A Faux Sermon on Race and Crime

Author of 18 books and numerous articles, clergyman, preacher, winner of the American Book Award, ubiquitous television and radio personality, regular college lecturer, Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson is a go-to man on race issues.

Dyson’s new book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, is cheered by Toni Morrison for its “profound cultural analysis,” and its “guidance for moral redemption.” With literary grace applied to a story of American racism that itself can reduce a person to tears, Dyson calls upon white America to accept blame for the condition of black America. Beyond that, he asks white America to draw black Americans into its bosom. How will white America respond?  

An answer, I suggest, involves an issue that Dyson fails to face squarely: crime and especially black crime, and this failure, paradoxically, impedes rather than helps racial reconciliation.

Why do many Americans with resources and choices live in gated communities?  Is it because they fear black crime?  By raising this crime issue himself, Dyson allows for the possibility.  

For Dyson, to be sure, the fear is morally wrongheaded. Black people, he begins, have no agency; crime is the product of racism and racism alone. Dyson is not altogether wrong; psychological and economic pressures cannot help but encourage socially destructive lifestyles.   

Dyson, however, knows that, in the end, his or other accounts of the wretchedness of slavery, Jim Crow, educational and job discrimination, and residential segregation will not persuade white readers (or others) to ignore crime. Like almost everyone else, they are primed by nature for self-preservation and freedom from fear; undoing the products of slavery, by contrast, is a long-term proposition.

Dyson thereupon tries another tack: whites are mistaken to fear blacks. Without citing sources, he provides four principal data points:

1) 93% of black homicide victims are killed by other blacks.

2) 84% of white victims are killed by other whites.   

3) Whites are 6 times more likely to be murdered by a white person as by a black person.

4) Blacks commit 36% of violent crimes, compared to 42% by whites.  

Dyson’s point is that black crime should not concern whites. Since blacks are not targeting them, whites should not be fearful. What whites should fear is other whites, the never-mentioned white crime rate, in other words, white-on-white crime. Racial segregation in this view, as suggested, is entirely a function of racism.

It does not take a wizard to see the analytical deficiencies here. Blacks make up about 13% of the population, whites 65%, and others 22%. There are five times as many whites as blacks. In addition, a crime data point of my own:  blacks make up 45% of homicide perpetrators, whites 40%. This demographic difference cannot be ignored. 

In a world of equal rates of black/white victimizers, blacks would be responsible for 1/5 of 42%, or 8.5% of the violent crimes, not 36%. (For ease of presentation I assume that overall violent crime numbers stay constant because “others” make up the difference produced by the hypothetical lower black rate.) The disparity shows up more starkly where homicide is concerned. If black/white victimizer rates were equal, blacks would be responsible for 1/5 of the 40% of homicides perpetrated by whites, or 8%. A tragedy of our times is that the black offender rate for homicide is 5½ times higher (45%/8%) than that of whites.  Can this not have a profound social impact?  Recall in this connection Jesse Jackson’s classic confession of humiliation when walking down the street, hearing footsteps, turning around to see a white man, and “feeling relief.”  

The demographic connection between perpetrators and victims further explains Jackson’s reaction. Since 93% of black homicide victims are killed by other blacks, Jackson was expressing sound understanding of the odds.  But what about whites?  If  whites are six times more likely to be murdered by whites than by blacks and there are five times as many whites as blacks, it follows that a white individual is still slightly more likely to be killed by a white person than by a black person, even though not six times as likely. This of course supports Dyson’s view that whites present a greater risk of death to whites as a group than blacks do.  

The real import of the analysis here, however, lies elsewhere. What Dyson does not say is that a reason for the intra-racial dominance of homicide is the very segregation that he rails against:  people kill those who are physically closest to them.  And precisely because this is the case, common awareness of the disproportionate victimizer rate has to affect people’s thinking. Thus, however poor the treatment of blacks by whites, integration will remain only a dream.     

This is no brief for residential segregation, Quite apart from the fact that the public has exaggerated the risk of homicide, there is much good news to report on a variety of fronts.  In some places, crime rates have plummeted. The murder rate in New York City is only a little more than 1/6th of what it was in 1993.  The effect on living patterns in some areas has been profound.

