Historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad studies one of the most powerful ideas in the American imagination

Historians in the News
tags: crime, Race, Khalil Gibran Muhammad

“You should have a record.” That sentence dropped like a hammer inside the meeting room where Khalil Gibran Muhammad, then 21 years old, was sitting across the table from a Philadelphia police-union lawyer, answering questions about the day he’d briefly been arrested.

This was late May 1993. Several weeks earlier, Muhammad and a few other University of Pennsylvania students had organized a demonstration, with plans to seize copies of the student newspaper from distribution boxes: a last-ditch protest against a series of racially provocative op-eds that had roiled the campus for much of the school year. When Muhammad, dressed all in black, began stuffing newspapers into a trash bag a few minutes after six in the morning, he was cuffed and taken to a police station in the back of a patrol car. A couple of hours later, the police figured out what was going on (“There were reports of students running around with newspapers all over campus,” Muhammad says), and he and the others were released without charges. But because an officer had hit him on the legs with a baton during the arrest, and he was a student, a disciplinary process lurched into motion, to determine if the officer had overreacted. The final step was the meeting with the police-union attorney. 

Penn’s general counsel, representing Muhammad, had warned him not to lose his cool: don’t show any emotion, don’t react, just tell your story. So that’s what he did, he says, “And it drove the other lawyer bananas.” Finally, in frustration, the man banged his fist on the table and said, “You should have a record.” It felt like a mask had slipped. Muhammad was a recent graduate of an Ivy League university. He’d just started a job at the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche. He was well-spoken and self-assured and steady and genial. And also, he was black. “And it just hit me in that moment,” he says, “what he was really saying.” 

The link between race and crime is one of the most potent and enduring ideas in the modern American imagination. It shapes public policies and social attitudes; it affects what Americans see when they look at one other. In education, housing, jobs, recreation, and other realms of city life, the idea of black criminality has altered what Muhammad—now professor of history, race, and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and Murray professor at the Radcliffe Institute—calls the “public transcript” of the modern urban world. 

But it is not eternal. It can be traced to a particular moment in history, and in The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern America, the 2010 book that made his name as a historian, Muhammad traced the idea of black criminality to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period of enormous, rapid social change in the United States. Slavery had ended, legally transforming a population of four million from property into people, and segregation was taking hold. Northern cities—for Condemnationis a Northern story—were industrializing and expanding, absorbing vast waves of immigrants from Europe and, starting in the 1910s, an increasing tide of African Americans from the Jim Crow South.  ...

Read entire article at Harvard Magazine

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