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Despite skewed media image, Black men are more likely to be victimized than other groups

Unlike murders of white citizens, Black victims generally fail to elicit a massive police response or large-scale public outrage.

Recently released FBI data confirms that Americans endured two public health crises last year: COVID-19 and deadly violence. Although the murder rate remains below the 1990s high, the number spiked in the United States spiked by nearly a third in 2020. 

Undoubtedly, an escalation of this magnitude is alarming. But simply focusing on this staggering tally doesn’t tell the whole story and gives the false impression that all Americans are equally affected by the surge in killings.

While urban residents bore the brunt of the homicide increase, killings climbed in rural areas as well. Regardless of location, the harsh reality remains that Black families disproportionately experienced the trauma of losing loved ones to violence.

The data pushes back against the popular portrayal of Black men as criminal perpetrator instead of victim. And unfortunately, from the looks of last year’s FBI homicide figures, the victimization race gap isn’t changing.

The nearly 10,000 Black homicide victims last year (28% more than in 2019) prominently underpin the increase. In many major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and Atlanta, this increase has been almost exclusively among victims of color since the pandemic's beginning.

Society's biased response

Unlike the murders of white citizens, Black homicide victims generally fail to elicit a massive police response or large-scale public outrage unless the killing is especially heinous or occurs in areas not generally associated with Black communities (no matter how misguided the association).

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Black victims remain underrepresented in U.S. news broadcasts, and as a consequence, they're rarely recognized socially as crime victims deserving of justice or empathy. Uneven news coverage also aggravates racial tensions between Black and white Americans by perpetuating a narrative of white victimization, which flies in the face of reality.

Lawmakers have stayed true to their political party ideologies when approaching violent crime based on these flawed narratives. On one side, liberals tend to recognize the importance of race, but they regularly propose initiatives lacking genuine cultural responsiveness to the Black experience. On the other, conservatives raise arguments for larger police forces and “tough on crime” policies that ultimately burden Black households.

Amid this ongoing political tug of war, very little recognition has been given to those most likely to be violently killed but also most likely to be depicted as predators – Black boys and men. Black males are criminally racialized as perpetual suspects, owing largely to their overrepresentation as offenders in popular and news media.

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News outlets in New York City, for example, reported on various crimes with Black people as suspects, including murders, at a clip far outpacing their arrest rates for these offenses, according to studies by Media Matters for America.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data reveals that in 2019, Black males were about 21 times more likely to be killed than white women and nearly eight times more likely to be killed than white men. The gap in victimization is similar dating back to 1999. 

The current focus of academics and activists on racial equity for defendants and convicted offenders somewhat downplays similar racial disparities in the treatment of victims. And the fact that victims and offenders often share similar social characteristics implies that deeper issues are at play that cannot be fixed by “hot-spot” or “stop-and-frisk” policing tactics. 

Confronting systemic racism

The broader issue of criminal violence has systemic roots. The lingering effects of discriminatory policies like redlining and mass incarceration restrict opportunities for people of color and have left many once-thriving Black neighborhoods begging for revitalization as blight and neighborhood distress limit residents’ ability to bridge the wealth gap.

Policing indeed has a role in reducing violent crime, much of which should revolve around targeting those responsible for the bulk of the violence. However, violent crime will continue to haunt marginalized neighborhoods for generations to come as long as residents are isolated and desperate. Because persons in grim circumstances are at higher risk of resorting to crime and violence, the federal government must urgently invest in underserved communities to address root causes of crime like economic depravity, poorly resourced schools and community underinvestment.

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Congress must seize its opportunity to finally get it right and help thwart the violence plaguing many Black Americans. After the recently failed police reform talks, lawmakers' response to violent crime might very well determine this Congress’ legacy.

Fortunately, some government officials get it. Most notably, Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., have recently pushed for $10 billion to revitalize these communities. The plan involves sending federal funds directly to groups working to revitalize economically challenged neighborhoods. This endeavor would include constructing health centers, job training facilities, commercial spaces and community gardens – all protective factors against violent crime.

Also, initiatives that tackle racial inequities in homeownership through affordable housing, address community wealth, spark new economic activity and provide much-needed health care services should help reduce crime and break the cycle of poverty and social exclusion in underserved neighborhoods.

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Let’s be clear. We’re not suggesting handouts but simply asking our government to ensure everyone has a fair shake at the American dream.

That's the best way to lower crime rates and stem the rate of Black male victimization. 

Thaddeus L. Johnson, a former police officer, is a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and teaches criminology at Georgia State University. His wife, Natasha N. Johnson, is a faculty member at Georgia State and director of the university master's program in criminal justice administration.

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