The Perception of Black Criminality
In Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern America he explores the concept of African-American criminality and how it is used as an excuse for segregation. He writes that “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 suggest that whites viewed segregation as a necessary evil to keep themselves from being victims of this perceived black criminality. All-in-all his statement is accurate and not just during that time, some of this perception of blacks being criminals still persist to this day.
First, I feel I should start with how this perception of blacks as criminals began. It is important to examine why this began in the first place. During slavery blacks actually lived amongst whites and were actually viewed as docile, this narrative of blackness being associated with crime doesn’t begin until post-reconstruction as a way to justify keeping black communities separate from those of whites. This narrative was pushed through the use of crime statistics which made “black criminality the most significant and durable signifier of black inferiority in white people’s minds since the dawn of Jim Crow.” Statistics can be misconstrued to prove almost any point and at the time they were used as “proof” that blacks were naturally uncivil and therefore inferior.
Now with this “proof” that blacks were inferior, social scientist started to use this perceived criminality as a justification for why blacks needed to be segregated. I believe this is where we start to see the definition of whiteness broaden. Social scientist believed that ethnic whites were capable of assimilation while blacks were incapable of ever truly assimilating into society. It is important to know that whiteness is now the accepted trait while blackness is considered an aberration. Also during this time, we see black-elites, in a way, blaming lower-class blacks for the perception of African-American criminality.
Now that this perceived black criminality has been established and socialized we now see it used as an excuse to justify racism. This created almost a fear of blackness, if you will. We see this heavily under the context of lynching. A good amount of the time, blacks are being lynched for doing something that involves a white woman. Because of this view of African Americans as criminals, whites now think that women are constantly in danger of being raped by black men even with no true statistical information to back this up. Blacks who were even suspected of having anything to do with a white woman would be kidnapped and, if they were lucky, just beaten. But as we know, a lot of the time they were hung and displayed as a spectacle for whites and a warning for blacks to “stay in their lane.” This is just accepted as the norm because with this perception, whites see this as a means of public safety — completely dehumanizing and devaluing black bodies.
A lot of the concepts of Muhammad’s books can still be applied to today. While we do not see the narrative of racial inferiority openly pushed today. We do still see the black criminality narrative pushed through the media in a subtler way. White people commit crimes, but blacks are the only ones perceived as criminals and a lot of this has to do with the wording. When a young adult white male commits a crime, often he will be referred to as a kid. In contrast a black teenager as young as 14 can be referred to as a man. This may go unnoticed by the viewer but it subliminally creates a lack of sympathy for the black male while it actually creates sympathy for the white male.
Another way we still see this black criminality narrative pushed to this day is still through crimes statistics. These statistics show that African-Americans, as well as other racial minorities, make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population. While this is true, it ignores a lot of societal factors. It ignores the fact that sentencing for blacks is exponentially longer than sentencing for whites who commit the same crimes. It ignores that police patrol black areas knowing where crimes will take place in order to meet their arrest quotas. While at the same time they leave white areas relatively unbothered. These statistics ignore the public defendant system which forces blacks, who often times can’t afford private lawyers, to accept plea deals for crimes they may have not even committed. Muhammad says, “New statistical and racial identities forged out of raw census data showed that African Americans, as 12 percent of the population, made up 30 percent of the nation’s prison population. Although specially designed race-conscious laws, discriminatory punishments, and new forms of everyday racial surveillance had been institutionalized by the 1890s as a way to suppress black freedom, white social scientists presented the new crime data as objective, color-blind, and incontrovertible.”
We have seen black criminality as a socialized idea and an accepted fact, when in fact it is based on misconceptions and skewed data. Black criminality was, and still is used as a means to segregate blacks. We see now, lower-class blacks being forced into areas away from whites and when whites want to move into the area, blacks are forced to move away. While these things are a lot subtler then they were pre-civil rights movement. They still exist. The narrative of black criminality and the condemnation of blackness itself only helps to divide us all as people. It creates a fear of blackness. And with this fear, I see it as nearly impossible to have a truly integrated society. Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s statements were accurate, are accurate, and will be accurate until crime itself is no longer associated with blackness and blackness is no longer associated with crime. Unfortunately, I see this as something that is so deeply rooted into American society that it is nearly impossible to fix this perception as long as blacks are a racial minority.
- Nick Robinson
Originally published at www.wokemedia.com on March 24, 2016.