Criminal Racial Past
Congress is in the midst of its summer recess, escaping
the malarial heat of the Washington swampland and the
agony of legislative gridlock. Most of the members fled
for home but many have run straight into the arms of
angry voters questioning whether the incumbents should
be returned to office.
The clamor and
dissent remind us of another hot and humid summer 236
years ago when the
Second Continental Congress approved
Declaration of Independence and riders on horseback
rushed it to the far corners of the thirteen new United
where it was read aloud to cheering crowds.
Perhaps, we will
Declaration of Independence itself, the
product of what
John Adams called
"happy talent for composition." Take some time this week
to read it—alone, to yourself, or aloud, with others,
and tell me the words aren't still capable of setting
the mind ablaze. The founders surely knew that when they
let these ideas loose in the world, they could never
again be caged.
Yet from the
beginning, these sentiments were also a thorn in our
side, a reminder of the new nation's divided soul.
Opponents, who still sided with Britain, greeted it with
sarcasm. How can you declare "All men are created
equal," without freeing your slaves?
was an aristocrat whose inheritance of 5000 acres and
the slaves to work it, mocked his eloquent notion of
equality. He acknowledged that slavery degraded master
and slave alike, but would not give his own slaves their
freedom. Their labor kept him financially afloat.
Hundreds of slaves, forced like beasts of burden to toil
from sunrise to sunset under threat of the lash, enabled
him to thrive as a privileged gentleman, to pursue his
intellectual interests, and to rise in politics. Even
the children born to him by the slave
remained slaves, as did their mother. Only an obscure
provision in his will released his children after his
death. All the others— scores of slaves—were sold to pay
off his debts.
Jefferson possessed "a happy talent for composition"—but
he employed it for cross purposes. Whatever he was
thinking when he wrote “all men are created equal,” he
also believed blacks were inferior to whites. Inferior,
he wrote, "to the whites in the endowments both of body
and mind." To read his argument today is to enter the
pathology of white superiority that attended the birth
of our nation.
So forcefully did
he state the case, and so great was his standing among
the slave-holding class, that after his death the black
David Walker would claim Jefferson’s
argument had "injured us more, and has been as great a
barrier to our emancipation as any thing that has ever
been advanced against us," for it had ". . . sunk deep into
the hearts of millions of the whites, and never will be
removed this side of eternity."
So, the ideal of
equality Jefferson proclaimed, he also betrayed. He got
it right when he wrote about “Life, Liberty and the
pursuit of Happiness.” As the core of our human
aspirations. But he lived it wrong, denying to others
the rights he claimed for himself. And that's how
Jefferson came to embody the oldest and longest war of
all—the war between the self and the truth, between what
we know and how we live.
Behind the eloquent
words of the Declaration were human beings as flawed and
conflicted as they were inspired. If they were to look
upon us today they most likely would think as they did
then, how much remains to be done.
contradictions of American history in mind, this seemed
a good time to talk with
Khalil Gibran Muhammad. He’s
made them his life’s work. Muhammad grew up on Chicago’s
South Side, a member of the first generation of African
Americans born after the victories of the civil rights
movement. He’s the author of this award-winning book,
, which brings the past to
bear on race, crime. and the making of urban America, and
connects today’s headlines to their deep roots. He was
teaching history at Indiana University when the New York
Public Library asked him to head the Schomburg Center
for Research in Black Culture.
The Condemnation of Blackness
Muhammad: I decided right after college that there
was nothing more important to me than learning about
African American history and culture. Really being able
to learn firsthand the experiences and contributions
that African Americans have made to this country and to
The Schomburg Center is known the world over for
documenting the history of all peoples of African
descent with a special emphasis on the story of African
Americas. Among its ten million items are classic works
crystallizing that experience. I asked Muhammad to talk
about how we tell America’s story without whitewashing
the past. Welcome to the show.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad:
Thank you very much, Bill, for having me.
Bill Moyers: Why history? I
ask the question because
Henry Ford famously said,
"History is bunk."
Khalil Gibran Muhammad:
Bill Moyers: And you clearly
Muhammad: I clearly disagree. And I think this is a
moment with questions about what the founding fathers
intended, when they established our system of
government. How large it should be. The debate between
Jefferson and Hamilton, about whether there should be
central government or small country of farmer republics.
This question of what our original history is has shaped
almost every aspect of the American experience.
In other words,
history is all around us. Whether or not it is an
accurate description of what happened in 1776, for
example, or what happened in 1865 is secondary to the
point that people's ideas about the past, people's sense
of memory about the past, shape their own sense of
identity and shape how they imagine the world should be.
And therefore, in my opinion, history is the building
block of all knowledge in our society. And it is the
most important part of the most significant tradition
that human beings have, which is storytelling.
But how do we know to trust the past or which part of
the past to trust? Because as you say, history is
storytelling. And we all tend to reach for the facts
that confirm our story, confirm our narrative, our
interpretation of the past. So how do we learn to trust
which part of the past?
Muhammad: Historians, professional historians will
be the first to admit that history is about
interpretation. It's about taking a fragmentary record
and crafting an argument and defending that argument
based on evidence. It's very little different than what
lawyers do or Supreme Court justices do when they try to
argue the merits of a case.
Bill Moyers: But when you
hear someone invoke
Thomas Jefferson, what image comes
Muhammad: I tend to think of Jefferson's ideas that
gave birth to this republic with a whole lot of
contradiction. And in that regard, I don't think of
Thomas Jefferson as exceptional. The fundamental
conundrum that was established in this country in spite
of Thomas Jefferson's ideas about independence was that
they resolved that slavery would exist after the
And I, well, I ask that question, because it raises the
argument, the story—which story do you believe of
whether this reflected their hypocrisy or their
humanity? And therefore is an eternal reality that we
want to do good things and we believe certain ideas and
ideals, but we also act otherwise.