Let me speak from personal experience here. Between 1990 and 2007, I regularly traveled from New York to Providence. The Greyhound bus has to travel through Harlem to get from and to the Port Authority in midtown. It was impossible to avoid demographic considerations. Many were the times that on a three-mile stretch I did not see a single white person north of 96th street on Third Avenue. How remarkable that an appreciable part of Harlem is now integrated to the point where fear of crime seems, ironically, to have been replaced by fear of gentrification.

New York, to be sure, is now the major American big city with the lowest crime rates, so we should not make too much of the Harlem story; New York is not Chicago. The principal objective here is to show a logic for social distancing in general. The idea is not really new. “Rational discrimination” is a term coined at least twenty years ago. The author, black law professor Jody Armour, went on to say that whites should not give into it. 

I will concede this last point to get to another, more general one. Dyson, notably, does not discuss any of the demographic subtleties. Failing to mention the enormous black/white population and homicide disparities cannot simply be explained as an oversight on his part. Dyson is a Ph.D whose training must extend far beyond the shallowness of his analysis. What this failure evidences is a belief that whites can be readily manipulated.

Dyson wants whites to feel even worse than they should and blacks to feel free of the burden of remediation. In the respects discussed here, “Tears” undermines Dyson’s project, thereby becoming a sad example of what black author Stanley Crouch had in mind in The All-American Skin Game, or the Decoy of Race and Richard Thompson Ford in The Race Card.  Blacks are not the only ones to see speciousness in race talk. I highlighted it in my own book, Toxic Diversity: Race, Gender, and Law Talk in America. 

As James Baldwin noted, “nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Disparate victimizer rates are a central problem. The racial crime gap must be narrowed if we are to live together harmoniously. If people like Dyson continue to place the entire burden of remediating racial distancing on whites, that remediation will not take place.

You have to be a veritable racist to agree with Dyson that crime is outside the control of the black community.  Would Dyson agree that social and economic conditions for blacks have improved by 500% in New York City since 1993?  He certainly doesn’t say so. Social development requires trust; and while black populations have good reason to not trust whites, books such as Dyson’s show that the reciprocal is also true, with all the consequences that that entails.      

Author of 18 books and numerous articles, clergyman, preacher, winner of the American Book Award, ubiquitous television and radio personality, regular college lecturer, Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson is a go-to man on race issues.

Dyson’s new book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, is cheered by Toni Morrison for its “profound cultural analysis,” and its “guidance for moral redemption.” With literary grace applied to a story of American racism that itself can reduce a person to tears, Dyson calls upon white America to accept blame for the condition of black America. Beyond that, he asks white America to draw black Americans into its bosom. How will white America respond?  

An answer, I suggest, involves an issue that Dyson fails to face squarely: crime and especially black crime, and this failure, paradoxically, impedes rather than helps racial reconciliation.

Why do many Americans with resources and choices live in gated communities?  Is it because they fear black crime?  By raising this crime issue himself, Dyson allows for the possibility.  

For Dyson, to be sure, the fear is morally wrongheaded. Black people, he begins, have no agency; crime is the product of racism and racism alone. Dyson is not altogether wrong; psychological and economic pressures cannot help but encourage socially destructive lifestyles.   

Dyson, however, knows that, in the end, his or other accounts of the wretchedness of slavery, Jim Crow, educational and job discrimination, and residential segregation will not persuade white readers (or others) to ignore crime. Like almost everyone else, they are primed by nature for self-preservation and freedom from fear; undoing the products of slavery, by contrast, is a long-term proposition.

Dyson thereupon tries another tack: whites are mistaken to fear blacks. Without citing sources, he provides four principal data points:

1) 93% of black homicide victims are killed by other blacks.

2) 84% of white victims are killed by other whites.   

3) Whites are 6 times more likely to be murdered by a white person as by a black person.

4) Blacks commit 36% of violent crimes, compared to 42% by whites.  

Dyson’s point is that black crime should not concern whites. Since blacks are not targeting them, whites should not be fearful. What whites should fear is other whites, the never-mentioned white crime rate, in other words, white-on-white crime. Racial segregation in this view, as suggested, is entirely a function of racism.

