“The debate we’ve been having about police reform, about body cameras, about black lives mattering, seems not to have fundamentally changed the calculation when a black motorist or pedestrian is stopped on the street.” So said historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad in a conversation with NPR’s Code Switch team after the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the horrifying attack on police officers in Dallas.
Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, spoke of the need to continue working towards more just policing even as events threaten to jeopardize public sympathy. “We have to insist,” he said, “that our political leaders start dealing with the history of our present—which is a history of sustained policing in black communities that is wholly and fundamentally different than it is in the rest of America. That’s a fact.”
When asked by Code Switch how today’s organizers might spur something like the late-1960s sequence that saw urban unrest lead to President Johnson’s formation of a federal commission that ultimately pointed to the failure of housing, education, and social-service policies, Muhammad suggested that the terms of that exchange can no longer be accepted.
The strategy of the civil rights movement was a strategy of compromise, to some extent, and that compromise was a form of respectability politics that essentially said “we’re going to be perfectly articulate, we’re going to be perfectly dressed, we’re going to be nonviolent, and we’re going to fit a model of exceptionalism, such that you will then say ‘how could we not let them eat at our table, how could we not let them live in our neighborhood, how could we not let them into our schools?’” And that’s not the full measure of humanity. We cannot—or can no longer—say to black people “you have to be twice as good to have half the measure of freedom in this country.” You should be able to be poor, you should be able to be doing something illegal that is not violent, and live to be able to face a day in court. That should be able to happen in this country.
In further considering the prevailing culture of policing today, Muhammad drew the line to mass incarceration:
I think that police officers function today in a way that has systematically mass-criminalized black and brown populations. That’s just a fact. You can’t get to the problem of mass incarceration without the problem of hot spots, CompStat policing, the war on drugs, all of it. And I think many people would agree that mass incarceration is a step in the wrong direction. Seven million people under some form of criminal justice supervision is a step in the wrong direction in a moment where we’re supposed to be two generations removed from the civil rights movement. And policing is at the center of that, they are the starting point. If there’s no arrest, then there’s no mass incarceration.
Listen to the full conversation below, starting around the 11:10 mark.