Muhammad: So it does. Contradiction is part of the
human experience. We wrestle with it every single day,
whether we admit it or not. Thomas Jefferson and half of
the other slaveholders who were presidents, all lived
literally look out their windows and see enslaved people
in the land of the free and the home of the brave, so on
and so forth. But the fact of the matter is that they
had a great responsibility for building what would
become American democracy. And in that regard, they
Yeah, it took me a long time, long past college and even
graduate school, to figure out that eight of the first
ten of our presidents were enriched by their ownership
of capital, land or slaves. We were never taught that
these men actually created a government, a constitution
designed to protect the further acquisition of property
for the privileged classes. Which that just didn't get
Muhammad: Well, it's also the difference between an
individual living a contradiction in terms of enslaving
another as a proponent of freedom. And the ways in which
those same individuals helped to build philosophical and
ideological justifications for enslavement. And again,
that's where things get a little trickier. So of course
Thomas Jefferson penned "Notes on the State of Virginia"
in 1787, which was effectively one of the first
scientific arguments for why black people should be
treated differently from whites, by virtue of their
In other words, the
scientific notion that black people were fundamentally
different, whether it was in hair texture or in body
odor, which is all part of Thomas Jefferson's analysis,
gave birth to the enduring justification that even in
America, even in a place that represented a tradition of
republicanism in the world, the first modern democracy,
that you could actually reconcile freedom and slavery,
as long as the people who were enslaved were not equal
citizens, were not made of the stuff of equal humanity.
Well, then you had to construct a system that made sure
they could never be seen to be equal members of society?
Muhammad: Correct. Well, that system was already
self-reinforcing by the economic imperatives of
enslavement. So you had the system that provided a modus
operandi for reproducing inferiority. But you had to
explain it still. And it was to that task that
theologians, philosophers, scientists, eventually social
scientists, journalists and politicians eventually
weighed in and said, "This all makes sense. It makes
sense because these people—I mean, from a religious
standpoint, these people are not of the same God even.
That they represent a different species created by God
to serve White men."
If you can remember, when you first heard the words "all
men are created equal," do you remember how you reacted
Muhammad: When I was old enough, and particularly in
college, when these kinds of documents, you have time to
critically engaged. You're being inspired to pay
attention. I can remember having visible, a palpable
sense that this wasn't true. That the framers had lied.
That the words didn't match the reality.
And that was just a
response. I didn't have a sense of history enough then
to sort of unpack all of that. Because there was so much
rhetoric of equality of opportunity. I mean, I can't
overemphasize the point enough. I grew up in the 1980s,
right? I mean, so this is, you know, John Wayne is the
president as Ronald Reagan. And in all of that rhetoric
of opportunity, all of the sanitization of what King's
legacy had meant was part of the Zeitgeist of that
And so to all of a
sudden encounter those words in a moment of reflection
and then to know growing up on the South Side of Chicago
that everything wasn't all perfect and equal meant that
there was work to be done. There was a reconciliation, a
reckoning so to speak, that needed to take place. And
for me, that was exciting. It was exciting to have the
space and the opportunity when I got to graduate school
to study it.
Again, it took me a long time to learn that the man who
wrote "all men are created equal," also wrote the words,
"money, not morality is the principle of commercial
nations." And so I ask you, the historian, is one more
true than the other? Is it more true that all men are
created equal? Or is it more true that money, not
morality, governs our polity?
Muhammad: Well, if we use the benefit of hindsight,
I think it's certainly, history has borne out that money
not morality is the principle of commercialized nations.
At the very moment of course when this country was
building its political infrastructure, the set of ideas
that would animate three systems of government, with
checks and balances, with defined citizenship—of course
property was crucial to who would participate.
And so it took us
another 100 years to enfranchise Black male voters. And
then another 50 years after that to enfranchise women.
So in that regard, history teaches us something about
what the relationship between citizenship and property
was, which was a contradiction. It wasn't about all men.
And in that regard, even the gendered notion of
Bill Moyers: "We the people"
did not include—
Khalil Gibran Muhammad:
Bill Moyers:—blacks, women,
Native Americans, right?
Muhammad: That's right. Which is, even in this
conversation, and let me say this very clearly, the fact
of what happened to Native Americans in this country in
the 17th century, the fact that it's still not part of
the lingua franca of our conversations about this
nation's earliest history is evidence of how little it
is part of our secondary educational experiences and our
In other words, I
am obviously a proponent of historical literacy that
focuses in particular on African Americans. But even as
I talk to you, even as we have this conversation about
the Declaration of Independence, it's almost an
afterthought to think about Native Americans.
It's almost an
afterthought to think about how the 19th century the
moment of the expansion of the frontiers of this nation,
which really was an escape valve for European
immigrants, who came here, whether it was from Ireland
or whether they came here from Australia as English
indentures, was built on the backs of land owned in the
Indian sense by many tribes indigenous to this country.
I mean, it's just a
moment to reflect upon how just starting with the
question of "What happened to black people?" is not
sufficient to understanding that at the end of the day,
the very notion of settlement in this country was about
procuring resources for the purposes of wealth
accumulation. That was true for most who came to this
country, maybe not true for a small band of Puritans who
landed in Massachusetts, who imagined the recreation of
a very special, religious community. But even that
vision of American society didn't last very long. So
it's certainly true, as far as I'm concerned, that over
the last 225 years, Thomas Jefferson's second point
about money—has far outlasted and triumphed over the
notion of freedom.
