Harvard Prof. Discusses History of Mass Incarceration of Black Americans

khalil gibran muhammad

Harvard University professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad spoke to a crowded room in Gasson Hall on Wednesday about the decrease in criminalization of white and native-born Americans.

A professor of history, race, and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, Muhammad delivered the lecture as part of the Lowell Humanities Series at Boston College. He emphasized connecting the past with the present, specifically relating Richard Nixon’s war on drugs with contemporary figures in the Donald Trump administration.  

Muhammad suggested the importance of placing historical events in the context of society today in order to fully understand the past. He cited his personal history as a researcher and scholar as evidence of this importance.

“We historians were very much strictly held to account the past in the boxes of the archives … I’ve been liberated from that,” he said.

Muhammad traced modern problems such as mass incarceration back to the 19th century, pointing to statistics that indirectly perpetuate negative stereotypes of African Americans. Since they have been disproportionately represented in the prison population since the 1890s, incarceration statistics were cited as evidence that black people cannot have “full participation in civil society.”

The Civil War had resolved the problem of the institution of slavery itself. Muhammad argued, however, that it did not erase the issue that black people were considered to be an inferior race to white people.

Though the Italians and the Irish had proportionately higher rates of petty crime and major felonies in the early 20th century, white and native-born crimes were largely ignored.

“We stopped keeping track,” Muhammad said.

In 1970, when President Richard Nixon announced his war on drugs, heroin users who were black were indirectly identified as public enemy number one, he said. According to Muhammad, Nixon’s war on drugs was representative of a larger notion of black inferiority, measured by crime statistics and IQ tests of African Americans.

This phenomenon, Muhammad argued, continues today. White supremacists frequently reference intellectual inferiority and disproportionate crime rates in their rallying cries.

His lecture also discussed the past and present problem of opioid overdoses, specifically in African-American and poor communities. Muhammad spoke about why African Americans in the past as well as economically disadvantaged people today turn to heroin use in times of struggle.

“What’s important to know about heroin is that it completely eliminates pain: physical pain and emotional pain,” he said. “I think for people who are prone to traumatic events in their lives, that is an obvious place to turn to.”

When asked what Americans should do to help combat negative racial ideologies, Muhammad responded, “There are no shortcuts. Anti-blackness is a core ideology.”

He went on to identify school systems and Trump as obstacles in overcoming negative stereotypes involving African Americans. The lack of participation in African American studies programs across the country, he argued, was also evidence that many students do not believe in the relevance of African American issues.

Muhammad concluded his lecture with an urging for citizens to learn the country’s history and to recognize their own personal responsibility.

“You can’t understand American history without understanding the history of racism in this country,” he said. “There’s no America without it.”

Featured Image by Jake Evans / Heights Staff