December always brings an accounting. In the last month of the calendar year we sum our various categories of crime and we look for meaning in the numbers. We look to have the numbers speak for themselves.
Policymakers, journalists, advocates, and law enforcement will point to the numbers to make their various arguments for what it all means and what must be done. Some will make impassioned pleas, others will shrug, throw up their hands; many others will find confirmation of their theories, prejudices, and philosophies.
In particular, the total number of murders will be scrutinized as a portentous signifier—especially this year in Baltimore as we have already surpassed last year’s total number of homicides. Ominous invocations of gang warfare (as with Baltimore’s new police chief), drug-dealing, black-market economies and thug-life will seem normal, expected, offered casually by way of explanation.
The ostensibly value-neutral language of statistics will bracket discussions and imputations of black social pathology, criminal minds, nihilism. Disproportionate in analysis and calls for solutions will be more, and more effective policing, surveillance, a judiciary willing to punish, the need for steadfastness and staying tough to fight what is regularly with resignation described as our “intractable” urban crime problem.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad—Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library and Associate Professor of History, Indiana University—in his Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America makes the case that our year-end accounting has a particular history and purpose. Inextricably woven into these year-end statistical stories of crime in Baltimore—indeed in all of urban America—is this country’s perennial and originary story of defining ourselves by race and our obsession with measuring racial superiority and inferiority.
The link between race and crime is as enduring and influential in the twenty-first century as it has been in the past. Violent crime rates in the nation’s biggest cities are generally understood as a reflection of the presence and behavior of black men, women and children who live there. The U.S. prison population is larger than at any time in the history of the penitentiary anywhere in the world. Nearly half of the more than two million Americans behind bars are African Americans, and an unprecedented number of black men will likely go to prison during their lives. These grim statistics are well known and frequently cited by white and black Americans; indeed for many they define black humanity.
In all manner of conversations about race—from debates about parenting to education to urban life—black crime statistics are ubiquitous. … Although the statistical language of black criminality often means different things to different people, it is the glue that binds race to crime today as it did in the past.
Condemnation shows our urban race-numbers narrative begins with the 1890 census, the first to quantify the generation of African-Americans born after slavery and that lay the foundation for a new kind of intellectualized racism that constructed an intractable black criminal class as its empirical cornerstone.
Muhammad shows convincingly how the idea of a black criminal class evolved through the Progressive Era through to today, gaining enough social scientific and quantitative bona fides to allow both white liberals and members of the emerging black middle class—along with the tough-on-crime majority—to casually espouse an ideology of racialized inferiority: a new dangerous race of black criminals.
Muhammad writes that this thinking has become simply the dismissive and naturalized corollary to any discussion of inequality, segregation, poverty, or social injustice in a place like Baltimore. He notes:
The preceding half-century of increasing statistical segregation and expanding residential segregation naturalized black inferiority, justified black inequality, and tended to mask black counter-discourses and resistance … [the idea of black criminality] remained largely rooted in segregationist thought and practice and in competing visions of blacks’ place in modern urban America.
Thus many of our year-end accounting stories in Baltimore—from conservative calls for more police to the liberal telling of poignant tragic tales of individual crimes and victims—will find comfort, reassurance and meaning in the numbers.