That very small part of the story

One problem with conversations I get into as an Uber and Lyft driver is that I am rarely prepared for them.

Take the conversation I had yesterday with a woman I picked up in Homestead: She said that it was not enough for Blacks—she claims a mixed ancestry including Irish but appears Black—to complain to whites that the latter need to change. This wasn’t, at least that I can be sure, about “respectability,” the invidious notion that to escape prejudice and discrimination, Blacks need only emulate whites.[1] She pointed to Black-on-Black crime and said that Blacks aren’t doing enough to change themselves.

I’ve heard this before, mostly from whites. But it turns out that Blacks kill each other at only a slightly higher rate than the rate at which whites kill each other. And in fact, Blacks are working to reduce crime within their communities. But we never hear about “white-on-white” crime.[2] Nor do we often talk about the relationship between economic circumstances and crime.[3]

[P]olicing and anti-violence programs don’t address the root cause of crime in the Mon Valley [the Monongahela River Valley] or elsewhere, which remains serious poverty and a lack of upward mobility for young people. A child born poor here is likely to stay poor here unless they have a lot of lucky breaks. The very racially segregated nature of Pennsylvania communities means that Black and Latino children are about three times as likely as white children to live in impoverished neighborhoods.[4]

It isn’t just a choice between lucrative drug dealing and a somewhat less-than-lucrative job at McDonald’s, indeed, as we now know, with employers determined to keep wages in the “legitimate” economy as close to zero as possible, even to the extent that they keep a significant portion of the population unemployed so as to deter workers from agitating for higher wages and better working conditions.[5]

Fig. 1. An abandoned building in Wilkinsburgh. Photograph by author, November 25, 2020.

There’s a psychic toll to blight (example, figure 1), in seeing, as I do, day after day, abandoned and decaying houses and businesses, mostly in poor neighborhoods. The message, inescapably, is not just that the buildings have been left to rot, but in a capitalist society that prizes property even above human life,[6] so too have been the neighbors.

And I can’t help but wonder about kids growing up amidst despair and palpable hatred, as they have done here in Pittsburgh for generations.

Fig. 2. Map of Gratuitous Guns, allegedly honoring military veterans but mostly placed in or near poor areas where Blacks disproportionately live,[7] compiled by author from photographs.


Fig. 3. “No Trespassing” sign on the edge of Clairton. Photograph by author, August 8, 2020.


Fig. 4. A tank on display outside a gun store in West Mifflin, across from the Allegheny County Airport. Photograph by author, September 26, 2019.

How do you grow up with a societal celebration of guns (figures 2 through 4), and therefore implicitly violence, as we have around Pittsburgh, indeed, a large-caliber munition round pointed directly at your high school (figure 5); widespread support for police white supremacist gangs who kill your people,[8] as we have around Pittsburgh; and entrenched economic inequality, as we have around Pittsburgh, and still consider mainstream society legitimate, as anything other than an instrument for the oppression of non-whites? How?

Fig. 5. This is pointed at the southwest corner of Carrick High School. Photograph by author, December 31, 2019.