It does not take a wizard to see the analytical deficiencies here. Blacks make up about 13% of the population, whites 65%, and others 22%. There are five times as many whites as blacks. In addition, a crime data point of my own:  blacks make up 45% of homicide perpetrators, whites 40%. This demographic difference cannot be ignored. 

In a world of equal rates of black/white victimizers, blacks would be responsible for 1/5 of 42%, or 8.5% of the violent crimes, not 36%. (For ease of presentation I assume that overall violent crime numbers stay constant because “others” make up the difference produced by the hypothetical lower black rate.) The disparity shows up more starkly where homicide is concerned. If black/white victimizer rates were equal, blacks would be responsible for 1/5 of the 40% of homicides perpetrated by whites, or 8%. A tragedy of our times is that the black offender rate for homicide is 5½ times higher (45%/8%) than that of whites.  Can this not have a profound social impact?  Recall in this connection Jesse Jackson’s classic confession of humiliation when walking down the street, hearing footsteps, turning around to see a white man, and “feeling relief.”  

The demographic connection between perpetrators and victims further explains Jackson’s reaction. Since 93% of black homicide victims are killed by other blacks, Jackson was expressing sound understanding of the odds.  But what about whites?  If  whites are six times more likely to be murdered by whites than by blacks and there are five times as many whites as blacks, it follows that a white individual is still slightly more likely to be killed by a white person than by a black person, even though not six times as likely. This of course supports Dyson’s view that whites present a greater risk of death to whites as a group than blacks do.  

The real import of the analysis here, however, lies elsewhere. What Dyson does not say is that a reason for the intra-racial dominance of homicide is the very segregation that he rails against:  people kill those who are physically closest to them.  And precisely because this is the case, common awareness of the disproportionate victimizer rate has to affect people’s thinking. Thus, however poor the treatment of blacks by whites, integration will remain only a dream.     

This is no brief for residential segregation, Quite apart from the fact that the public has exaggerated the risk of homicide, there is much good news to report on a variety of fronts.  In some places, crime rates have plummeted. The murder rate in New York City is only a little more than 1/6th of what it was in 1993.  The effect on living patterns in some areas has been profound.

Let me speak from personal experience here. Between 1990 and 2007, I regularly traveled from New York to Providence. The Greyhound bus has to travel through Harlem to get from and to the Port Authority in midtown. It was impossible to avoid demographic considerations. Many were the times that on a three-mile stretch I did not see a single white person north of 96th street on Third Avenue. How remarkable that an appreciable part of Harlem is now integrated to the point where fear of crime seems, ironically, to have been replaced by fear of gentrification.

New York, to be sure, is now the major American big city with the lowest crime rates, so we should not make too much of the Harlem story; New York is not Chicago. The principal objective here is to show a logic for social distancing in general. The idea is not really new. “Rational discrimination” is a term coined at least twenty years ago. The author, black law professor Jody Armour, went on to say that whites should not give into it. 

I will concede this last point to get to another, more general one. Dyson, notably, does not discuss any of the demographic subtleties. Failing to mention the enormous black/white population and homicide disparities cannot simply be explained as an oversight on his part. Dyson is a Ph.D whose training must extend far beyond the shallowness of his analysis. What this failure evidences is a belief that whites can be readily manipulated.

Dyson wants whites to feel even worse than they should and blacks to feel free of the burden of remediation. In the respects discussed here, “Tears” undermines Dyson’s project, thereby becoming a sad example of what black author Stanley Crouch had in mind in The All-American Skin Game, or the Decoy of Race and Richard Thompson Ford in The Race Card.  Blacks are not the only ones to see speciousness in race talk. I highlighted it in my own book, Toxic Diversity: Race, Gender, and Law Talk in America. 

As James Baldwin noted, “nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Disparate victimizer rates are a central problem. The racial crime gap must be narrowed if we are to live together harmoniously. If people like Dyson continue to place the entire burden of remediating racial distancing on whites, that remediation will not take place.

You have to be a veritable racist to agree with Dyson that crime is outside the control of the black community.  Would Dyson agree that social and economic conditions for blacks have improved by 500% in New York City since 1993?  He certainly doesn’t say so. Social development requires trust; and while black populations have good reason to not trust whites, books such as Dyson’s show that the reciprocal is also true, with all the consequences that that entails.      

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