is hardly unique. Most crime is intra-racial. Around 90 percent of black homicide victims are killed by black offenders, while white people kill each other at roughly the same rate.
Black people are hardly oblivious of the crime within their communities. According to polling, African Americans are concerned about and organize against the crime that exists in their neighborhoods. The roots of crime in the black community are structural. Crime is caused by socioeconomic factors rather than cultural pathologies or inherent criminality, despite what peddlers of the black criminality myth would have you believe. Many studies have shown that poverty and inequality contribute greatly to crime and other social ills. Continuously high unemployment, entrenched poverty, bleak educational opportunities, racial segregation, economic inequality, generations of trauma, and societal neglect create the cycles of desperation that provide kindling for pervasive crime in black communities. One Oakland city official told me last year that many young offenders experience “violence, neglect, abuse against them” earlier in their lives, which leads to “the victim becoming the victimizer.”
Yet public perceptions and biases associate black people with criminality—an association that dates back to slavery. Black African slaves were assumed to be inherently violent and immoral, a justification slave masters used to exert brutal control over them. These methods of control included torture, armed slave patrols that monitored, arrested, and violently beat free or enslaved black Africans, and lynching during the Jim Crow era.
American discourse on crime is deeply politicized and influenced by racial and class bias. “Crime” is synonymous with “black.” In news reports and TV shows about crime, the criminal is usually a black person, especially a black male. But as legal expert and author Lisa Bloom points out in her book Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat it, many mass killings and heinous crimes — such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado that killed 12 moviegoers — are committed by white people. White people are also the ones most frequently arrested for crimes like rape, robbery, assault, forgery, and fraud. Yet unlike black people, white people are not collectively blamed for violent crimes committed by people who look like them.
Missing from American discourse on crime are those abuses committed by the powerful. War crimes, human rights abuses, violations of international law and the US Constitution, and corporate and financial crimes are regularly carried out by governments, large corporations, and people with wealth and political clout. These crimes harm large numbers of people but are largely ignored and mostly go unpunished.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports — the official national crime database—leaves out many corporate and state crimes, while largely emphasizing street crimes. It tracks some white-collar crimes, like fraud and embezzlement, but leaves out many others, like money-laundering and human rights abuses or civil liberties violations. These infractions are tracked elsewhere, but extra digging is required to find the information. Such discrepancies have a serious effect on how the public perceives what is and is not a crime.
Here are five examples of the kinds of crimes that slip under the radar in the US
1. America’s Illegal Invasion of Iraq
There are many examples of criminality, corruption and profound violence inflicted by the powerful, including powerful white men. The Iraq war, which killed between 400,000 and a million Iraqis, as well as thousands of American soldiers, is one example. Any use of force must be approved by the United Nations Security Council or waged in self-defense against an imminent threat. However, Iraq posed no imminent threat to the United States. The war was based on lies and inflated threats about the Iraqi government possessing weapons of mass destruction and having connections to al-Qaeda and the perpetrators of 9/11. These lies were concocted by several members of the Bush administration, primarily Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, to justify invading Iraq.
Nor was the war approved by the United Nations Security Council. It was an illegal war, in violation of Articles 1, 39 and 51 of the UN Charter, which applies to all nation-states. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over egregious international crimes like aggressive war and torture, defines a crime of aggression as “the planning, preparation, initiation or execution, by a person in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political and military action of a State, of an act of aggression which, by its character, gravity and scale, constitutes a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations.” Acts of aggression include invasion and military occupation, bombardments, blockades, air attacks, and use of irregular and mercenary forces. The US invasion of Iraq falls squarely in that category.
2. The CIA’s Secret Torture Program
Shortly after 9/11, the United States “took the gloves off” and abrogated unto itself the right to detain and torture people it suspected of ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. From the period shortly after 9/11 until 2006, the CIA kidnapped and tortured over 100 people in secret prisons or sent them to third-party countries to be interrogated and tortured. According to the recently released Senate report on the CIA torture program, the torture techniques included waterboarding, “rectal feeding” (a euphemism for anal rape), cramped confinement, wall standing, stress positions, sleep deprivation, slamming detainees against walls, facial slaps, forced use of diapers, and mock burial. Interrogators sexually assaulted some detainees and threatened to harm detainees’ children and rape and kill their mothers. The torture was obviously ineffective in getting useful intelligence. However, it was useful for exploitation, particularly eliciting false intelligence to justify the Iraq war and turning some detainees into informants.
Torture violates international and US domestic law. The Convention Against Torture, which the US is party to, strictly forbids torture, saying, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” Aggressive war and torture are also forbidden, with no derogation, under customary international law, which is “a general practice accepted as law,” according to the International Court of Justice Statute.
State crimes and other human rights abuses committed under the guise of the War on Terror continue into the Obama administration. The US global assassination program has, so far, killed anywhere between 3,000 to over 5,000 people, including 500 to 1,200 civilians, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism. A Reprieve report revealed that US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen kill 28 unknown people for every intended target. Targeted killing and perpetual war undermine international law. Since these attacks occur in countries with no real armed conflict, “[e]ach death is a murder,” says Naz K. Modirzadeh, director of Harvard Law School’s Program on International Law and Armed Conflict.
