In the last 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, a lot has changed in the United States. However, as Dr. Khalil Muhammad emphasized in his lecture on March 28, race relations is an issue that may have evolved, but fundamentally persists in the United States. Muhammad was brought to Vassar for this lecture by the joint forces of many people and societies in Dutchess County and on Vassar’s own campus. The history department’s C. Mildred Thompson lecture joined forces with the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, the programs in Africana Studies, Urban Studies, and American Culture, the political science department, and the Dutchess County Historical Society Black History Committee.
Many of the members of the Dutchess County Historical Society where in attendance, as well as many community members and Vassar college students and staff.
Before diving into the heavier discussion points, Muhammad told the audience he felt at home on Vassar’s campus. He explained that he accepted his first job in lieu of a position he had received at Marist College.“So, things could have been very different,” he said. Dr. Muhammad is the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and The New York Public Library.
His studies focus on the racial politics of criminal law, policing, juvenile delinquency and punishment, as well as immigration and social reform. An economics major at the University of Pennsylvania, he began his speech by discussing a lot of numbers. The most important of thse was one which asserted that African Americans make up 12 percent of the population, but 30 percent of the nation’s prison population. This statistic implies that African Americans are in jail in larger percentages than any other race. Further, they will have more children out of wedlock in their community, and these children will grow up with a similar likelihood of facing incarceration.
This data, he said, may lead to the misconception that African Americans are simply “up to no good,” evoking racial stereotypes. After this discussion, he launched into a brief history lesson of slavery in the Deep South, the Jim Crow era and the Emancipation Proclamation. He noted that during this time the number of African Americans in jail disproportional just as it is now. In fact, the number has not changed much since the Emancipation Proclamation—still, said Khalil, white people continue to exercise a lot of legal power to unfairly convict and incarcerate African Americans. The incarceration problem is only one example of the way in which African Americans are still facing the same racism that they were 150 years ago.
Muhammad brought up New York’s new police policy: the stop, question and frisk. He argued against it, saying that it is indeed racial profiling, that the reported numbers of how many lives it saves are flawed and that it is perpetuating the racism problem that exists in our country.
Much of Muhammad’s lecture came from his book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, which won the American Studies Association John Hope Franklin Prize. The book deals with similar themes as his lecture and focused on reframing how we look at the negative statistics that we use to narrate the story of the ‘threat’ black people present to modern urban society. He posited that these statistics are misleading because we associate them with black people being ‘dangerous’ when in fact what is dangerous is the racism that black people still face in today’s society.
Muhammad quotes scholar Hans Van Hentig in his book, citing, “When, as it is in our case, minorities are the subject of judgment and treatment, it is more than ever important to turn our attention to these agencies which we would like to believe unbiased and evenhanded and which are more liable to errors the less they feel free of them.”