The Condemnation of Blackness

Condemnation(Excerpt from the book’s introduction)

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.

Egalite for All. Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution (PBS)

“It is Toussaint’s supreme merit that while he saw European civilisation as a valuable and necessary thing, and strove to lay its foundations among his people, he never had the illusion that it conferred any moral superiority. He knew French, British, and Spanish imperialists for the insatiable gangsters that they were, that there is no oath too sacred for them to break, no crime, deception, treachery, cruelty, destruction of human life and property which they would not commit against those who could not defend themselves.”
― C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution.

The Haitian Revolution was the most important freedom struggle in the history of the Americas. It culminated in the elimination of slavery from France’s most lucrative colonial possession. It led to the establishment of the first “black” republic. It provided a base from which Simon Bolivar launched his campaign to liberate Spain’s Latin American colonies from centuries of colonialism. It lasted for twelve years during which armies sent by three European imperial powers—Britain, France, and Spain—were soundly defeated. Toussaint Louverture, a man born into slavery circa 1743, led the rebellion that ultimately brought freedom and independence to the long-suffering people of Haiti. The PBS documentary featured below provides important insights into the life and career of the Great Liberator.

PBS: Slavery by another name

The Founding Fathers of the United States drafted and approved a Constitution that codified and institutionalized the American slaveocracy system without ever mentioning the word “slavery.” After the Civil War the authors of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (key among whom were were James M. Ashley, James F. Wilson, Lyman Trumbull, and Charles Sumner) not only mentioned the so-called “peculiar institution,” they furnished a giant loophole in the law that allowed slavery and indentured servitude to continue to exist in perpetuity as follows:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

With slavery redefined and sanctioned as “a punishment for crime,” the nation thereby maintained the legality of the system while promoting the fiction of emancipation. The existence of free black people in the U.S. has always been viewed as a mortal threat to white supremacy. Therefore, under cover of law, millions of African Americans were forced back into servitude in the decades after the Civil War. Racist police forces operating in tandem with racist and corrupt judicial officials and municipal courts systematically re-enslaved blacks with the tacit approval of the federal government—which followed an unwritten policy of allowing the states to decide cases involving peonage (forced servitude). The retention of involuntary labor policies and practices thus devastated the lives of African Americans, particularly those living in the South. For example, by 1908, of the 1.1 million African Americans residing in Georgia approximately half were living under the direct control and force of whites. Forbidden to move or seek different employment, the post-slavery generations of black southerners found themselves trapped in this new form of enslavement until the early 1940s.

The 1940s marked a decisive change in US government policy not as a result of a sudden concern for the injustices being done to African Americans, but out of fear of enemy propaganda about US racism during WWII. To protect the image of the nation abroad, the Justice Department and the FBI began to investigate charges of involuntary servitude and prosecute offenders. In 1948 the entire federal criminal code was revised, and by 1951, as the Cold War was coming to a boil, the US Congress passed several statutes making any forms of slavery in the U.S. a crime.

Douglas A. Blackmon, the Pulitzer prize winning author whose book provided the basis for the PBS documentary shown below, uses the label “Slavery by Another Name” to describe the laws enacted specifically to maintain white supremacy and black subservience following the Civil War. Scholar-activist Michelle Alexander refers to the more recent variation of neoslavery—the emergence of the prison industrial complex in the post-Civil Rights era—as The New Jim Crow. Taken together, and with other recent studies by Loïc Wacquant, David M. Oshinsky, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Robert Perkinson, and others, these works show clearly why we cannot relegate slavery to the distant past.

“Slavery by Another Name” provides stark evidence of our continued failure to recognize and address the history of slavery in this nation. It exposes the ghosts in our blood that infect and haunt each generation as it goes forward in ignorance of the past and its consequences for the future.

 

To view a previous post I made about “Slavery by Another Name,” which includes an excellent interview of Douglas A. Blackmon by Bill Moyers, click here.