This is a case where a statistic is accurate, but it doesn't address key elements in the bigger picture.
The turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., has spurred a lot of talk about what has gone wrong in America. Some say it reveals core problems in the criminal justice system and policing. Others believe it points to problems in the black community itself.
One vocal spokesman for the second approach is former New York mayor and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. When NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd brought up the number of cities where the police departments are mainly white while the communities they serve are mainly minority (as in Ferguson), Giuliani aimed to take the conversation in a different direction.
"I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks," Giuliani said in his Nov. 23, 2014, appearance on the show.
His point was that the death of a black teenager at the hands of a white cop was "the exception," and if the country is concerned about black homicides, then it would do better to focus on African Americans.
We will set the larger questions aside and deal simply with Giuliani’s statistic about black homicides.
He accurately recites a federal statistic, but he would almost equally be right if he were talking about white homicides at the hands of other whites. On the other hand, blacks do suffer from higher murder rates than whites.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 93 percent of black homicides were indeed committed by other blacks between 1980 and 2008. In 2012, the most recent data posted on the web, the figure was 91 percent. This overlooks many deaths because it’s only possible to gather this information when a crime leads to a conviction and some cases are never solved.
It’s important to note that whites were almost equally likely to be killed by other whites. According to government data, 84 percent of white homicides were committed by whites. This was true between 1980 and 2008 and in 2012.
The last time we looked at this topic, we asked Professor David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, why this might be.
"Homicides overwhelmingly happen among people who know each other," Kennedy said. "There are relatively few absolutely straight-up stranger homicides. Homicide is a phenomenon of social networks. ... Most peoples’ relationships are primarily with someone of their own race or ethnicity. As long as anybody has studied homicide, this has been the pattern."
So Giuliani’s point about black-on-black homicide doesn’t carry us very far in exploring murder in America. The percentage is higher for blacks than for whites, but only by seven to nine percentage points, depending on the time period you use.
We did find that young black men, ages 14 to 24, suffer disproportionately from murder. While the numbers have been falling since the mid-1990s, in 2008 about 16 percent of homicide victims were young and black. As a group, they represented just 1 percent of the population.
Young white men were also disproportionately at risk, but the situation was not quite as dire. They comprised about 6 percent of the population and 10 percent of murder victims.
On the offender side, young black men accounted for 27 percent of everyone who committed murder in 2008. Young white men accounted for 16 percent.
Giuliani said that 93 percent of blacks are murdered by blacks.
That’s in line with federal statistics. However, it actually tells us little about violence in black communities. The percentage of whites killed by whites is only about seven percentage points lower. The strong historical trend is that in a society with persistent pockets of segregation, most homicide occurs within each ethnic group.
Giuliani’s claim is accurate but needs clarification. We rate it Mostly True.