Born in Chicago in 1972, Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a great-grandson of Elijah Muhammad, the black separatist and longtime Nation of Islam leader. Khalil Gibran Muhammad earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, and a doctorate in American history from Rutgers in 2004. For two years, he was an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow with the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal-justice reform organization that views America’s law-enforcement and penal systems as being deeply biased against nonwhite minorities. Since 2005, Muhammad has been a history professor at Indiana University. In 2010, Harvard University Press published Muhammad’s book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, which the author describes as a study of “the legacy of racism in this country.” In July 2011 Muhammad succeeded Howard Dodson, Jr. as director of the New York City-based Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Muhammad also has been an associate editor of The Journal of American History, and an editorial board member of Transition Magazine, published by Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute.
Viewing racism as a cornerstone of Western civilization, Muhammad laments that “the expansion of the frontiers of this nation … was built on the backs of land owned in the Indian sense by many tribes indigenous to this country.” But Muhammad focuses most heavily on America’s historical and—as he depicts it—intransigent racism against blacks. For instance, he derides Thomas Jefferson and his fellow American founders—along with “the other slaveholders who were presidents”—as men who “failed miserably” at the task of “building what would become American democracy.” Jefferson, Muhammad says, penned “one of the first scientific arguments for why black people should be treated differently from whites, by virtue of their racial inferiority”—and thereby gave “birth to the enduring justification that even in America … you could actually reconcile freedom and slavery, as long as the people who were enslaved were … not made of the stuff of equal humanity.”
What the founding fathers bequeathed to subsequent generations, Muhammad claims, was a tradition wherein it became “encoded in our cultural DNA” to “think and talk about African-Americans as criminals.” That mindset, he says, underpins modern-day policies that use “punitive methods based on distrust”—such as police stop-and-frisk practices—to fight crime in black communities.
Muhammad asserts that such practices represent a stark contrast to the way in which political and law-enforcement authorities dealt with the crime-infested communities of immigrants from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather than imposing “more law enforcement,” he explains, those authorities instead launched “a national progressive movement” that sought to “en[d] police corruption and brutality in those communities,” “mobilized institutional resources,” and flooded violent white neighborhoods “with social workers, police reformers and labor activists committed to creating better jobs and building a social welfare net.” This was entirely appropriate, says Muhammad, because the era’s urban criminality was largely a result of “severe economic inequality and social marginalization.” To this day, Muhammad impugns “the increasing wealth inequality in this country,” which renders “people who don’t own anything” vulnerable to “the whim and caprice of political and business elites.”
Muhammad asserts that social scientists and social reformers alike have long viewed African-Americans “as a distinctly criminal population.” Beginning in the late 19th century, he says, such experts and activists presented “research on black failure and struggle as ‘indisputable’ proof of black inferiority,” rather than as by-products of societal inequities. By Muhammad’s reckoning, the “racist belief that … blacks were their ‘own worst enemies’” was promoted—to the detriment of African Americans—by the famous black educator/orator Booker T. Washington. Muhammad derides Washington for “counseling blacks to conquer their inferiority” by means of “self-help and moral regeneration,” rather than striving to transform unjust societal institutions.
In Muhammad’s view, there has been little progress since the post-Civil War enactment of “Black Codes” in the American South—where any newly freed black who “crossed any line that [whites] prescribed … could be sold back to [his] former slave owner … as a prisoner to work off [his] fine after an auction where [he was] resold to the highest bidder.” Muhammad suggests that these Codes reflected “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.”
The impulse to dominate and oppress African-Americans is “still with us,” Muhammad says, declaring that such practices as “stop-and-frisk racial profiling and mass incarceration” have become, in the tradition of “the Jim Crow South,” new mechanisms by which “to control black people’s movement in cities.” “We are still living with the same basic ideas and arguments” about black criminality today “as we were in the 1890s,” Muhammad laments, “stigmatizing black people as dangerous, legitimizing or excusing white-on-black violence, conflating crime and poverty with blackness, and perpetuating punitive notions of ‘justice’ … as the only legitimate responses.”
Muhammad says that white criminal-justice advocates, in the tradition of America’s founders, commonly seek to deflect attention away from societal racism by “play[ing] the violence card”; i.e., suggesting that because black-on-black crime is so widespread, “black people should worry more about the harm they do to themselves and less about how victimized they are by others.” This so-called violence card, Muhammad says, holds an “allure” for whites because it “perpetuates the reassuring notion that violence against black people is not society’s concern but rather a problem for black people to fix on their own”; that such violence “reflects a failure of lower-class black culture, a breakdown of personal responsibility, a pathological trait of a criminally inclined subgroup—not a problem with social and institutional roots” that whites need to address.
When Bill Cosby in 2007 made a highly publicized plea for African Americans to embrace their parenting responsibilities, Muhammad disparaged the entertainer’s remarks as the “latest in a long finger-wagging tradition of instructing poor blacks to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and reject pathologically ‘black’ values.” He similarly criticized a National Public Radio (NPR) segment that asked whether some blacks were lagging because of their refusal to become, as NPR put it, “closer to whites in their values.” According to Muhammad, “this line of questioning reinforces one of the most persistent myths in America … that ‘white’ culture is the gold standard for judging everyone, despite its … contradictions and its flaws, including racism.”