At the dawn of the twentieth century, in a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and demographically shifting America. blackness was refashioned through crime statistics. It became a more stable social category in opposition to whiteness through racial criminalization. Consequently, white criminality gradually lost its fearsomeness. This book asks, how did European immigrants—the Irish and the Italians and the Polish, for example—gradually shed their criminal identities, while blacks did not? In other words, how did criminality go from plural to singular?
Khalil Muhammad’s answers to these questions—questions that are essential to understanding the dire statistics that confront us everyday about black arrests and incarceration rates—reveal the philosophy, policies, and practices of a society that has focused its attention on policing blackness after making blackness a crime. How does blackness become a crime? How is it black people are killed by the police for driving while black, walking while black, reaching for a wallet while black, or simply breathing while black? How did black communities become police states and breeding grounds to supply an increasingly privatized prison industrial complex?
The answer should not surprise any of us who have been paying attention. The idea of a free black person refutes and undermines the very existence of white supremacy. Consequently, black freedom is an anathema to those who seek to preserve the status quo of white superiority/black inferiority that has formed and informed this nation’s ethos since its colonial era. As a result, since the end of the Civil War all so-called free blacks, regardless of their social status or outward physical appearance, have been perceived as threats to whiteness, and as runaways and fugitives from white authority, control, and domination.
Since the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—which freed enslaved Africans in name only—the various states, with the complicity of the courts and the police, invented and institutionalized the legal apparatus needed to maintain and enforce the ideology and system of white dominance that began with America’s slaveocracy. American Apartheid, the system of legal segregation and discrimination known as Jim Crow, thus became a means to perpetuate slavery by another name. Concomitantly, crime statistics, as Muhammad points out, supplied a major component of the rhetoric and propaganda used to rationalize and justify the institutionalization of antiblack racism. They continue in that role today.
Racial violence in the form of lynchings and riots organized and conducted by white mobs and terrorist groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries functioned as primary instruments in the preservation and maintenance of white supremacy. More recently, voter disenfranchisement, voter suppression, and the so-called war on drugs initiated by federal and state legislators have been deployed for the same purposes of intimidation and terror. That violence or the threat thereof operates as the central mechanism of this system cannot be denied. The history of racial violence, both as overt and covert assaults on black people and black humanity, can be seen in Muhammad’s book and in other works by Kidada Williams, Leon Litwak, James Allen, Paul Ortiz, Cameron McWhirter, Douglass Blackmon, and Michelle Alexander, to name a few. Muhammad’s research, however, grounds those studies in the key moments when the systematic condemnation of blackness through the use and manipulation of crime statistics occur. It also adds to our understanding of the deep social consequences for the black community by showing how crime data have been used to dehumanize black people and obscure the structural roots of antiblack racism that perpetuate poverty, injustice, and inequality.
In the first video presented below, Muhammad provides a brief summary of his book. The second video provides a highlight from an interview he gave to journalist Bill Moyers on June 29, 2012 (a link to the full video also is provided below).
Bill Moyers and Khalil Muhammad on Facing Our Racial Past
Bill Moyers and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, head of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of The Condemnation of Blackness, discuss the importance of confronting the contradictions of America’s past to better understand the present.
Muhammad describes the New York City Police Department’s “Stop and Frisk” program as “an old and enduring form of surveillance and racial control”:
“If we think about the moment immediately following the Civil War, there was the invention of something called ‘the Black Codes’ in every Southern state. And those codes were intended to use the criminal justice system to restrict the freedom and mobility of black people. And if you crossed any line that they prescribed, you could be sold back to your former slave owner, not as a slave, but as a prisoner to work off your fine after an auction where you were resold to the highest bidder. It tells you something about the invention of the criminal justice system as a repressive tool to keep black people in their place,” Muhammad tells Moyers. “And it’s still with us. It’s still with us, because ultimately, as a social problem, crime has become like it was in the Jim Crow South, a mechanism to control black people’s movement in cities.”
Click the following link for the full episode of Bill Moyers’ interview with Dr. Muhammad.