Ferguson Agonistes

The War on Drugs Is What Makes Thugs

Why do blacks vent when a white cop shoots a kid but say little about daily black-on-black murder? Black outrage is selective—but rational.

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty

On Ferguson, the respectable person isn’t supposed to say it, or even think it: that there’s something wrong with the fact that black people start burning things down when one white cop kills one black guy, but seem to think of it as business as usual that black boys and men regularly kill each other.

Michael Brown was, statistically, vastly more likely to be killed by a fellow black man than a single white one. Yet the black-on-black murder rate in Chicago this summer, to the people comparing Ferguson to Gaza, etc., is perhaps “regrettable,” but hardly cause for taking it to the streets.

That observation, typically dismissed as hostile right-wing boilerplate, is actually worthy of an answer, and not the one typically given—including by me.

I have written that actually black communities are quite aggrieved about black-on-black violence. “Stop The Violence” events are routine. Ta-Nehisi Coates did a blog post making the point neatly. There is barely a black community without concerned black ministers and elders trying their best to counter the tide of gun murders.

Yet deep down I cannot genuinely see that answer as enough. Clearly, black communities are much more upset over a Darren Wilson than over a black guy down the street killing one a few blocks over. After a summer during which dozens of black men, and sometimes bystanders including children, are killed by other black men, no one starts looting stores. Black thinkers do not make bone-deep, censoriously indignant statements on CNN.

But is it really that hard to understand why? Take Judson Phillips at Tea Party Nation for a representative statement, calling black people racist for hating on a Darren Wilson rather than the local thugs. Look at the comment section too—this is no lone wolf sentiment. But anyone who really sees “racism” in the matter is being almost willfully blind to perfectly rational human nature.

Namely: In black communities, the thug is not the occasional skulking sociopath, the oddball down the block who always seemed to “have the devil in him” and “went wrong.” The thugs, remember, are numerous; they are one of the local norms, sad to say. Nothing like every guy is a thug, of course. But the thugs are numerous enough to be part of the warp and woof of the community. That, a situation dating only to the ’80s, is why the issue is considered so pressing today.

So, the thugs are your son, your brother, your uncle, your cousin, the boy who grew up next door, your boyfriend, one of your best friends. Maybe the thug even used to be you, until you went straight.

In that light, let’s imagine what it would entail for black communities to truly condemn black thugs, beyond just having marches and using words like “troubling.” Mothers would have to forsake their own boys, for real. Women would refuse to go near any man with thuggish associations, for real—barely a thug could expect to get any action. In communities that already feel as if the mainstream world is an alien realm, ordinary people would have to sneeringly dismiss, for real and for good, every third one of their own male teens and twenty-somethings in the neighborhood, and get out in front of cameras and start howling against them. Thugs, to feel remotely at home, would have to move to different cities and start over—leaving their families (including kids) behind.

OK, right-wingers—is this a scenario any of you can seriously entertain? This would require a contravention of fundamental human bonds of affection and group membership that no human group in the history of humanity has ever been required, or even asked, to pull off. For a black community to seriously hate on black thugs would be to hate on part of itself.

Sad, yes. But the right is perhaps more comfortable than the left with the simple fact that what’s sad is often true. And right or left, anyone who has ever been a parent—or even been a child, which I presume we all have—knows that the solution to the problem is not simply that black mothers need to tell their boys not to be thugs. Who thinks they don’t do that already?

Then let’s pull the camera back. A general sentiment in such communities is that the reason black men kill each other so much is, ultimately, the same societal racism that makes a scared white cop shoot down a black man. Now, to be sure, that argument is weak. Not valueless, but so abstract and so indirect that there is no hope that America will ever internalize it the way writerly types hope. Black boys are shooting each other over sneakers nationwide and we’re supposed to think the reasons for it are Plessy v. Ferguson, old-time housing covenants, and bad schools? Come on; there comes a point when the definition of “reason” is stretched beyond what most will consider useful.

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But: Society is indeed responsible for black men killing other black men in a way that should make sense to all. They are killing each other with guns. They don’t have them for sport, but because of turf wars conducted largely by gangs. The gangs’ main activity is selling drugs, which can be sold at a markup because they are illegal. If the drugs were not illegal and available in clinics in moderate doses while rehabilitation was widely available, these men couldn’t sell the drugs on the street. As such, they would have no reason to fight over turf with guns, and therefore would neither be killing each other nor poised to be killed by white cops.

As such, protests like the one in Ferguson, aimed outward instead of inward, can serve a purpose if they heighten awareness of what brings cops into towns like Ferguson so much in the first place. Note that tension between black men and cops over (of course) drugs is a longtime problem there. The war on drugs doesn’t seem much on the minds of the protesters, to be sure—people protest against the immediate more readily than the abstract.

But if anything is to come of Ferguson other than a film-ization in a few years à la “Fruitvale Station” about Oscar Grant, then it is the responsibility of all of us on the sidelines to think more about the drug war. Kate Harding’s piece of counsel has gone viral as to what “concerned” whites should do to indicate serious concern about Ferguson. The upshot is to immerse oneself in a crash course on institutional racism and police brutality.

Yeah, but I suggest a supplement. Memorize and spread this mantra: The War on Drugs Is What Makes Thugs.