The Declaration refers to Native Americans as savages.
They were written out, as you say, of the story very
early. Do you think it had something to do with the
unconscious or even conscious understanding on the part
of the white slave-holding property-seeking race that we
were practicing genocide, we, the white race, were
practicing genocide against these people? Maybe the word
wasn't in currency at that time. But they were removed.
They were taken to a reservation. They were enclosed.
And that's where they spent the last 200 and some-odd
years. Why did we write the Native American out of the
Muhammad: So first of all, our experience in the
United States was already learning from the experience
in South America, where indigenous populations, Taino
Indians in various parts of the Caribbean Islands and in
South America were first resistant to the encroachments
of Europeans, eventually fought against them, and showed
such valor in their fighting against European
encroachment that there was no sense of incorporation or
So their fighting
spirit created a kind of contradiction of nobility,
which was what eventually gave birth to the notion of
the noble savage. That these were a people who were
willing to die to protect their way of life. It was
disease that wiped them out at the end of the day.
That's what got the better of the indigenous
So in that regard,
the pure devastation that attended to the original
settlement of Europeans in the Americas eventually gave
birth to population loss that was akin to genocide by
today's standards, but it was done by way of germ
warfare. And really in an unintended way.
Did anybody ever teach you, tell you that
Justice John Jay said, "Those who own the country should govern
Muhammad: No, I mean, it reminds me of a quote that
George Walker Bush used, which was that this is an
ownership society and if you don't own anything, you
don't have any say. He didn't actually say the second
part. But he did describe America as an ownership
society. Effectively meaning that people need to be
empowered through the privatization of formerly public
services for the purposes of having a stake in it.
And this, of
course, was evidenced by his attempt to privatize Social
Security, right? But the bottom line is that because of
the significance of money in politics, because of the
increasing wealth inequality in this country people who
don't own anything are often at the whim and caprice of
political and business elites.
Bill Moyers: Why do
politicians whitewash history?
Khalil Gibran Muhammad:
Because it helps them get elected. Why else do
politicians do what they do?
This is pledge time for public television. Some stations
will briefly step away from us to ask for your support.
For the rest of you, Moyers & Company will resume in
just a moment.
I read just the
other day that 76 percent, three quarters of college
graduates are unfamiliar with the Bill of Rights. And
almost that many could not say who was America's
arch-rival during the 40 years of the
Cold War. So
pretend I'm a freshman in your class at Indiana
University, which you left to come to Schomburg. How do
you plan to rescue me from my ignorance of the past?
Muhammad: Well, if I get to meet you, then I'm going
to encourage you to take a U.S. history course for
starters. The problem is that our colleges and our sense
of the public sphere are shrinking. Colleges and
universities are giving increasing weight to the STEM
fields. Science, Technology, Engineering, and
They haven't cut
out the humanities. I don't want to overstate or say
that there's a crisis, necessarily. But there is a sense
that university presidents, particularly in state
university systems, have to be responsive to state
legislatures. And if those state legislatures happen to
be Republican, there's a lot at stake when it comes to
what is the appropriate history lesson to be taught to
And I want to point
out that in Texas, for example, a couple of years ago,
there was a move by the then state regents to remove or
the state's own history of civil rights
activism, both statewide and nationally.
They simply removed
certain individuals. So
Cesar Chavez got less attention
in the textbook. And Ronald Reagan and others got more.
I mean, that, for practical purposes, in terms of number
of words on page, for certain acts of history—
And they wanted to diminish Martin Luther King's role
and increase, enhance Newt Gingrich's role, right?
Muhammad: Right. So that in my opinion is of a
piece. It's of a piece that both looks at the college as
a place where history is less important to the fact of
The Bureau of Labor
Statistics produced a report just two years ago, in late
2009, where it identified the top ten growing fields for
all Americans. Six of them were low-wage, entry-level
service work, the preponderance of which were all in
health care. Basically taking care of an aging baby
boomer population. So what are we going to do about
You're not going to study history, though, are you?
Muhammad: Well, you are going to study history.
Because if you don't recognize what's at stake for
wealth distribution and the fact that money has been a
motivating principle for shaping our society. Then
people don't have a sense of personal responsibility for
changing the reality that they live.
They simply accept
it that inequality is a naturalized part of the society.
And they will imbibe or accept anything that a
silver-tongued politician will sell them. I mean,
history is sufficient to making the point that you
actually have to protect gains that have been made on
behalf of something called justice and equality.
Bill Moyers: Is that why—
Muhammad: The challenge is if they are historically
illiterate then they cannot have, they don't have access
to those—that store of ideas. And that evidence of
experience that will help them shape whatever they need
to shape for this particular moment.
So is that what you meant when you said recently that
black history for young people is quote "life saving"?
Muhammad: Yes, that's exactly what I meant.
But that black history begins with slavery, with irons,
with lynchings, with auctions, with decades after
decades of oppression and repression. How can you say
it's life saving?
Muhammad: That's interesting. Because it doesn't
begin with all of that. And we could debate the finer
points of the character of what black history is, right?
