Friday, March 19, 2010

Khalil Gibran Muhammad's "The Condemnation of Blackness"

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is Assistant Professor of History, Indiana University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, and reported the following:
The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and Modern Urban America brings to life one of the most transformative periods in U.S. history. The book tracks the racial limits of liberalism during the Progressive era in search of an historical explanation for the enduring notion of African Americans as a distinctive criminal population outside of the South.

One of the least explored areas of the period that gave birth to modern American liberalism is how ideas about crime shaped new patterns of racial segregation in the urban North. Although European immigrants were targets of anti-immigrant hysteria and nativist violence, they were not criminalized in the same way or with the same intensity as African Americans in Chicago, New York, or Philadelphia. Indeed for northern progressives, immigrant crime was treated as a symptom of class oppression whereas northern black crime was treated as a symptom of black pathology, as a legacy of slavery.

Southern chain gangs and lynch mobs were unmatched in terms of racist criminal justice practices, to be sure. But the story told here is far more revealing of where we are today in our post-Civil Rights, “color-blind” crime rhetoric than the Jim Crow, Bull Connor story of the Deep South.

In my opinion page 99 passes the test. It captures in microcosm how black culture then as now legitimized separate liberal understandings and treatments of blacks as “criminals.” It reveals why influential progressives chose not to chart a path of crime prevention, social reform, and antipoverty activism for African Americans that might have steered the nation away from a course leading to discriminatory mass incarceration policies today.

Page 99:
Like Frances Kellor’s publications, Franz Boas’s 1905 article would signal a new “scientific presumption” that “the Negro has the inherent capacity for progress, for civilization.”

With Boas’s rejection of biological determinism, a fresh set of perspectives on black criminality and new arguments for racial advancement entered the race-relations discourse. Boas’s interest in attacking biological racism was motivated in part by his primary concern with nativism in the urban North and related policy debates on restricting immigration. The assimilation of southern and eastern European immigrants was ultimately his central focus, as it was for the vast majority of Progressive era reformers. Yet his 1911 treatise, The Mind of Primitive Man, undoubtedly opened the door for blacks to be accepted as full participants in America. Along with some of the most influential and outspoken northern progressives, Boas argued that black inferiority was not innate but was a temporary state perpetuated by whites’ “social neglect.” The Mind of Primitive Man thus marked a crucial transition moment for new cultural explanations of black criminality.

As white racial liberals, Boas and those he influenced made great strides toward justifying racial equality in the urban North. In contrast to white racial Darwinists, including southern sociologists (or apologists), they constructed an alternative stage on which crime among blacks could be seen as a social problem rather than a biological one, as something temporary and reformable rather than innate and fixed. In light of modern capitalism’s contradictory forces of expanded economic opportunities and social freedoms as well as new forms of misery and blight, these northern liberals brought blacks closer to their pro-immigrant structural critiques. For example, they recast black juvenile delinquency and prostitution partly as social dramas shaped by white racism and white privilege.

Still, they stopped short of where they went for white immigrants. They used culture as both a salve and a sieve, to mediate the line between racial oppression based on hereditarian theories of black inferiority and unambiguous color-blind appeals for social, economic, and political reform. Facing institutional racism and intensifying segregation and discrimination by the public at large, many racial liberals ultimately capitulated.
Learn more about The Condemnation of Blackness at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue