JANUARY 29, 2021
KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD’S The Condemnation of Blackness is a fresh and fierce study of one of the most enduring lies in American society: the deliberate statistical fusion of criminality with Blackness.
Originally published in 2010 and reissued in 2019 with a new preface by the author, the book dates this toxic conflation of race and mathematical inquiry to the 19th century in the urban North where crime records offered new ways to constrain Black progress — an effort to spread public fear driven not by concern for public safety but by the terrifying specter of Black freedom.
The dissemination and collection of Black crime statistics was, from its inception, a sly eugenics project. Black criminality theory, according to Muhammad, was a “standard repackaging of proslavery beliefs” and became the basis for new forms of racialized surveillance and discriminatory legal practices, including over-policing and unequal sentencing. Arrest and incarceration records were then converted into data that institutionalized Black inferiority, in an “unbiased” fashion that shielded its architects from the charge of racism.
This deliberate condemnation was, more than anything else, a reflection not of the numbers but of the core beliefs of those who crafted it and was a way of understanding Blackness that ultimately justified racist practices by asserting that Black people were naughty by nature.
The 1890 census showed, for example, that out of the nation’s 82,329 total prisoners, 24,277 were “negro criminals.” While the numbers may have been accurate, their interpretation was profoundly biased, failing to take into account a criminal justice system that disproportionately assumed Black guilt, often arresting Black victims for white crimes or punishing Black citizens who were the victims of attacks by white mobs. Still, the statistics were enough to convince social scientists that Black people were innately criminal.
In a distorted social system, numbers do not speak for themselves. Muhammad looks beyond the data to fallacies in its analysis. As Irish, Italians, Slavs, and other ethnic groups were folded into whiteness, Black crime was compared only to “white” crime. For example, while a 1903 study showed that there were more petty crimes committed by the Irish in the beginning of the century than those committed by Black people, Irish crime was ultimately subsumed into the single normative category of whiteness, while Black crime remained a stand-alone category.
Black inferiority was thus “proven” by statistics rooted in a criminal justice system stacked against Black people, and when it was embraced by respectable academics, it became conventional wisdom, thus creating a kind of social Darwinist circle jerk. For example, high mortality rates among Blacks were also considered biological proof of enfeeblement. Ignored were the causes of these statistics: racism, police brutality, white mob violence, poverty, and a lack of access to health care.
This data-based mythology even spawned a Black disappearance hypothesis, which theorized that Black people, given their fragile health and deviant ways, might, like a virus, just disappear one day. Or, as W. E. B. Du Bois said, “If the Negro will kindly go to the devil and make haste about it, then the American conscience can justify three centuries of shameful history.”
But this ambitious book is more than an exploration of the statistical lynching of Black Americans by a mob of social scientists. The Condemnation of Blackness is also a history of race writing in the early 20th century and a radical revision of progressivism. Muhammad deftly relocates modern punitive ideas to the urban North, while moving the onset of the discourse concerning Black criminality from Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s claims of Black pathology in the 1960s to tainted data publicized at the turn of the century.
The intellectual power of Muhammad’s conclusions recalls the deconstructionism that was in vogue when I was in graduate school in the late ’80s. Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and other, mostly French writers had decentered the intellectual world and, in so doing, had shaken the tree of academia so hard that old ideas hurtled to the ground like overripe fruit. “What was a fact?” they asked. “How is it known?” “Who does it serve?” Or, put more simply, “Says who?” By turning white Anglo-Saxon intellectual omniscience on its head, these theorists issued an imperative to write history that was situated and sensitive to all of the ways in which power differentials, like gender, race, and caste, compromise truth claims.
These thinkers were purposely obscure, and sometimes Frenchly insufferable, but they were right about something important, especially where race was concerned: all knowledge, they said, is socially constructed, contingent upon context and the distribution of power. And while Muhammad’s book is clearly built upon the work of whiteness scholars and critical race theorists, it was the semioticians and the deconstructionists who helped them to understand that whiteness was even a category.
The hierarchical race theory of the 19th century needed some quantitative proof in an era of scientific rationalism, and a German-born demographer named Frederick L. Hoffman found it in crime records. In 1896, he published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, in which he numerically codified what he saw as the irremediable quality of Black criminality: “[U]ntil the negro learns to respect life, property, and chastity, until he learns to believe in the value of personal morality operating in his daily life, the criminal tendencies […] will increase.” The math made it all look objective and respectable. Black people, he argued, committed more crimes because of a genetic proclivity to badness and died early from consumption and venereal diseases, illnesses he attributed to indolence, oversized sexual appetites, and squalid surroundings.