3. Banks Undermine the Economic Status of Minorities
There are countless instances of criminality, wrongdoing and violence carried out by the corporate sector. Chief among them is the role of the big banks in creating the recent financial crisis. These banks peddled risky, subprime mortgage loans to predominantly black and Latino families and then turned those fraudulent, toxic loans into complex financial instruments in order to turn a profit. This not only lead to a financial crash that devastated the global economy, but also decimated wealth in black and Latino communities, putting them in a more precarious economic situation than they were in before. According to Pew Research, in 2007, before the Great Recession hit, median net worth for white households was $192,500, for black households it was $19,200, and for Latino households $23,900. In 2013, around three years after the recession, white median net worth dropped to $141,900 but for black and Latino households it plummeted to $11,000 and $13,700, respectively.
4. Wall Street Is Complicit in the International Drug Trade
While people of color are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, big banks that money launder for major drug cartels escape prison time. Wachovia, which is owned by Wells Fargo, was caught laundering $110 million in profits to Mexican drug cartels through currency exchange houses. Instead of sending those involved to prison, in March 2010, the big bank agreed to pay $160 million to resolve a criminal investigation into its money-laundering operations. In December 2012, British bank HSBC reached a $1.92 billion settlement with state and federal authorities, rather than a criminal indictment, for laundering money, through its US subsidiaries, for Mexican drug cartels and Saudi banks that had ties to al-Qaeda. In both cases, no bankers at the financial institutions were sent to prison.
Robert Mazur, a former federal agent who worked undercover as a money launderer, wrote in the New York Times, “Court filings show that, since 2006, more than a dozen banks have reached settlements with the Justice Department regarding violations related to money laundering. ING Bank paid a $619 million fine for altering records and secretly transferring more than $2 billion for entities trading with Iran and other nations under sanctions. American Express Bank International acknowledged that more than $55 million in drug proceeds may have been laundered through offshore shell accounts it maintained. The Justice Department has signed similar agreements, withholding prosecution in exchange for bank promises to tighten oversight, with Wachovia, Union Bank of California, Lloyds, Credit Suisse, ABN Amro Holding (now owned by Royal Bank of Scotland), Barclays and Standard Chartered. All admitted to criminal offenses; all were handed the equivalent of traffic tickets — pay a fine on your way out the door.”
5. The US Government’s Covert Role in the Drug Trade
US intelligence agencies have a long, documented history of working with drug dealers and gangsters to advance geopolitical interests, particularly to procure secret funding (drug money is largely untraceable) and support for war efforts.
When the Cold War began, the CIA worked with Italian mobsters and the Corsican Gang to successfully prevent the Italian Communist Party from winning the 1948 elections. The mobsters’ interest was preventing French communist labor unions from controlling the docks in the city of Marseille, which the Mafia later took over, establishing the well-known “French Connection” that supplied most of the US’s heroin supply until the 1970s. To support anti-Communist operations and the war in Vietnam, the CIA worked with Chinese, Thai, Burmese, and Laotian heroin dealers, many of whom lost their drug empires once the Communists took over China.
During the 1980s, the CIA armed, trained and funded a band of right-wing counterrevolutionaries—contras—in Nicaragua to fight against the left-wing Sandinista government. To raise extra money for their war, the contras funneled cocaine from South America into the United States, according to a series of reports by the late journalist Gary Webb. This contributed to the infamous 1980s crack epidemic that unleashed a wave of drugs and violent crime in predominantly black inner cities like South Central Los Angeles. It also occurred while President Ronald Reagan was waging a draconian campaign against drugs, filling newly expanded prisons with predominantly black inmates.
Currently, to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, the United States has partnered with powerful opium dealers. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s late brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was a heroin trafficker on the CIA’s payroll. This has helped create a powerful narco state in Afghanistan.
Crimes of the powerful are far more destructive than any street crime could ever be. Street crimes, from theft to murder, harm individuals or small groups of people, while crimes of the powerful, from aggressive and perpetual war to money laundering and economic plunder, destroy entire communities and countries.
Crimes of the powerful are sophisticated and effectively concealed. Street crime is visible. State and corporate crimes involve manipulating complicated laws, rich lawyers siding with the powerful, multiple actors, layers of bureaucracy, and government secrecy. People with power have the resources and connections to manipulate the system so that they are not held accountable, like corporations buying loyalty from politicians through campaign contributions.
This is what makes our entire discourse on crime a total joke. Crimes committed by marginalized groups receive attention and punishment, while crimes of the powerful go ignored and unpunished. The black criminality myth cloaks anti-black fears under the guise of “law and order.” It serves to justify routine police brutality and the mass incarceration of black people. It means that whenever a police officer kills an unarmed black person, racist apologists can pull out the black criminality myth card and say they had it coming.