Harvard expert part of Hampshire College’s weeklong focus on racism

Published: 10/25/2016 11:52:21 PM

AMHERST — Harvard University Professor Khalil G. Muhammad discussed the historical connection between race, policing and demographical data at Hampshire College Tuesday as part of a weeklong campus focus on racism.

Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government, delivered the college’s annual Eqbal Ahmad Symposium on the theme. Titled “Life in a Penal Democracy: Race, Policing, and the Limits of Liberal Reform,” Muhammad traced the origins of current systemic racism in the criminal justice system to a trend that emerged during the Reconstruction Era to rank race based on seemingly infallible data.

The second scheduled speaker, Naomi Murakawa, professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, was unable to attend due to a severe flu, college President Jonathan Lash said.

Muhammad brought the audience back to the period of time following the Civil War, in which 4 million black people were freed from slavery, “destabilizing” the status quo. That was a time that freed people were thought of by many whites as inherently dangerous, he said.

Most people know the basics of how the South handled that sentiment — with Jim Crow laws and the Black Codes — but what about the North?

There is a myth of Southern exceptionalism when it comes to the question of black citizenship and humanity in the United States during that time period, Muhammad said.

What emerged was a trend of looking toward statistical data, such as the U.S. Census, to “prove” that blacks were not as superior to whites. Muhammad calls it “early big data,” which was popularized by people such as Frederick Hoffman and Nathaniel Shaler, who Muhammad likened to a 19th century popular scientist like Malcolm Gladwell.

This thinking has continued into current day, where humans have hoped that computers and formulas can take away conscious or unconscious racial bias, Muhammad said.

“Those algorithms are no more capable of escaping bias than those who build them,” he said.

Hoffman pointed out that the 1890 Census showed that 30 percent of the prison population was black, while only 12 percent of the country’s total population was black. Muhammad said this was an empirical finding. “This was a fact. This was true,” he said.

Hoffman’s observations made a claim about the folly of investing in black lives. Showing that incarceration rates and rate of unwed mothers among the black population made a case against “liberal intervention,” such as education and other efforts to raise up people. Whites believed that it proved African-Americans could not be helped, just one generation separated from slavery, Muhammad said.

Then Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman in 1905 articulated that point: “To school the negro is to increase his criminality. Official statistics do not lie, and they tell us that the Negroes who can read and write are more criminal than the illiterate. In New England, where they are best educated, they are four and a half times as criminals as in the Black Belt, where they are most ignorant.”

That figure is true, too, Muhammad said.

But it only tells part of the story: At that time in Massachusetts, black men were five times more likely to serve time than in other places. But white men in the state were more than 10 times as likely to be behind bars, Muhammad said, quoting the 1909 research of Kelly Miller, a black mathematician and sociologist.

Today, not much has changed in the figures or the attitudes, Muhammad said, raising the question: “Did Hoffman’s observations set in motion a reality?”

The 2010 Census showed that 40 percent of the prison population is black, compared to 13 percent of the country’s total population.

On the presidential campaign trail in 2008, Democrat John Edwards opined: “When you have young African-American men who are completely convinced that they’re either going to die or go to prison and see absolutely no hope in their lives … they don’t see anything getting better.”

He pointed to New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, where police officers stop pedestrians and frisked them for weapons or contraband. Part of the program was ruled unconstitutional, Muhammad said.

The program disproportionally targeted black and Latino men. Some 90 percent of the 4.4 million people stopped were not arrested or cited, according to Muhammad.

Former NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly on “Meet the Press” cited data from the RAND Corporation to argue that the program helped lessen the problem of black people committing crimes against other black people, Muhammad said.

Kelly pointed to the fact that RAND has been around for years, which Muhammad said aimed to show that we should listen to the data. But in reality, that data is “a smoking gun for the problem itself.”

Tuesday marked the 19th Eqbal Ahmad lecture. The series is named after the late Hampshire College professor of international relations and middle east studies.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com


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