Certainly it is more than true that we each need to step back from hating each other, that we each need to step away from this compulsion to divide ourselves into “us” and “them” by whatever means of categorization we can imagine.[9] But somehow, that’s really only a small part of the story.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Holding Blacks to white standards,” Not Housebroken, December 25, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/2014/12/25/holding-blacks-to-white-standards/
  2. [2]Michael Harriot, “Why We Never Talk About Black-on-Black Crime: An Answer to White America’s Most Pressing Question,” Root, October 3, 2017, https://www.theroot.com/why-we-never-talk-about-black-on-black-crime-an-answer-1819092337
  3. [3]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004); Dan Simon, In Doubt (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2012).
  4. [4]Jason Togyer, “In towns like McKeesport, the future was already precarious. Then came coronavirus,” Columbia Journalism Review, May 22, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/special_report/year-of-fear-mckeesport-crime-covid-19.php
  5. [5]David Benfell, “About that alleged ‘labor shortage,’” Not Housebroken, May 17, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/05/09/about-that-alleged-labor-shortage/; Jon Schwarz, “The Business Class Has Been Fearmongering About Worker Shortages for Centuries,” Intercept, May 7, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/05/07/worker-shortage-slavery-capitalism/
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Evictions in a pandemic,” Not Housebroken, May 5, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/03/11/evictions-in-a-pandemic/; David Benfell, “Capitalists are shameless in their entitlement,” Not Housebroken, May 10, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/04/18/capitalists-are-shameless-in-their-entitlement/; David Benfell, “The capitalist death cult,” Not Housebroken, May 17, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/03/27/the-capitalist-death-cult/
  7. [7]David Benfell, “The banners and the guns: Flagrant racism in Pittsburgh,” Not Housebroken, April 6, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/09/20/the-banners-and-the-guns-flagrant-racism-in-pittsburgh/
  8. [8]Mark Berman et al., “Protests spread over police shootings. Police promised reforms. Every year, they still shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people,” Washington Post, June 8, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/protests-spread-over-police-shootings-police-promised-reforms-every-year-they-still-shoot-nearly-1000-people/2020/06/08/5c204f0c-a67c-11ea-b473-04905b1af82b_story.html; Kyle Cheney, Sarah Ferris, and Laura Barrón-López, “‘Inside job’: House Dems ask if Capitol rioters had hidden help,” Politico, January 8, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/08/congress-democrats-capitol-riot-inside-job-456725; Tim Craig, “Proud Boys and Black Lives Matter activists clashed in a Florida suburb. Only one side was charged,” Washington Post, February 2, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/florida-protest-bill-unequal-treatment/2021/02/01/415d1b02-6240-11eb-9061-07abcc1f9229_story.html; James Downie, “Time to toss the ‘bad apples’ excuse,” Washington Post, May 31, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/31/time-toss-bad-apples-excuse/; Jeet Heer, “How Not to Mourn George Floyd,” The Time of Monsters, April 21, 2021, https://jeetheer.substack.com/p/how-not-to-mourn-george-floyd; Arelis R. Hernández and Cleve R. Wootson, Jr., “Black Americans are buoyed by Chauvin conviction, but they worry it will blunt pace of reform,” Washington Post, April 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/04/20/chauvin-verdict-black-americans/; Jason Johnson, “I'm not happy. I'm not relieved. The verdict is a cultural make-up call. This ruling means it takes a Black man being murdered on TV in front of millions, a years worth of protest and a phalanx of white cops saying "this is wrong" for a black person to get a scintilla of justice,” Twitter, April 20, 2021, >https://twitter.com/DrJasonJohnson/status/1384637989444325378; Kimberly Kindy, Mark Berman, and Kim Bellware, “After Capitol riot, police chiefs work to root out officers with ties to extremist groups,” Washington Post, January 24, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/police-capitol-riot-extremists/2021/01/24/16fdb2bc-5a7b-11eb-b8bd-ee36b1cd18bf_story.html; Maggie Koerth, “The Police’s Tepid Response To The Capitol Breach Wasn’t An Aberration,” FiveThirtyEight, January 7, 2021, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-polices-tepid-response-to-the-capitol-breach-wasnt-an-aberration/; Kurtis Lee, “Derek Chauvin is guilty of murdering George Floyd,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-04-20/jury-verdict-derek-chauvin-george-floyd-death; Kurtis Lee, Jaweed Kaleem, and Laura King, “‘White supremacy was on full display.’ Double standard seen in police response to riot at Capitol,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-01-07/la-na-washington-capitol-police-attack-race; German Lopez, “Police officers are prosecuted for murder in less than 2 percent of fatal shootings,” Vox, April 2, 2021, https://www.vox.com/21497089/derek-chauvin-george-floyd-trial-police-prosecutions-black-lives-matter; Wesley Lowery, “Aren’t more white people than black people killed by police? Yes, but no,” Washington Post, July 11, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/07/11/arent-more-white-people-than-black-people-killed-by-police-yes-but-no/; Brentin Mock, “What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings,” CityLab, August 6, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/08/police-officer-shootings-gun-violence-racial-bias-crime-data/595528/; Elie Mystal, “There’s Only One Possible Conclusion: White America Likes Its Killer Cops,” Nation, May 27, 2020, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/white-america-cops/; Alanna Durkin Richer and Lindsay Whitehurst, “1 verdict, then 6 police killings across America in 24 hours,” Associated Press, April 24, 2021, copy in possession of author; Jon Schuppe, “Police across U.S. respond to Derek Chauvin trial: ‘Our American way of policing is on trial,’” NBC News, April 15, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/police-across-u-s-respond-derek-chauvin-trial-our-american-n1264224; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “How Do We Change America?” New Yorker, June 8, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-do-we-change-america; Raphael Warnock, “Today’s verdict affirming Derek Chauvin’s responsibility for killing George Floyd is the right outcome in this trial, but it is not justice. . . .” Twitter, April 20, 2021, https://twitter.com/SenatorWarnock/status/1384651251061858323
  9. [9]Simone de Beauvoir, “Woman as Other,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Westview, 2017).

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