'Cause that's what we're really talking about. What is
it that most people conceive of when they hear black
history? Well, there is that history of oppression. It
is a unifying experience in the United States, in the
But many people
will argue that the cultures of Africa, many cultures,
many tribes, many nations celebrated tremendous
achievements by the standards of the world, of the 15th,
16th, and 17th, even into the 18th century before
colonization. So depending on what it is you are trying
to convey to a child, you can tell them that before the
white man came, if you go to
Timbuktu, you will see a
You will see the
invention of languages that preceded the lingua franca
of the world today, which of course is English. That's
one way of inspiring people. And that's one way of
defining black history. But alongside that very
trajectory that you just described, the one of struggle,
of pain, of repression, is one of survival, of triumph,
of creativity. And so part of telling the story of black
history is to celebrate that ability to exist in a
society that is working against you, is attempting to
demonize you, and still be able to triumph over it,
still be able to produce original forms of art, such as
And that's empowering. But it's because of black
people's political tradition, starting with political
activism in the context of slavery to this day, that
America actually is a more democratic society, is a
society that has more equality than it did 200 years
And that is also a
powerfully inspiring history. Because were it not for
black people, for example, in the immediate aftermath of
the Civil War, the South might have taken another 50
years to have public education. It was because of black
political representatives in state congresses in the
late 1860s and 1870s that they passed legislation to
establish the first public education systems in the
South. That's a major contribution. And it demonstrates
how important making real democracy is. And this country
has, including many minority groups, including women,
have to thank for that tradition of black activism.
Significance of Stop and Frisk
So I'm sitting there in the front row of your lecture at
Indiana University, where you were teaching before you
came to the Schomburg. And I just heard you say there's
a thin line separating the past from the present. And I
raise my hand. And I say, "All right, Professor
Muhammad, if that's the case, what does history have to
tell me about
stop and frisk?"
I ask that
question, because our brethren at WNYC, the public radio
station here in New York, recently ran a series in which
they reported that one in five people stopped last year
by New York City police were teenagers 14 to 18 years
old. Eighty-six percent of those teenagers stopped were
either black or Latino, most of them boys. Last year,
more than 120,000 stops of black and Latino; the total
number of black and Latino boys that age in New York
City isn't much more than that. 177,000 or so, which
suggests that every teenage boy who's black and Latino
in this City of New York is likely before he graduates
to have been stopped and frisked by the police. So
you're a historian. What does history have to tell me
stop and frisk?
Muhammad:It tells us that it's an old and enduring
form of surveillance and racial control. So if we think
about the moment immediately following the Civil War,
there was the invention of something called the
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, from the very moment where 95 percent of
the Black population became free. 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. Just as Douglas Blackmon described in
Slavery by Another Name
Bill Moyers: A great book,
by the way.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: A
Bill Moyers: What happened
to blacks after the Civil War, how they were freed.
Muhammad: Right. The invention of convict leasing as
a mechanism to—I mean, they had many sources, but one
was an economic project to rebuild the South on the
backs of imprisoned, leased African Americans sold to
private industry. And the net simply widened, because
there was a lot of money to be made in doing that kind
Blackmon's work, we learn how elastic were laws like
vagrancy laws, intended effectively to empower any
citizen and/or law enforcement official to check the
papers of a black person moving freely along the world.
And if you couldn't prove that you were currently
employed, bound to a tenant farming contract or a
sharecropping agreement, then you were by definition a
vagrant, by definition a criminal, and subject to, in
this case, convict leasing. So if you're a sharecropper
and you're being cheated by the white landowner. And you
tell him to go to hell and you step away. He can call
the police and say, "This person left my property. And
they don't have a job. They're a vagrant."
You get picked up,
you're done. You're off to a convict lease. The point is
that that elasticity, that ability to use the law as an
instrument of control, the ability to use discretion is
exactly what operates in the context of stop and frisk.
It operated in New York. Stop and frisk as a explicit
policy is not that old, but as an informal practice,
"Condemnation" describes numerous instances.
It's happening in
Brooklyn, in Harlem, in the 1910s and '20s and '30s. But
here's the point. Today's stop and frisk, if you look at
the form that a police officer fills out, the boxes
create tremendous opportunity for discretion. So
“furtive movements,” “suspicious behavior.” But probably
the one that's most indicative of this is one box that
says, "Wears clothes—wearing clothing known to be
associated with criminals."
What does that mean
for an 18 year old black or Latino boy in New York City?
He has sagging pants? Is that sufficient grounds for
investigating whether or not he's a criminal or not, or
carrying contraband? Does he have a white t-shirt? Is he
wearing a backpack that could contain drugs? In other
words, it's incredibly elastic. And it—
Bill Moyers: Does that
include a hoody in Florida?
Muhammad: It could include a hoody in Florida. In
other words, it allows law enforcement, in this city,
just like it did in the 1870s in Alabama, to have the
widest berth of discretion to challenge a person, a
black male on the streets, to ask them, "Where are you
going? And do you belong here?" And as it turns out, if
you don't have I.D., you can be subject to arrest in
There’s a hallways
monitoring program that the N.Y.P.D. uses to go into
private buildings for the purposes of making sure that
there's no drug dealing happening in those buildings.
But as The Village Voice reported just a few
months ago, a young man walked out in his pajamas to
empty his trash.
He happened to come
across an N.Y.P.D. officer. The officer asked him for
his I.D., to prove that he lived in the building and
wasn't a drug dealer. He didn't have one. He was fined.
That's discretion. That's abuse of authority. That is
the racial context. Because—and here's where race really
matters today. And I want everybody to be clear about
Why race matters
today and defies the logic of Bloomberg, that this is
really about saving black people. And this is a
colorblind public safety agenda is because no white
community in America would tolerate this kind of
treatment in the name of public safety in its
communities, period. You couldn't go into any East Side
apartment or any West Side co-op anywhere in New York
City, and start asking 17-year-old white boys for I.D.,
when they were out in their pajamas.
