The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Published by: Tantor Audio
Publish Date: 2017
Genre(s): Nonfiction, History, Race, BIPOC, Social Justice, Sociology
HB&W Rating: 3.5
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Lynch mobs, chain gangs, and popular views of black southern criminals that defined the Jim Crow South are well known. We know less about the role of the urban North in shaping views of race and crime in American society.
Following the 1890 census, the first to measure the generation of African Americans born after slavery, crime statistics, new migration and immigration trends, and symbolic references to America as the promised land of opportunity were woven into a cautionary tale about the exceptional threat black people posed to modern urban society. Excessive arrest rates and overrepresentation in northern prisons were seen by many whites – liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners – as indisputable proof of blacks’ inferiority. In the heyday of “separate but equal,” what else but pathology could explain black failure in the “land of opportunity”?
The idea of black criminality was crucial to the making of modern urban America, as were African Americans’ own ideas about race and crime. Chronicling the emergence of deeply embedded notions of black people as a dangerous race of criminals by explicit contrast to working-class whites and European immigrants, this fascinating book reveals the influence such ideas have had on urban development and social policies.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
Nothing in the world is easier in the United States than to accuse a black man of crime.
So often, as someone who was raised in the North (though with a tour of duty in the South as well), I used to believe that I was not racist, particularly because I hail from the northern states, and frown at the outright, in-your-face racism of the South. I mean, the North won the Civil War after all. Clearly we’re the good guys, right?
I’m ashamed to say that I thought that way for far too long, blind to the systemic racism inherent in everything everywhere in this country, even here in the North, and especially that within myself. Thankfully, books like this one were written.
The Condemnation of Blackness attempts to explore the origins of how Northerners have allowed systemic racism and prejudice to survive, going back to the Great Migration of black people to the North after the Civil War and understanding the varying viewpoints and approaches to what was called “the negro problem.” The perception of blacks as an inferior and fundamentally different race laid the foundation for race relations after Reconstruction through today.
For white Americans of every ideological stripe—from radical southern racists to northern progressives—African American criminality became one of the most widely accepted bases for justifying prejudicial thinking, discriminatory treatment, and/or acceptance of racial violence as an instrument of public safety.
This book has so much important information, diligently collected and thoughtfully interpreted, both citing scholarly papers from well-known activists and progressives, as well as from anecdotal accounts, lending credence to what Muhammad illustrates is not simply a problem of the past, but of the present as well.
This book opens one’s eyes to the minutia that defines the subtleties of prejudice in a way that is at times jaw dropping and at others simply unbelievable. In the wake of police brutality and shootings and Black Lives Matter, Muhammed clearly and unequivocally links the prejudiced perceptions fostered in the post-Reconstruction North (citing stories, writings, and events from Chicago and Philadelphia) with the events and prejudice we still see today and how it directly influences criminal behavior and white reaction to it.
Progressives rewrote white and immigrant criminality just as early Civil Rights activists rewrote, for a time, black criminality. The measure of crime in both cases was not racial inferiority but rather compassion towards the least among them. Sympathy and faith in humanity were chosen over scorn and contempt.
Of particular interest, and indeed the biggest indicator of the different ways criminality is understood and combatted among races, is the different perception of foreign-born white immigrants and blacks. Great care is taken in explaining and exposing this difference. Where once crime reports showed arrest rates primarily belonging to foreign-born whites and blacks, a generation or two later, “foreign-born” was dropped as they were assimilated into American society, in contrast to the blacks who were left to “police their own.”
I confess that the only negative I can assign to the book isn’t really the book’s fault, it’s the mode with which I consumed it, as an audiobook. This book, in my opinion, is not something that is easy to listen to, not simply because of the content, because it is definitely NOT easy to listen to for that reason alone, but because the depth of research quoted and the academic way this book is written. I feel that I, personally, would have been better off reading the physical book, that way I could take my time with it, re-reading passages as needed, looking up referenced material to further understand what the author was trying to convey, looking up words I’m unfamiliar with (I’m the first to admit that this book is way smarter than I am) and really giving it my full attention. Listening to the book when my hands are otherwise occupied (listening in the car, while I’m crocheting, etc) didn’t allow for me to really sit with the words and explore them the way I would have if I were holding the book in my hands. That said, whether reading a physical copy or the audiobook version, this book definitely reads like an academic thesis, and the writing itself tends toward the dry facts. The only real emotion evoked was when the author recounted stories of individual blacks’ experiences of racism, ignorance, contempt and outright brutality. The rest of the book reads very much like an academic dissertation meant to be read by other academics. So really….take your time with this book.
If you are looking for more understanding as to how we got where we are, how we can change our own behaviors and ways of thinking to live a more anti-racist life, then I encourage you to pick up a copy of this book. Just make sure it’s the physical version and not the audiobook version ;).
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