Key #2: A Long American Tradition Of Condemning Blackness (While Confirming Whiteness)
We are prone to judge ourselves by our best traits and strangers by their worst. In the case of the Negro, stranger in our midst, all beliefs prejudicial to him aid in intensifying the feeling of racial antipathy engendered by his color and his social status. The colored criminal does not as a rule enjoy the racial anonymity which cloaks the offenses of individuals of the white race. The press is almost certain to brand him, and the more revolting his crime proves to be the more likely it is that his race will be advertised. In setting the hall-mark of his color upon him, his individuality is in a sense submerged, and instead of a mere thief, robber, or murderer, he becomes a representative of his race, which in its turn is made to suffer for his sins.
The above was written in 1928, by white criminologist Thorsten Sellin, but it eerily echoes how American popular culture portrays black crime today. The quote is from Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s book “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.” Muhammad explains how the period between 1890 to 1940 in America was dominated by narratives of black inferiority, especially of black criminality, that led to the establishment of Jim Crow laws. A key strategy during that period was the use of racial crime statistics, which by 1890 were already aggressively biased to disproportionately feature African Americans in prisons. As Muhammad describes, starting with census data from 1890:
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. Neither the dark color of southern chain gangs nor the pale hue of northern police mattered to the truth of black crime statistics. From this moment forward, notions about blacks as criminals materialized in national debates about the fundamental racial and cultural differences between African Americans and native-born whites and European immigrants.
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.
Meanwhile, during the same timeframe similar crime patterns by European immigrants and working-class whites were either discounted or humanized by white sociologists. As Muhammad explains: “… crime itself was not the core issue. Rather, the problem was racial criminalization: the stigmatization of crime as “black” and the masking of crime among whites as individual failure” (3). So began a long process of humanizing and individualizing white criminal violence, so that patterns of violence by white males would be seen as purely individual failures and never associated with any broader scrutiny of white masculinity or white culture itself. However, crime statistics regarding black males were aggressively studied and circulated as sensational stories that portrayed black masculinity as inherently violent and dangerous, often with white women portrayed as their vulnerable victims (so black men were framed as more of a threat to white masculinity).
Thus, in an echo of current media commentary, stories about black crime in the 1890s became more powerful and ingrained than stories about white crime as a way of casting suspicion on the entire “black community” by commentators who claimed they were simply observing statistics. And that pattern persists today since, as Muhammad describes: “In all manner of conversations about race—from debates about parenting to education to urban life—black crime statistics are ubiquitous. By the same token, white crime statistics are virtually invisible, except when used to dramatize the excessive criminality of African Americans.”