Why? Because their
political power in this city and in other parts of this
country is sufficient to get a politician to question
whether or not that's the America that we want to live
in. But when it comes to black and brown people, today
as was true 100 years ago, they are subject to certain
criminal justice policies. Those policies in Alabama
lasted way into the civil rights era. And stop,
question, and frisk, as informal practices, have been
going on for over a hundred years.
You have written a biography of an idea here. And the
idea you're writing about is how blacks came to be
singled out, nationally, as an exceptionally dangerous
Muhammad: Sure. Well, think about it this way, Bill.
There's no moment in time, no moment in time exists
where race is not a primary factor in the treatment of
And so the crime
issue, if we just equate crime or criminalization and
racial stigma, there is no moment where race is not an
organizing principle for how black people's behavior is
defined in American society.
That's the problem.
And so policies like stop, question, and frisk evolved
not because they were invented in that moment, but
because they continued in that moment. And immigrant
communities got police reform. And black people got
The South I understand, but in the North, a hundred
years ago, in your home city of Chicago, blacks were
only about two percent of the population, maybe four
percent of the population. And yet, stop and frisk
became very popular there.
Muhammad: That's right. And unfortunately, in the
aftermath of Reconstruction, there was a meeting of the
minds between progressives and white supremacists. And
the meeting of the minds wasn’t as we might think it
was, because this was also the same moment where people
Jane Addams and
Bill Moyers: Great
Great progressive leaders started the
NAACP. They were deeply concerned about political
disenfranchisement and civil rights. But crime was the
great exception. And in this one space, Southerners were
far more influential in terms of telling Northerners
that black people were not ready for citizenship, that
they were not responsible for following the rules of
took note and essentially developed policies and
practices primarily policing of urban space. Policies
like stop, question, and frisk helped to create the
ghettos of Harlem, of Chicago, of West Philadelphia that
were in their infancy at the turn of the 20th century.
And it was only on the basis of criminality that
progressives and other liberals said to those black
communities that, "We're going to let you work out your
own salvation. We're going to let you stay in these
isolated communities until you exhibit the bourgeois
behaviors of respectability and law abidingness."
And all of this may
sound appropriate to viewers listening today, except
that the same didn't hold true for
who gave so much trouble to civic reformers. They didn't
speak the language. They brought old world cultural
traits. They were loud. They wanted to peddle their
wares all over the streets. There were too many of them.
They lived in really dense places. They were brewing
wine and other liquors in their bathtubs. Some were
extortionists going around collecting taxes and duties
from small businesses. Well, they didn't say, "We're
going to let you work out your own salvation." They
said, "We've got to get in here and Americanize these
Bill Moyers: That's what the
Khalil Gibran Muhammad:
That’s what the progressive movement was about.
was about. social welfare, public parks, job
opportunities, social mobility, but not, you say, for
blacks. They were penned off?
Muhammad: They were penned off. And they were penned
off in a way that crime became the legitimate reason and
rationale for that segregation. In other words, crime
among immigrants and even native-born working class
whites was understood to be a consequence not of their
moral character or of their cultural framework, but in
fact of economics and class.
So even Europe's
peasants, even Europe's marginalized and dispossessed,
who came here in search of opportunity, benefited from a
civilizationist discourse, from a way of ranking the
world's people that said, "Any European, no matter how
dastardly or despicable has the stuff of Europe, has the
stuff of civilization, with just a little bit of help,
will be on their way to greener pastures." But black
people were still understood, even in places like New
York, Chicago, and Philadelphia as being fundamentally
flawed in their nature.
Bill Moyers: But you go on
to say in the book that blackness was refashioned
through statistics. That statistics about black crime
were ubiquitous. But statistics about white crime were
invisible. Was that deliberate?
Muhammad: It was over time. So it wasn't that way
from the very beginning. The problem is that black
people were enslaved. There was no point in tracking
them statistically, because they weren't a population
problem. They were enslaved. Well, once they were free,
the demographers now turned immediately to statistics
and said, "We've got to figure out how many babies, how
many black babies are born each year? How many black
babies die? What are the diseases that they die from?"
And eventually they
turned to crime statistics. Their initial point in using
statistics was not to celebrate the presence of black
people, but to determine how much of a presence,
physically, black people would have in the nation. And
as it turns out, because enslaved people don't go to
prison, they're dealt with summarily as plantation
justice. Now as free people they're going to prison.
And in 1890, for
the first time, a statistician looked up and said, "Wow,
there's a disproportionate prison population of black
people. They're 30 percent of the nation's prisoners.
And they're only 12 percent of the nation's population.
Well, as it turns out, if we just let them be, they will
commit enough crimes and go to prison and we won't have
to worry about the economic resources that have to be
distributed amongst the Italians, amongst the Irish,
amongst the Polish Catholic and now amongst the black
And so the very notion of
refashioning their identity as a criminal identity was
intended to be a mechanism to limit social resources on
behalf of black communities. To effectively say,
"Because they are criminals, they don't deserve even
Bill Moyers: You're not
denying that there were crimes.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: I'm
not denying that there were crimes.
Black violence on violence. I mean, the book doesn't
deny that. I want to make that clear to the audience.
But that somehow the black criminal became a
representative of his race.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad:
Bill Moyers: Right. "To
think and talk about African Americans as criminal," you
write, "is encoded deeply in our DNA."
Khalil Gibran Muhammad:
Correct, but the question became, "Are we going to help
black people like we help the immigrants?"
Bill Moyers: And the answer
Muhammad: The answer was, "Because they are
criminals, no." And that was a rationale rooted in
racial logic. It was a rationale tied to sets of ideas
that privileged Europeans as people who could benefit
from the help of native white reformers, elites like
Jane Addams, and black people could not. It effectively
created the circumstances that gave birth to modern
segregation in our biggest cities. So as those
populations grew, the basic infrastructure remained the
It was—it's amazing to me, astonishing to go through
here and find so much of the evidence you've collected.
You have even
[Theodore] Roosevelt telling black college
graduates in 1904 that, quote, "Criminality is in the
ultimate analysis a greater danger to your race than any
other thing can be." And one sociologist after another
saying, "You blacks are your own worst enemies, because
of your criminal—"
Khalil Gibran Muhammad:
Bill Moyers: "—nature." And
that took hold in the ideology of dominant America, did
And that's the same
dominant ideology that we have today. I mean, it's not
packaged in the same explicit rhetoric. But it has given
birth to policies like
stop, question, and frisk that
Mayor Bloomberg has—consistently
Ray Kelly consistently defends. Policies such
as mass incarceration.
We are still living with the same
basic ideas and arguments about the relationship between
black criminality and social responsibility, between
segregation and public safety today as we were in the
1890s in this country.
Here's the testimony of one of the most influential
scholars of the time,
Nathanial Southgate Shaler, a
Harvard scientist and prolific writer on race relations.
Here's what he wrote in 1884, quote, "There can be no
sort of doubt that judged by the light of all
experience, these people,”—blacks—“are
a danger to America, greater and more insuperable than
any of those that menace the other great civilized
states of the world."
He wrote that in
the "Atlantic" magazine. Here's
Hinton Rowan Helper,
arguing that America would self-destruct if it gave
blacks the right to vote. He said
Negroes with their
crime-stained blackness could not rise to a
plane higher than that of base and beastlike
savagery. Seeing then that the negro does,
indeed, belong to a lower and inferior order
of things, why in the name of Heaven, why
should we forever degrade and disgrace both
ourselves and our posterity by entering of
our own volition into more intimate
relations with him? May God, in his
restraining mercy, forbid that we should
ever do this most foul and wicked thing.
Now this is not talk radio
back in the 1884 or 1904. These are prominent scholars,
Harvard, Atlantic magazine writing this. And you're
saying that in some interior structural way, these
sentiments still affect how we deal with each other
Muhammad: Absolutely. We've got the biggest prison
system the world has ever known, a prison system, by the
way, that came of age in this moment right after the end
of the Civil Rights Movement. So at precisely the moment
that black people have their second shot at equality in
America, legally, legislatively, right? I mean, we could—you
know as well as anyone that we didn't need the
Civil Rights Act and the '65 Voting Act if the
14th and 15th Amendment had really been sufficient to
So right after that
moment, even under Lyndon Baines Johnson, there is an
expansion of federal support for local law enforcement
on the basis that black people's crime is a danger to
civil society. And again, all of this may make sense to
a viewer and to a listener, if they didn't know that
those same threats to civil society, posed by European
immigrants weren't treated in a fundamentally different
way. That's the point. Crime in and of itself was not
sufficient to justify a punitive, law and order
political response or a set of ideas that exist today as
they did then that saw black people's crime as evidence
of some moral inferiority, some natural propensity to
want to hurt people or to steal things.
For the European
immigrant in the hands of a eugenicist, that was all
true. "These people can't help themselves. They're a
threat to society." But the progressives said, "No." And
what's more telling about the progressives is they
actually got rid of statistics. They stopped using the
language of statistics, "15 percent of all crimes in
this city are committed by the Irish, another 45 percent
by the Italians."
talking that way. And saying that "These are the
children of immigrants, who are becoming Americans. And
we must help them. We must put them on the path to
success." That's how they started talking to them. So
much so, and this is an important point. By the 1930s,
the federal government started collecting arrest data
across the nation. And this information is produced
quarterly and annually, it's called The Uniform Crime
So soon you will
see in "The New York Times" the latest data, which tells
us whether crime is rising or falling overall in our
nation's cities. That was invented in 1930.
But here's the
point. This is a really important one. Prior to that
Uniform Crime Report, which nationalized and
standardized arrest statistics, local arrest data was
collected in Philadelphia, in New York, et cetera. And
if you pull out an annual report, the page would look
like this, tracking offenses by category.
Because it would
say, "Italian, Irish, German, Scandinavian, Mexican," so
on and so forth, all the way across. It'd look like an
Excel spreadsheet today. By the 1930s with the federal
government systematizing national arrest data and really
becoming the most authoritative basis for understanding
crime at the local level and national level, guess what
it was? "Whites, Blacks, Foreign Born, Other." That was
the for the first three years.
But 1933, it was,
"White, Black, Other." So effectively, what it did was
erase, it simply erased the category of the white ethnic
criminal. Black became the single defining measure of
deviance from a white norm.
So as long as
blacks in that accounting showed disproportionate levels
of any activity across those categories, white was
always normalized. And in effect, it made invisible
white criminality. We don't talk about white
criminality. We don't talk about the white prison
population. Nobody, no average person on the street can
tell you how many white men are in prison or white men
between the ages of 18 and 35, who are likely to spend
time in prison.
Actually, the truth
is the number is greater now today than it was 30 years
ago, because the size of the prison system has also
increased the number of white men.
Bill Moyers: So this is how
black criminality emerges along with disease and
intelligence, the size of the brain?
Khalil Gibran Muhammad:
Bill Moyers: As a
fundamental measure of black inferiority?
