Crime (1920)

Crime (1920)

We are not for a moment denying the existence of a criminal class among Negroes, who are guilty of deeds of violence. Every race in the world has such groups. No human efforts have yet been able wholly to rid society of crime. But if of all groups, the American Negro is to be singled out and punished as a group for the detestable deeds of its criminals, then this country is staging a race war of the bitterest kind, when the wronged and the innocent fight in desperate defense against the mob and murderer.

There is a curious assumption in some quarters that intelligent and law-abiding Negroes like, encourage, and sympathize with Negro crime and defend Negro criminals. They do not. They suffer more from the crime of their fellows than white folk suffer, not only vicariously, but directly; the black criminal knows that he can prey on his own people with the least danger of punishment, because they control no police or courts.

But what can Negroes do to decrease crime? Some white Southerners have but one suggestion, which is that when a Negro is accused of crime, other Negroes turn to run him down and hand him over to the authorities.

But hold! Is there no difference between a person accused of crime and a criminal? Are black folks accused of crime in the South assured of a fair trial and just punishment? We will let a white southern ex-Confederate, Bishop B. J. Keiley, of Georgia, answer in the Savannah Press:

Is it not the fact that fair and impartial justice is not meted out to white and colored men alike? The courts of this state either set the example, or follow the example set them, and they make a great distinction between the white and the black criminal brought before them. The latter, as a rule, gets the full limit of the law. Do you ever hear of a street difficulty in which a Negro and a white man were involved which was brought before a judge, in which, no matter what were the real facts of the case, the Negro did not get the worst of it?

This is bad enough, but this is not all. We have criminals who deserve punishment. Now the modern treatment of crime and criminals, is built on carefully considered principles: one, old as the English Common Law, and older, declares that it is better for the community that ten guilty men should escape, rather. than that one innocent man should be punished; moreover, it is beginning to be widely recognized that in crime, the criminal is not the only one guilty; you and I share in the guilt if we have not given him as a child an education, furnished him with a place to play, and seen that his body was nourished; we are guilty if as a man he was not allowed to do honest work, did not receive a living wage, and did not have proper social environment.

This social responsibility for crime is so widely recognized that when the criminal is arrested, the first desire of decent modern society is to reform him, and not to avenge itself on him. Penal servitude is being recognized only as it protects society and improves the criminal, and not because it makes him suffer as his victim suffered.

What, now, is the attitude of the white South toward Negro crime? First and foremost, it would rather that ten innocent Negroes suffer than that one guilty one escape; secondly, it furnishes Negro children, for the most part, wretched schools and no playgrounds; it usually pays the adult low wages, houses him in slums, and gives him neither care nor thought, until he steals or murders. It has few juvenile reformatories, and herds all kinds of criminals together, selling them into slavery to the highest bidder, under the “Lease” system. Its idea of punishment is vengeance—vengeance of the cruelest and most blood-curdling sort.

Under such circumstances, what can an honest Negro do to stop Negro crime?

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1920. “Crime.” The Crisis. 19(4):172–173.