Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, gave a lecture on race and crime on Wednesday afternoon to about 150 attendees in Weiser Hall.
Muhammad, who is the author of “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and Making of Modern Urban America,” spoke as a part of the 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. symposium.
Muhammad contextualized the marginalization of Black identity by opening with an MLK Jr. quote about the disproportionate persecution of Black people by the police.
Muhammad noted while the term “mass incarceration” has become more popular, the phrase “racial criminalization” tends to be excluded from the narrative of criminal reform.
“Racial criminalization is defined as stigmatizing a racial group of people as a criminal regardless of guilt or innocence,” Muhammad said. “That is the idea of a criminal class without using the law or public policy to arrest or use the agencies of criminal justice to control those people.”
Muhammad said the institutionalized prejudice in the criminal justice system has its roots in the careful wording of the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“The 13th amendment has a slavery loophole,” Muhammad said. “And that is that it abolished slavery except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Muhammad said the criminal justice system turned a blind eye toward violent crimes, such as lynching Black people in the late 19th century. He explained this violence is increasingly seen as state-sanctioned domestic terrorism.
“The state was complicit in the abridgment of these individual due process laws,” Muhammad said. “Under no circumstances are citizens granted the right to execute other citizens.”
Muhammad explained how health statistics in the Jim Crow era contributed to the discrimination of Black people.
“A number of social scientists suggested that by looking at demographic data, particularly the census report on health statistics, one could make general claims on the fitness of certain racial groups,” Muhammad said. “The late 19th century was steeped in various forms of scientific racism that we cannot dismiss today.”
Muhammad said census data was manipulated by the government in order to undermine the educational opportunities of Black individuals. The incarceration of Black people, especially men, became both a symptom and a justification for the further suppression of freedom, contributing to a cycle of discrimination.
“Evidence of Black criminality became an excuse for Black terror,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad also described how other marginalized groups, such as Italian and Irish immigrants, were subjected to some statistical scrutiny but much less persecution. He said Anglo-Saxon immigrant communities were given social support in order to combat poverty and enjoyed lower crime rates.
On the other hand, Muhammad said Black communities were met with increased policing.
“There was an economic argument for prioritizing social resources for European immigrants and crime control resources for people of African descent,” Muhammad said.
LSA freshman Chloe Darancou told The Daily her overarching takeaway from the lecture was about the need for change.
“Although there has been progress in recent years, we still have a long way to go with police brutality being a common phenomenon in our society,” Darancou said.
LSA sophomore Maddie Herman said the lecture made her think more deeply about common perceptions of justice.
“We are ignoring the trends that are clearly right in front of us due to ignorance and a lack of information,” Herman said. “We need to become more aware in order to change the mantras that we are telling ourselves.”
Reporter Sofia Urban can be reached at email@example.com