Khalil Gibran Muhammad:
Bill Moyers: With
consequences down to the moment.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad:
Bill Moyers: Khalil
Muhammad, thanks for joining us.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: It's
* * *
Khalil Gibran Muhammad—Historian—Dr.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the Director of the
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, one
of the world’s leading research facilities dedicated
to the history of the African diaspora. Prior to
joining the Schomburg Center in 2011, Dr. Muhammad
was an assistant professor of history at Indiana
University for five years. While there, he wrote the
book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and
the Making of Modern Urban America, in which he
explored the roots of the popular conception of
black criminality in America. Prior to his time
working as a professor, Muhammad completed a
fellowship at the Vera Institute of Justice, a
nonprofit criminal justice reform agency in New York
City. Recently, he wrote an op-ed about the Trayvon
Martin case for The New York Times. Khalil Muhammad
is a native of Chicago’s South Side. He graduated
from the University of Pennsylvania with a
Bachelor’s degree in economics. After college, he
worked for a time at the financial advisory firm
Deloitte & Touche LLP.
In 2004 he
earned his Ph.D. in American history from Rutgers
University, specializing in 20th century and
African-American history. Muhammad is the
great-grandson of Elijah Muhammad, and son of Ozier
Muhammad, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times
* * *
chosen for NYC black research center—17 November 2010—
He will succeed
Howard Dodson Jr..,
who plans to retire after 25 years leading the Schomburg
center. The 80-year-old organization collects,
preserves, and helps scholars to research black life.—Wall
* * *
Hyper-Ghettoization and Hyper-Incarceration and Other White
speaks of his research in the nexus of crime and
The Condemnation of Blackness,
is well-informed, like Michelle Alexander in her
New Jim Crow. I am not sure either
characterized the phenomenon of penal expansion
properly. Glenn Loury's small book of 92 pages Race,
Incarceration, and American Values may
through the essay of Loïc Wacquant present a
more precise characterization of the
incarceration phenomenon of which Loury,
Muhammad, and Alexander speak.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Wiquant also has published a book titled, "Punishing
the Poor." I have not read Wiquant's book
but I suspect the response to Loury is a preview of
The advent of penal "Big Government" was
made possible by stupendous increases in
funding (prison and jail expenditures in
America jumped from $7 billion in 1980
to $57 billion in 2000) and the infusion
of one million staff, which has made
corrections the third largest employer
in the nation, behind Manpower and
Muhammad, and Alexander use the term "mass
incarceration" to explain what happens with the
present prison expansion. In his argument, Wacquant
continues as follows:
Like other analysts of the U.S. penal
scene, Loury calls this unprecedented
expansion mass incarceration.
This is a mischaracterization. Mass
incarceration suggests that confinement
concerns large swaths of the citizenry
(as with mass media, mass culture, mass
unemployment, etc.). But the expansion
and intensification of the activities,
courts, and prisons over the pas quarter
century have been finely targeted by
class, ethnicity, and place, leading to
what is better referred to as a
hyper-incarceration of one particular
category: lower class men in the
crumbling ghetto (Loury,59).
his startling contrast:
The rest of society
practically untouched. Indeed, had the
penal state been rolled out
indiscriminately through policies
resulting in the capture of vast a
number of whites and middle-class
citizens, its growth would have been
derailed quickly by political action
As far as
class, "inmates are first and foremost poor people"
(60). As far as race, the "makeup of convicts has
flip-flopped completely in four decades, turning
over from 70 percent white and 30 percent 'other' at
the close of World War II to 70 percent black and
Latino and 30 percent white by centuries close"
the class gradient in racialized
imprisonment was obtained by targeting
one particular place: the remnants of
the black ghetto. I insist here on the
word remnants, because the ghetto of old
which held in its grip a unified if
stratified black community, is no more.
. . . The communal Black belt of the
Fordist era . . . imploded in the
1960s, to be replaced by a dual
structure: a degraded hyperghetto,
doubly segregated by race and class, and
the satellite black middle-class
districts that mushroomed in adjacent
areas after the mass exodus of whites to
the suburbs (Loury, 62).
slavery and Jim Crow, today's "ghetto is an
instrument of ethno-racial control in the city." It
combines "stigma, constraint, spatial confinement,
and institutional encasement." After slavery and Jim
Crow, the new ghetto is the third "peculiar
institution," "entrusted with defining, confining,
and controlling African Americans in the urban
industrial order" (Loury, 63).
As one friend
reminds me, the past is always past. Wacquant
writes, "penal expansion after the mid-70s is a
political response to the collapse of the ghetto."
There are three causes for its transformation in the
present penal reserve. One, "The post-industrial
economic transition that shifted employment from
manufacturing to services, from central city to
suburb, and from rustbelt to the sunbelt, and
low-wage foreign countries. Together with renewed
immigration, this shift made black workers redundant
and undercut the roles of the ghetto as reservoir of
unskilled labor" (Loury, 64).
Two, there was
a political displacement "provoked by the Great
White Migration" (1950s to 1970s), "subsidized by
the federal government" (Loury, 64). Third, but not
least, black protestcivil
rights legislation, Black power activism, and the
explosion of riots between 1964 and 1968
a cause for the front lash withdrawal of welfare
state and wage labor market.
As the ghetto lost its economic function
and proved unable to ensure ethno-racial
closure, the prison was called upon to
help contain a population widely viewed
as deviant, destitute, and dangerous. In
so doing it returned to its original
historical mission: not to stem crime,
but to manage dispossessed and
dishonored populations marginalized by
economic transformation" (Loury, 65).
is pithy. It's well worth picking up a copy from the
library or buying a copy through ChickenBones
and including it in your special library of books to
be passed around to friends. There are two other
writers in the volume worth checking out.
