What’s wrong with those (white) people?


Sadly, but not surprisingly, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson has brought our country’s most virulent racism to the fore. A prime example, which I have not had the stomach to visit directly myself, is the fundraising page to support Darren Wilson, the police officer who took Brown’s life. From what I’ve seen featured on other sites, it’s a virtual playground for the worst humanity has to offer. 

One of the sentiments you’ll find there, and reflected elsewhere in the discussion of Ferguson, is why black people are so up in arms about police violence while ignoring the violence in their own communities. This is a common tactic that I highlighted last week of distracting from the harsh realities of institutionalized racism that mainstream America doesn’t want to face. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why it’s reasonable for people to be particularly upset about murders by police officers:

There are a number of things wrong here. To the extent that killings by the police generate more outrage, it is completely understandable. Police in America are granted wide range of powers by the state including lethal force. With that power comes a special place of honor. When cops are killed the outrage is always different than when citizens are killed. Likewise when cops kill under questionable terms, more scrutiny follows directly from the logic of citizenship. Great power. Great responsibility.

He goes on to point out that of course the central claim that black people aren’t concerned about intraracial violence is demonstrably false:

More importantly Robinson’s claim is demonstrably false. The notion that violence within the black community is “background noise” is not supported by the historicalrecordorbyGoogle. I have said this before. It’s almost as if Stop The Violence never happened, or The Interruptors never happened, orKendrick Lamar never happened. The call issued by Erica Ford at the end of this Do The Right Thing retrospective is so common as to be ritual. It is not “black on black crime” that is background noise in America, but the pleas of black people.

Trying to create a hierarchy of blame offers a convenient distraction from difficult issues that people don’t want to discuss. But it’s also about an ongoing attempt to pathologize black culture. These things happen because there is just something wrong with those people. Anything people in a marginalized group do is an example of a problem with the entire race. When white people do something horrendous, it’s just a few bad apples. Matthew Yglesias makes this point by highlighting the lack of concern about white-on-white crime:

Yet the disturbing truth, according to the FBI’s most recent homicide statistics, is that the United States is in the wake of an epidemic of white-on-white crime. Back in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, a staggering 83 percent of white murder victims were killed by fellow Caucasians.

This is not to say that white people are inherently prone to violence. Most whites, obviously, manage to get through life without murdering anyone. And there are many countries full of white people — Norway, Iceland, France, Denmark, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom — where white people murder each other at a much lower rate than you see here in the United States. On the other hand, although people often see criminal behavior as a symptom of poverty, the quantity of murder committed by white people specifically in the United States casts some doubt on this. Per capita GDP is considerably higher here than in France — and the white population in America is considerably richer than the national average — and yet we have more white murderers.

Don’t hold your breath for hand-wringing op-eds and political speeches urging white people to get it together.



Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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