Earlier this fall we published The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, by William J. Stuntz. The book is a deeply researched examination of the legal machinations that have left the United States with a criminal justice system that seems no longer to be ruled by law. Writing in the New York Review of Books, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens praised Stuntz for accurately describing “the twin problems that pervade American criminal justice today—its overall severity and its disparate treatment of African-Americans,” and described the book as containing “a wealth of overlooked or forgotten historical data, perceptive commentary on the changes in our administration of criminal justice over the years, and suggestions for improvement.”
Stuntz opens the book with a chapter titled “Two Migrations,” in which he considers the massive influx of European immigrants to the United States in the seventy years after World War I together with the northern migration of African Americans in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. The two migrations had many structural similarities, and both triggered urban crime waves, which Stuntz notes is mostly to be expected: “Millions of mostly poor young men uprooted from their homes and moving into crowded slums sounds like a recipe for violence and lawlessness.” But, despite their similarities, Stunts shows that the crime waves actually differed enormously; the first was “short-lived and mild,” the second “long-lasting and severe.”
Comparing these two situations is an incredibly complicated exercise, and Stuntz’s willingness and ability to accept the challenge of such complexity is central to the accomplishment of The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. Of the many factors he points to in his consideration of the differing outcomes of these two migrations, one to which he gives great weight is the discrepancy between the political accomplishments of European immigrants and African American migrants: “By the late nineteenth century—when crime in immigrant-dominated cities was mostly falling, not rising—working-class immigrants and their offspring largely governed the justice system that governed them. Even today, African Americans have no such power.”
Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, newly available in paperback, also addresses the differing outcomes of these two migrations. The book chronicles the emergence of a now-deeply embedded cultural notion of African American criminality, one that Muhammad shows to have grown from a dangerously misguided reliance on statistical “evidence.” He contrasts the treatment of African Americans in the urban North to that of working-class whites and European immigrants, and, like Stuntz, helps us to understand how those historical episodes continue to shape our society.
Stuntz’s book, while wide-ranging and interdisciplinary, is based in his work as a legal scholar; Muhammad’s reflects his training as a historian, and his deep interest in the social sciences. Where Stuntz gives a focus on legal developments and statistical comparison, Muhammad sifts through the cultural and scholarly discourse surrounding those developments and statistics. And for Muhammad, a key to understanding the differing criminal patterns of these two migrations is the fact that the sociological establishment mobilized itself to argue for the integration of European immigrants, but left African Americans out of that effort, believing as they did that black people committing crimes were merely reflecting either their cultural or racial inferiority, and that sociological resources shouldn’t be wasted on them. As Muhammad explained it to us in a recent conversation:
By and large, the entire edifice of sociology (was) deploying its resources against eugenics and Social Darwinism to say that immigrants are not infecting American society with their degenerate blood… “They’re providing real energy and effort to our labor pool, they’re helping us build America. And that some of them should fall into a life of crime is more our fault than theirs, because we haven’t given them a fair opportunity. We stigmatize them, and our nativist proclivities make it very difficult for immigrants to live the lives that they came here to pursue.” And basically they never put black people into that equation. They left black people out of that kind of very structuralist, environmental critique of the origins of white European or white ethnic criminality.
You can hear Muhammad make that point and others in the video below.
So in the comparison of these two migrations, where Stuntz shows us political advancement for European immigrants and subsequent demographic shifts that largely prevented African Americans from making similar gains, Muhammad highlights a formidable social apparatus undergirding the rise of one group and helping to maintain the lower status of the other.
These two books, covering similar ground in different ways, help to remind us how important it is to reach across disciplinary lines in our attempts to understand the world in which we live.