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Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness approaches the issue of race and crime from a different perspective than does The New Jim Crow, by focusing on the development of “the idea of black criminality in the making of urban America” rather than on the current form that such an idea takes in mass incarceration (COB2 1). Muhammad’s book is a denser read, full of illuminating quotes and statistics to support his ultimate assertion that “[v]iolent crime rates in the nation’s biggest cities are generally understood as a reflection of the presence and behavior of the black men, women, and children who live there” (COB 1).
The author […] refers to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Orlando Patterson, Jeffrey Alder, Charles Henderson, and a host of others, that all support the view that crime and blackness became synonymous over time though crime among whites has historically been explained using race-neutral reasons. (COB Introduction, “The Mismeasure of Crime,” 1-14).
For instance, as early as the second page of the Introduction, Muhammad invokes the 1928 words of Thorsten Sellin whom he describes as “one of the nation’s most respected white sociologists” who attested, “We are prone to judge ourselves by our best traits and strangers by their worst. In the case of the Negro, stranger in our midst, all beliefs by him prejudicial to him aid in intensifying the feeling of racial antipathy engendered by his color and his social status. The colored criminal does not as a rule enjoy the racial anonymity which cloaks the offenses of individuals of the white race” (COB 2).
It was during this post-emancipation era that white thinkers began pondering the nature of black humanity. “What grade of humankind were these Africans in America? What quality of citizenship did they truly deserve? What manner of coexistence should be tolerated?” (COB 19). All eyes were on blacks to see how they would fare as free people and what their successes and failures as a group meant about who they were. As Muhammad explains, “Statistical data on the absolute and relative growth of the black prison population in the 1890 census, for example, would now be analyzed and interpreted as definitive proof of blacks’ true criminal nature” (COB 33-34).
Muhammad writes, “Such empirical evidence could then justify a range of discriminatory laws, first targeting blacks, then punishing them more harshly than whites” (COB 34). With those few words, the link between the first Jim Crow and the “new” Jim Crow becomes even more evident.
Muhammad describes the debate among statisticians and sociologists about how to understand crime among blacks in the 1890s. The dispute was between those like Frederick L. Hoffman who, in his 1896 Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, saw “[c]rime, pauperism, and sexuality immorality” as “tendencies of the colored race” that needed further study (COB 35), and those like prison doctor M. V. Ball who maintained that governments should “‘[m]ake the conditions favorable for the negro from childhood up, and then first can we say that’ blacks are more disease prone” and that “The criminal nature of the negro must be viewed in the same light” (COB 43).
As views like Hoffman’s began to win out in popularity and social conditions were dismissed as contributors to crime among blacks, Muhammad notes that “Hoffman’s persistent efforts to render racism invisible were paying off” (COB 56). […] Khalil Gibran Muhammad was describing the first steps toward the type of colorblindness that Michelle Alexander presented as the powerful mode of thinking used to hide the racism present in the mass incarceration system.
Crime statistics continued to be interpreted in such a way that black criminality became an expected phenomenon, thus justifying any laws necessary to control it. To make his point that this discourse about crime among blacks was developing in a way that condemned blackness, Muhammad also tracks the trend of addressing white crime at this time. As he explains it, “White criminality was society’s problem, but black criminality was black people’s problem” (COB 76).
Muhammad identifies two pivotal changes in black crime discourse that took place during the Progressive Era. He describes them as follows: “The first was the appeal for ‘remedial measures’ in solving the Negro Problem, including expanded economic opportunities, education, social work, and crime prevention. The second was the rejection of biological determinism, including redefining racial traits as cultural traits, a paradigmatic shift in the science of race that placed African Americans once and for all within the pale of civilization, at least in the minds of most liberal social scientists” (COB 90).
Muhammad strips away the seemingly beneficial social welfare programs and exposes a view of race that was just as critical to solidifying the popular connection between blacks and crime—the turn to culture. While initially it may seem to a reader that the move away from seeing criminal nature as a biologically determined black trait would be a positive step, Muhammad explains the danger of exchanging biology as the cause for culture. He quotes sociologist Tukufu Zuberi who argued that this “was a move from one type of essentialist perspective, the biological evolutionary, to another type of essentialist perspective, the cultural. This shift witnessed the birth of assimilation and a focus on unproductive behavior of the unassimilated as a dominant perspective—in a word, a return to viewing the ‘Negro as a [peculiar] problem’” (COB 100).
Muhammad acknowledges the work of those struggling to disentangle crime and race, the reader gets the disheartening sense at this point that blackness had been tied to criminality for so long and with such strength that even the “friends of the Negro” simply found a new way to reinforce the connection (COB 125). W.E.B. Du Bois spoke it plainly when he asserted “that it was blackness that was condemned, and not the crime” (COB 141).
Muhammad explains that “[t]he onset of wartime migration of African Americans to Philadelphia from southern farms and cities generated new discussions of black crime. In part, this reaction was a simple calculation based on pure numbers: the more blacks who came to the city, the more crime that would follow. The link between black migration and crime had been firmly established at the end of the nineteenth century” (COB 206). This development leads to a quite interesting and crafty scheme developed by “white vice owners and corrupt politicians to hide their illegal activities under a cover of blackness” by encouraging city officials to be more tolerant of crime in black communities (COB 226). This tactic of providing less protection in black neighborhoods, thus creating crime ridden areas, is discussed in Chapter 6 of the book (COB Chapter 6, “Policing Racism: Jim Crow Justice in the Urban North,” 226-268).
If black neighborhoods became known as usable as a cover for crime, it is easy to see that they would become synonymous with crime, and once law enforcement efforts did begin to focus on those communities, certainly residents of black neighborhoods would be the ones funneled into the prison system. In this way, both books, though each powerful on its own, speak to one another in a manner that enhances and exhibits the scholarly quality of each.
[The] inspiring words from both authors make it clear that there is work to be done. Both books also leave the reader to grind out the details of how to undue decades of deliberate and often carefully orchestrated campaigns to condemn blackness such that a racial undercaste would be possible. And, not only must readers figure out a plan of action, we must do so under the weighty cloak of colorblind rhetoric that allows the condemned undercaste to exist as a result of today’s race-neutral laws.
THE NEW JIM CROW: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. By Michelle Alexander. New York: The New Press. 2010.
THE CONDEMNATION OF BLACKNESS: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. By Khalil Gibran Muhammad. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2010.
Full text at: amjournal.files.wordpress.com