I have a confession to make.
I assumed that those responsible for the horrific murders of Terrence Aeriel, Dashon Harvey and Ofemi Hightower looked liked me.
That is, I assumed that they, like each of the victims, were black.
Indeed, a recent US Department of Justice study confirmed that I was justified in my belief.
The study, released by the department’s Bureau of Statistics last week, showed that although blacks comprise only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they represented nearly half of the nation’s murder victims in 2005. The study’s most startling finding, though, was that most of the black murder victims — an astonishing 93 percent — were killed by other black people.
In other words, more than 9 out of every 10 black murder victims die at the hands of another black person.
I assumed, incorrectly, that the same was true here. And I was not alone.
It turns out, however, that those charged with the murders of the three young friends are not black folks. They are Latinos, a few of whom are in New Jersey illegally.
To be sure, many of Newark’s racially diverse residents have been drawn together after the shocking murders.
Others have sought, with some increasing frequency, to make an issue of the perpetrators’ immigration status (and the immigration issue more broadly), arguing that we should “send illegals back” to their home countries.
The statistic above clearly demonstrates that mass deportation of illegal immigrants would have no impact on the rate at which blacks are murdered in communities like Newark.
More fundamentally, the plight of immigrants mirrors the struggles faced by blacks not that long ago.
Consider this scenario:
In the years between 1915 and 1970, 7 million migrants crossed Southern borders bound for economic opportunities in Northern cities like Newark, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago and New York. A great number of them had little, if any, formal education. They were unskilled but were very willing to work.
Enticed by industries that promised gainful employment, those migrants worked for less money than the existing labor force, building resentment amid claims that these migrants were stealing jobs and driving down wages.
This is the story, not of the illegal immigrants who are at the center of the current debate, but that of the millions of blacks who left the American South following the abolition of slavery.
Black people are this country’s first and only involuntary illegal immigrants. We were kidnapped from the African coast and dragged to the American shores for decades after the “legal” slave trade ended in 1808.
In the cloud of historical amnesia, and faced with this horrific tragedy, some of us overlook the fact that the debate surrounding immigration today echoes the issues that confronted blacks in the recent past.
The lessons taught by black history provide the strongest argument for rejecting forces that seek to weaken all of us by dividing us.
And division is precisely what focusing on the irrelevant immigration status of perpetrators creates.
In the wake of the tragic murders of three of Newark’s promising young people, we must, more than ever, bond together and rebuild our city.
And we must do that together.
* This article first appeared in nj.com. Thanks to Joe Nevins.