Just in from the printer—a book that Glenn Loury has called “the most significant work in the study of race and American society to have appeared in the past decade.” It's called The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, and it's a book in which author Khalil Gibran Muhammad has set out to expose the “glue that binds crime to race”—the logic by which we in America are able to convince ourselves that “whites commit crimes, but black males are criminals.” That last phrase comes from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis, who upon reading Muhammad's book pronounced it a “mandatory read.”
During Reconstruction, Muhammad explains, as four million formerly-enslaved blacks were “transformed from property to human beings to would-be citizens of the nation,” what had been the “slavery problem” underwent a dramatic paradigm shift. With slavery dismantled, what white Americans had now was a “Negro problem”—a new set of anxieties surrounding the question of whether and how blacks would assume their place as co-equal citizens in a modern democracy. For answers as to what degree of citizenship could safely be afforded what one social scientist called “the strangers in our midst,” many influential Americans looked to the emerging social sciences, whose practitioners, holders of prestigious chairs in the nation’s top universities, utilized newly-available forms of census data to update for a modern and “scientific” age forms of racial knowledge that in the days of slavery had remained ad hoc, anecdotal, and unsystematic. Among the most enduring legacies of this social-scientific study of blacks in America was the putative link forged between blackness and criminality. Backed by the weight of statistical “truth” and attributed ultimately to blacks’ innate inferiority—for in the land of “separate but equal,” what else but pathology could explain high black arrest rates and overrepresentation in northern prisons?—the truism of black criminality became, in Muhammad’s words, “one of the most widely accepted bases for justifying prejudicial thinking, discriminatory treatment, and/or racial violence as an instrument of public safety.”
In The Condemnation of Blackness, Muhammad shows how “the racial data revolution” was made to work against blacks even as social scientists, journalists, and reformers created pathways to rehabilitation for Irish, Italian, and other foreign-born immigrants once tagged with a similar stigma of criminality. Where white criminals enjoyed the privilege of “racial anonymity” and were afforded an understanding of the structural roots of poverty and crime, black criminals, whose crimes, we can now see, differed little in form and function from those committed by whites, were made to stand in for the imagined deficiencies of the race as a whole, so that in evaluations of black fitness for modern life, the innocent came to be tarred along with the actually guilty. “Whites commit crimes, but black males are criminals”—in exposing the roots of this persistent refrain, one that has justified not only racial violence but the kind of benign neglect that has relegated blacks to the margins of an American social sphere that has historically expanded to incorporate new and different groups, Muhammad shows how this particular mismeasure of man has become foundational to our thinking about modern urban America, and how its insidious logic remains with us to this day.
|| NB: The photo on the jacket, taken by Richard Hoe Lawrence and depicting what was called "A Downtown Morgue," was included in Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, which we happen to be issuing in a brand-new John Harvard Library edition this April. The new edition will include all of Riis' pioneering photos—we were able to make prints from his originals, which live in the archives at the Museum of the City of New York.