Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Condemnation of Blackness

I don't think it's an overstatement to say Americans have little recollection of history, whether recent or long-term. The frenetic pace of 24-hour news means even the most recent crisis is soon forgotten (Ebola, anyone?). Trends that have existed over time are often unknown, so that each moment seems to arise from nothing, without warning.

The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is not quite as forgotten nationally as some recent news stories. His death -- following those of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and many others whose names are not as well known -- finally spurred me to read The Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Gibran Muhammad. In it, Muhammad gives a scholarly, historical account of how black people, post-Reconstruction, came to be criminalized just for existing.

Some writers thought blacks were criminals because of inherent racial inferiority, while others thought it was because of their cultural inferiority (sound familiar?) -- but almost anyone with access to publishing wrote that blacks were more prone to breaking the law than whites.

Only W.E.B Du Bois, with newly minted degrees from Harvard, saw that unequal treatment based on race could lead to the statistics found in the 1890 census: that blacks made up 30 percent of the prison and jail population, while only making up 12 percent of the population. But even Du Bois didn't recognize the over-policing of black neighborhoods, and the use of vague laws like loitering, disorderly conduct, and "suspicious character" to prosecute blacks more than whites. (Just as today, blacks are much more likely to be arrested and convicted for marijuana possession even though they use it at about the same rate as whites.)

The most enlightening point Muhammad makes, for me, is the way he contrasts treatment of white European immigrants with black emigrants from the South in northern cities. Both were vastly overrepresented in the crime statistics. Yet the settlement house movement -- such as Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago -- was focused almost exclusively on white immigrants. White progressives like Addams saw themselves in opposition to nativist conservatives who thought immigrants were naturally immoral (just like black people, ahem). The progressives built infrastructure to rescue immigrant youth from the streets at the same time they ignored the needs of blacks, who, if anything, needed even more help than white immigrants.

Addams -- despite her involvement with the founding of the NAACP and work against lynching -- did "not include blacks in her repeated calls for public recreation, which she argued was a silver bullet against 'the number of arrests among juvenile delinquents'" (page 124).

On the next page of the book, Muhammad writes a passage describing one of the most illogical ways of thinking I believe I have ever encountered:
The problem...was that black male ignorance and inefficiency, like black female ignorance and immorality, were defined in relation to slavery and to white civilizationist discourses that already ranked all blacks at the bottom. Therefore black reform...ought to be separate and distinct since blacks, as the logic dictated, could rise to a higher plane only through their own struggle following emancipation. All whites of whatever nationality were, by definition (through centuries of struggle in the wilderness of Europe and colonial American), already on a higher plane capable of being saved by others (page 125, emphasis added).
So get that: If you're already part way up the mountain, you can be helped to the top, but if you're at the bottom, you have to do it yourself.

"Too often," Muhammad writes, "white reformers settled for indexing racial injustice rather than fighting it. For example, Jane Addams could point out the perilous consequences of residential segregation for black families without ending the practice of segregated activities at her own Hull House" (pages 125-126).

Facing housing and job discrimination at every turn, black people in general became the permanent underclass we still have today. White progressives did nothing to end either practice, if they even acknowledged that they existed.

Muhammad also documents the corruption of police and their too-frequent involvement in supporting anti-black violence from white mobs. That's when they themselves weren't killing black men:
...the 1929 Illinois Crime Survey found that African Americans made up 30 percent of the recorded killings by police in 1926-1927, though they represented only 5 percent of the population.... In the manhunt for a sixteen-year-old accused of breaking a restaurant window, [Ida B. Wells] reported, the police entered his home without a warrant, guns blazing. He died in a hail of thirty-five bullets (page 249).
Ida B. Wells features in several chapters of the book. My god, what a woman. Driven out of her native Memphis for her anti-lynching campaigns, she moved from city to city in the North, trying to find a home and funding for her work to uplift and protect her people. At one point in 1910, she was in Chicago and had secured funding for a Negro Fellowship League from a rich white woman, but it ended in 1912 when the woman died and her husband "withdrew funding, insisting that [the League] should have been 'self-supporting by that time'" (page 131).

A few years before that, also in Chicago, Wells helped open the Frederick Douglass Center with support from another wealthy white woman. Wells assumed that she herself would be the director of the new center, but to her surprise, a rich, white suffragist was chosen instead, with Wells as vice president. The organization soon fell apart over disagreements about its purpose and direction.

This pattern of black intellectuals and activists always being placed second to whites becomes a pattern repeated in history. Another example is the case of James Stemons, who spent years working in a post office while he wrote and spoke about the treatment of blacks and their supposedly natural criminality. When he finally managed to build and fund an organization, he found himself the vice president, rather than the president (pages 182-183). All of this underlies current sensitivities about tokenism in organizations and sidekicks in media.

The Condemnation of Blackness is a thorough examination of a 40-year period of American history, seen through a lens I never encountered in my history education. It makes me ache with the sheer stupidity of my liberal/progressive white ancestors. As the NAACP's Crisis magazine put it, "It is senseless to regard crime as racial or characteristic of certain individuals. Crime is one of the best indices of social conditions" (page 244).


If you'd like to check out a short version of the book, here's a five-minute video of Muhammad explaining his main points.

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