Race, Incarceration, and American Values
* * *
In the Matter of Color
Race and the American Legal Process:
The Colonial Period
By A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.
unrelenting detail the role of the law
in the enslavement and subjugation of
black Americans during the colonial
period. No attempt to summarize the
colonial experience could convey the
rich and comprehensive detail which is
the major strength of Judge
A definitive study
of racism, slavery, and the law in early
comprehensive research, thoroughly
documented, and well-written, In the
Matter of Color is a contribution of the
first importance to the study of racial
issues in America, invaluable alike to
students of American history, law, or
* * *
Race, Incarceration, and American Values
By Glenn C. Loury
In this pithy discussion, renowned scholars debate the American penal system through the lens—and as a legacy—of an ugly and violent racial past. Economist Loury argues that incarceration rises even as crime rates fall because we have become increasingly punitive. According to Loury, the disproportionately black and brown prison populations are the victims of civil rights opponents who successfully moved the country's race dialogue to a seemingly race-neutral concern over crime. Loury's claims are well-supported with genuinely shocking statistics, and his argument is compelling that even if the racial argument about causes is inconclusive, the racial consequences are clear.
Three shorter essays respond: Stanford law professor Karlan examines prisoners as an inert ballast in redistricting and voting practices; French sociologist Wacquant argues that the focus on race has ignored the fact that inmates are first and foremost poor people; and Harvard philosophy professor Shelby urges citizens to break with Washington's political outlook on race.
* * *
Slavery by Another Name
The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
By Douglas A. Blackmun
Wall Street Journal bureau chief Blackmon gives a groundbreaking and disturbing account of a sordid chapter in American history—the lease (essentially the sale) of convicts to commercial interests between the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Usually, the criminal offense was loosely defined vagrancy or even changing employers without permission. The initial sentence was brutal enough; the actual penalty, reserved almost exclusively for black men, was a form of slavery in one of hundreds of forced labor camps operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small time entrepreneurs and provincial farmers. Into this history, Blackmon weaves the story of Green Cottenham, who was charged with riding a freight train without a ticket, in 1908 and was sentenced to three months of hard labor for Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel.
Cottenham's sentence was extended an additional three months and six days because he was unable to pay fines then leveraged on criminals. Blackmon's book reveals in devastating detail the legal and commercial forces that created this neoslavery along with deeply moving and totally appalling personal testimonies of survivors
* * * *
The Condemnation of Blackness
Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban
Khalil Gibran Muhammad
mobs, chain gangs, and popular views of
black southern criminals that defined the
Jim Crow South are well known. We know less
about the role of the urban North in shaping
views of race and crime in American society.
Following the 1890 census, the first to
measure the generation of African Americans
born after slavery, crime statistics, new
migration and immigration trends, and
symbolic references to America as the
promised land of opportunity were woven into
a cautionary tale about the exceptional
threat black people posed to modern urban
society. Excessive arrest rates and
overrepresentation in northern prisons were
seen by many whites—liberals and
conservatives, northerners and
southerners—as indisputable proof of blacks’
inferiority. In the heyday of “separate but
equal,” what else but pathology could
explain black failure in the “land of
The idea of black
criminality was crucial to the making of modern urban
America, as were African Americans’ own ideas about race
and crime. Chronicling the emergence of deeply embedded
notions of black people as a dangerous race of criminals
by explicit contrast to working-class whites and
European immigrants, this fascinating book reveals the
influence such ideas have had on urban development and
* * * *
The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America
By Mumia Abu-Jamal and Marc Lamont Hill
Add this book to your "must read" list for 2012! It's a deeply insightful, thought-provoking dialogue between Marc Lamont Hill and Mumia about what it means to be black in America today—including why some black men and women behind bars today are actually more "free" spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally, than those on the outside who seem to have "made it." This book is a refreshing, startlingly honest dialogue between two black intellectuals—one who is a prominent professor at Columbia University, and another who is locked in a literal cage.—Michelle Alexander / This collection of conversations between celebrity intellectual Marc Lamont Hill and famed political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal is a shining example of African American men speaking for themselves about the many forces impacting their lives. —Publisher
* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the
rosy picture of race embodied in Barack
Obama's political success and Oprah
Winfrey's financial success, legal
scholar Alexander argues vigorously and
persuasively that [w]e have not ended
racial caste in America; we have merely
redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial
segregation has been replaced by mass
incarceration as a system of social
control (More African Americans are
under correctional control today... than
were enslaved in 1850). Alexander
reviews American racial history from the
colonies to the Clinton administration,
delineating its transformation into the
war on drugs. She offers an acute
analysis of the effect of this mass
incarceration upon former inmates who
will be discriminated against, legally,
for the rest of their lives, denied
employment, housing, education, and
Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action
may blur our vision of injustice: most
Americans know and don't know the truth
about mass incarceration—but her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
* * *
Punishing the Poor
The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity
By Loïc Wacquant
The punitive turn of penal policy in the United States after the acme of the Civil Rights movement responds not to rising criminal insecurity but to the social insecurity spawned by the fragmentation of wage labor and the shakeup of the ethnoracial hierarchy. It partakes of a broader reconstruction of the state wedding restrictive “workfare” and expansive “prisonfare” under a philosophy of moral behaviorism. This paternalist program of penalization of poverty aims to curb the urban disorders wrought by economic deregulation and to impose precarious employment on the postindustrial proletariat. It also erects a garish theater of civic morality on whose stage political elites can orchestrate the public vituperation of deviant figures—the teenage “welfare mother,” the ghetto “street thug,” and the roaming “sex predator”—and close the legitimacy deficit they suffer when they discard the established government mission of social and economic protection. . . .
Punishing the Poor
shows that the prison is not a mere technical implement for law enforcement but a core political institution.
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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posted 19 August 2012