By Tani Washington •
It seems that every year, when Black activists speak up against large-scale inequity and systemic brutality against people of color, there are those who attempt to qualify this suffering through questions that point to the sufferings of other, usually non-marginalized, groups.
This kind of response is a tactic known as blame-shifting. In a 2019 article published in the Public Library of Science, psychologist Elizabeth Lozano defines “blame-shifting” as “blaming someone else for one’s own failures”1. Now this is not to say that systemic brutality is inherently the fault of every white American, but rather that white Americans have generational privilege in this area that they have a responsibility to help dismantle. By shifting either the cause or solution to the problem onto another group of people, white Americans attempt to absolve themselves of guilt and shame. Whether someone utilizes the tactic of blame-shifting intentionally or as a genuine form of inquiry, it inevitably hinders effective and empathetic conversation. Even within the Black community, voices like tv-host Candace Owens and Arizona representative Walter Blackman take advantage of their platforms to give validity to racially-ignorant arguments against Black activism. Some will also refer to these people as “what-abouts”: meaning those who — rather than consider the entirety of an issue — will focus on one, seemingly unrelated, aspect in order to place the blame on another party. In this article, I will address three of the most common blame-shifting questions in order to offer some clarity on a tactic that often causes more discourse than discussion.
1. “What about Black-on-Black crime?“
To begin, most individuals who pose this question are referring to the infamous FBI statistic that appears to claim that it is more likely for Black people to commit crimes against each other than it is for white people to commit crimes against Black people. Respectfully, I refer those individuals to a May 2015 Harvard Kennedy School report detailing the sampling discrepancies and lopsided police presence that must be taken into when discussing Black-on-Black crime2. Now, for those who pose the question to intentionally invalidate the existence of police brutality, this question is inherently disrespectful. It dismisses the countless years of work that hundreds of grass-roots organizations have spent in order to bring about structural change within inner city communities. With local help, organizations like Homeboy Industries, SocialWorks Chicago, and Rise4Youth are working tirelessly to reform Black neighborhoods, give Black adults more accessible opportunities, and make life safer for Black children. Of course Black people commit crimes against other Black people (we know this and no one is denying it), but this does not nullify the reality of racial brutality at the hands of the American justice system. Destruction within communities of color is a disastrous concoction of wealth disparities, school-to-prison pipelines, the unsolved crack epidemic, and a multitude of other factors including — yes — police brutality. The crime that results in Black communities is not free space to ignore the institutionalized racism that played a part in its creation. In other words, the truth of one reality does not negate the truth of another reality.
2. “What about violence against police?“
Again, for those who ask this question in genuine interest: indeed, this is a very unfortunate aspect of being in an occupation of which the main goal is to interact with criminal activity. However, this violence is not unavoidable. It just requires us to examine the true culprit of the issue rather than shifting blame and deflecting conversation. In reality, violence against police stems more often from the quantity not quality of police interactions. In any given year, the NYPD alone receives an average of 150,000 calls against mentally disturbed persons3. Even the Lincoln Police Department found that, in 2002, they sent more officers to mental health cases than to actual crimes3. As a result, a 2018 article from the Journal of the American Academy in Psychiatry and Law found that approximately 25% of those who were killed in the U.S. by police that year were people with mental illnesses4. In schools, the prevalence of violent interactions is further exemplified by the criminalization of Black children that has caused persistent mistrust between them and the police (see: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School). By no means does one’s mental stability or socioeconomic group make them more likely to attack police, the fact is that police are simply not equipped to handle all of the sensitive situations that they are dispatched to. Rather than rendering mental or physical aid, we often see videos of officers shooting erratic-acting citizens. Rather than sitting down with young students to talk them through their angry outbursts, we often hear stories of officers injuring teenagers with deadly restraining methods. For too long, our country has sent police officers to deal with the problems that could be much better handled by nurses, EMTs, counselors, and social workers. As the saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Similarly, when your only knowledge is of policing, everything looks like criminal activity — and both parties have potential to be hurt in the process.
3. “What about all lives? (i.e All Lives Matter)“
I’m not sure that there is a way to ask this question without being fully aware of the pain and confrontation that comes with it. Still, for the sake of giving the benefit of doubt, there must be those who ask this question through the veil of ignorance. If the words “Black Lives Matter” simply make you uncomfortable, then think of it this way: you do not have to agree with all of those who say this phrase, but it is necessary that you agree with the phrase itself. In this world that acts as if black skin is undesirable, Black men are dispensable, Black women are insignificant, and Black children are a tax, I refuse to allow oppressive systems to perpetuate these stereotypes. I choose to say that the lives of Black people have intrinsic value. I choose to believe that my life has intrinsic value. On the other hand, there are many analogies on the internet involving funerals, clothing items, and houses on fire that are used to explain the harm of “All Lives Matter”. Personally, I love these anecdotes as they are clever and easily digestible. However, as with any information, they can only be understood if the person listening is willing to understand. So, allow me to state this more denotatively. The phrase “All Lives Matter” essentially means “In this nation, every race is treated with value.” However, this phrase can not be true until the country, as a whole, begins to treat Black Americans with the same care, humanity, and respect that it treats white Americans. As long as COVID-19 disproprotionately kills Black women, as long as students of color are criminalized more frequently than white children, as long as indigenous communities are threatened with poisonous pipelines through their land, as long as Black men make up more of the population in jail than in universities, as long as the gender pay gap continues to oppress Hispanic women — all lives do not matter. Until these truths change, the statement “Black Lives Matter” is still very much a necessary reminder of our fight.
We live in a multi-faceted society where world problems exist in a deeply webbed, heavily protected network. Economic burden of the past affects political corruption in the presence affects social unrest in the future. Addressing one of these issues does not mean that we ignore the others. In fact, that is impossible because none of these issues exist independently. Questions that begin with “what about” are attempting to do this impossible thing — dismissing the many systems that must be viewed in conjunction with the issue at-hand in order to create effective solutions. So, next time you begin to ask this harmful question, think: “Am I considering the whole picture here or am I shifting blame to relieve myself and my community of discomfort?”
1 Lozano, Elizabeth B, and Sean M Laurent. “The Effect of Admitting Fault versus Shifting Blame on Expectations for Others to Do the Same.” PloS One, Public Library of Science, 7 Mar. 2019, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6405044/.
2 Braga, Anthony A. and Rod K. Brunson. “The Police and Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence.” New Perspectives in Policing (Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety) May 2015.
3 “Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.” People with Mental Illness | ASU Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, popcenter.asu.edu/content/people-mental-illness.
4 Rogers, Michael S., et al. “Effectiveness of Police Crisis Intervention Training Programs.” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 24 Sept. 2019, jaapl.org/content/early/2019/09/24/JAAPL.003863-19.
Tani Washington is an intersectional feminist, writer, and organizer. She currently works to foster racial equity in Henrico County, VA, to integrate youth of color into spaces of environmental justice, and connect young people to fields in international relations/politics.