When Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was recently released from Florida’s Seminole County Jail on a $1 million bail arrangement, Al Sharpton—the same man who helped foment the deadly 1991 Crown Heights riots and the the deadly 1995 boycott of a Harlem clothing store—felt compelled to condemn Zimmerman for allegedly showing “no remorse over the loss of human life.” From the moment the Martin shooting became a headline story, to be sure, Sharpton and a host of other leftists nationwide have weighed in with their thoughts about the case and its overall significance. Among the most noteworthy of these individuals is a 40-year-old Indiana University history professor —Khalil Gibran Muhammad—who is by no means a household name. But his reflections on the Martin case illuminate, with uncommon clarity, the very heart of the Left’s bedrock beliefs regarding racism in America.
Asserting that “we all share a little bit of George Zimmerman in our relationship to young black men,” Dr. Muhammad says that to “think and talk about African-Americans as criminals is encoded in our cultural DNA.” Viewing racism as the very cornerstone of Western civilization, Muhammad derides Thomas Jefferson and his fellow American founders as men who “failed miserably” at the task of “building what would become American democracy.” The founders’ belief in the “racial inferiority” of blacks, says Muhammad, has filtered its way through all subsequent generations of Americans and into the collective consciousness of present-day whites. That inherited mindset, Muhammad explains, underpins not only the unfounded paranoia that supposedly caused an armed George Zimmerman to follow Trayvon Martin on that fateful night last February, but also all contemporary policies that use “punitive methods based on distrust”—such as police stop-and-frisk practices—to fight crime in black communities.
Muhammad asserts that such practices represent a stark contrast to the way in which political and law-enforcement authorities dealt with the crime-infested communities of immigrants from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather than imposing “more law enforcement,” he explains, yesteryear’s authorities instead launched “a national progressive movement” that sought to “en[d] police corruption and brutality in those communities” and flooded violent white neighborhoods “with social workers, police reformers and labor activists committed to creating better jobs and building a social welfare net.” This was entirely appropriate, says Muhammad, because the era’s urban criminality was largely a result of “severe economic inequality and social marginalization,” not personal choice.
Muhammad maintains that social scientists and social reformers alike have long viewed African-Americans “as a distinctly criminal population.” Beginning in the late 19th century, he says, such experts and activists presented “research on black failure and struggle as ‘indisputable’ proof of black inferiority,” rather than as by-products of societal inequities. By Muhammad’s reckoning, evil originates outside of, and not within, the individual. Thus the individual is not to blame for his own criminality; instead the blame falls chiefly upon a corrupt and inequitable society, which should utilize the aforementioned “social workers” and “social welfare net” to help compensate the unfortunate people whom its injustices have allegedly driven into lives of crime. This, too, is an article of faith for the modern Left.
In Muhammad’s view, there has been little progress since the post-Civil War enactment of “Black Codes” in the American South—where any newly freed black who “crossed any line that [whites] prescribed … could be sold back to [his] former slave owner.” Muhammad suggests that these Codes reflected “the invention of the criminal-justice system as a repressive tool to keep Black people in their place, from the very moment where 95 percent of the Black population became free.”
The impulse to dominate and oppress African-Americans is “still with us,” Muhammad says, declaring that such practices as “stop-and-frisk racial profiling and mass incarceration” have become, in the tradition of “the Jim Crow South,” the latest mechanisms by which “to control black people’s movement in cities.” “We are still living with the same basic ideas and arguments” about black criminality today “as we were in the 1890s,” Muhammad laments, “stigmatizing black people as dangerous, legitimizing or excusing white-on-black violence, conflating crime and poverty with blackness, and perpetuating punitive notions of ‘justice’ … as the only legitimate responses.”
When Bill Cosby in 2007 made a highly publicized plea for African Americans to embrace their parenting responsibilities, Muhammad disparaged the entertainer’s remarks as the “latest in a long finger-wagging tradition of instructing poor blacks to lift themselves up by their bootstraps and reject pathologically ‘black’ values.” Muhammad similarly criticized a National Public Radio segment that asked whether some blacks were lagging because of their refusal to become, as NPR put it, “closer to whites in their values.” According to Muhammad, “this line of questioning reinforces one of the most persistent myths in America … that ‘white’ culture is the gold standard for judging everyone, despite its … contradictions and its flaws, including racism.”
Wherever Muhammad looks, he sees only the oozing sore of white racism, or, as in the case of Cosby, a self-sabotaging African American. As far as Muhammad is concerned, the United States of 2012 scarcely differs, in terms of how it treats nonwhites, from the United States of 1890; today’s racism is simply more subtle, more nuanced, but every bit as toxic. This worldview ranks among the ugliest and most corrosive imprints the Left has made on the minds of so many Americans.
Interestingly, Muhammad is a great-grandson of the late Elijah Muhammad, the famous black separatist and longtime Nation of Islam leader who characterized “the whole Caucasian race” as nothing more than “a race of devils.” Elijah Muhammad died when Khalil Gibran Muhammad was only three years old. It appears that the young man would have done his great-grandfather proud.
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