That Hoffman was foreign born (neither a Northerner nor a Southerner) boosted his credibility as a neutral party. But his lies, tarted up as science, seem to have the life span of vampires. They endure because of who and how they serve. One hundred years after the publication of Race Traits, John DiIulio, then professor of political science at Princeton, concocted another lethal confabulation: the supposed rise of something he called the “superpredator” — an enhanced version of Black thuggery that he claimed was all set to descend upon white America.
This whopper caught on like wildfire as Hoffman’s had a century earlier. We can see the long-term consequences of the superpredator myth in the War on Drugs, broken window policing, stop-and-frisk policies, police attacks on Black citizens, and epic incarceration rates.
But Hoffman was just the first responder. At the heart of Muhammad’s book is his penetrating revision of progressivism and the role played by white liberal reformers who supported Black peers like W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, while continuing to endorse the notion of Black criminality. At the turn of the century, white migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe swamped American cities, closely followed by Black people departing the South. Almost all were fleeing penury or persecution. But in Muhammad’s account we learn how progressives in the helping professions consistently privileged white ethnics over Black ones. When they encountered white woes, “[t]hey chose redistribution over retribution, and compassion over condemnation,” neglecting equally challenged Black citizens, whose problems they deemed innate and intractable.
As they opened their hearts and their pocketbooks to the white arrivals, they offered Black migrants jeremiads about morality and personal responsibility. The Europeanness of white migrants qualified them for acculturation, and they became the focus of bustling civic efforts. Over time, this disparate group of foreign-born immigrants became white, while Black people remained in their own private statistical ghetto. As Du Bois wrote, “While sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair.”
Even Jane Addams, the co-founder of Hull House and a founding member of the the NAACP, saw white juvenile delinquency as a product of youthful exuberance gone wrong, but did not extend this analysis to Black children who were beyond the reach of help or Hull House. Frances Kellor, a racial liberal and the first white woman to investigate Black crime in her 1901 essay series “The Criminal Negro,” reframed the criminality debate saying, “the causes of crime resolves itself into one of heredity and environment” but then lapsed into some reflexive musings on the poor quality of Black crime.
“The negroes’ criminality is that of an undeveloped race,” she wrote. “There are few professionals among the negroes, and there are no truly ‘great criminals.’ […] [Their] crimes show an absence of social and personal responsibility and are the outgrowth of impulse rather than of well-laid plans and complicated schemings.” Even Black progressives sometimes invoked “bad friends, bad wine, bad bets or a nasty brew of all three” to explain Black immiseration.
Muhammad argues that the blame for this destructive myth is widespread. “The United States didn’t get to mass incarceration without mass participation in the criminalization of black and brown people by liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners, Republicans and Democrats, whites and blacks.” And certainly, most Black Americans know that the books against them have long been cooked. The Condemnation of Blackness exposes the weaponization of statistics by policy-makers and police as a massive intellectual con — a lie of the mind — that denies Black humanity in order to absolve white Americans from the truths of their own criminal history of slavery, brutality, and segregation.
The “statistical rhetoric of the ‘Negro criminal’ becomes a proxy for a national discourse on black inferiority,” Muhammad explains. “Once we committed to measuring black lives and their worthiness as citizens and human beings by crime statistics, we never stopped.”
And the beat goes on. In 2015, former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton hailed a new edition of COMPSTAT — a crime mapping software — enthusiastically comparing it to the film Minority Report that featured psychic precog robots who could “identify criminals before they act.”
While The Condemnation of Blackness is tonally restrained, it is nonetheless a ferocious book, exposing how the presumed collective guilt of Black people came to lie at the epicenter of our national discourse, where it remains. Even though this prescient work was written before the uprisings of 2020, it illuminates with precision just how and why Derek Chauvin felt emboldened to squeeze the life out of George Floyd in broad daylight on a busy street as cell phone cameras rolled.
Mary F. Corey is a senior lecturer in American history at UCLA specializing in intellectual history, popular culture, and Black nationalism. She is the author of The World Through a Monocle: The New Yorker at Midcentury (Harvard University Press) and is currently working on a book about Black Blackface performance, tentatively titled They Stooped to Conquer. Dr. Corey is a recipient of the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award.