Where Did All the White Criminals Go?

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Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Harlem-based Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, shared portions of his ongoing project on white decriminalization in America during an April 6 speech hosted by the Center on Race, Law & Justice.

Muhammad’s research illustrates how changes in maximum penalty laws in the 1930s, shifting socioeconomic conditions post-WWII, and widely divergent media depictions for whites and blacks, among other considerations, has resulted in a radical change in the racial makeup of American’s prison population.

His research also showcases how the treatment that white and black prisoners receive has differed considerably even when whites compose the majority of those incarcerated. Prisoners of European descent, for instance, participated in plays and played baseball. African-American prisoners, meanwhile, were barred from participating from these activities and also routinely beaten by correctional officers.

Muhammad delivered his speech, titled “Where Did All The White Criminals Go?,” at Fordham Law School, as part of the center’s inaugural speaker series. In addition to directing the Schomburg Center, Muhammad is the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, winner of the 2011 John Hope Franklin Publication Prize.

The research Muhammad detailed on Wednesday is part of a larger project he is constructing on the decriminalization story of the 20th century, he told the audience. Muhammad’s project examines the question “How does whiteness become detached from criminal identities?” The role of racial criminalization, specifically, remains an inadequately researched and theorized one, he noted.

While white criminality, in the form of HBO’s The Sopranos or Johnny Depp’s performance in Public Enemies, remains a popular source of entertainment, the real racial make-up of prisoners is much different, Muhammad said. African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, according to the NAACP’s criminal justice fact sheet.

This is a stark contrast to pre-WWII America when various groups of European immigrants, who would later be homogenized as whites, comprised the bulk of America’s prisoners.

Even then, media depictions of African-Americans used racially inflammatory language and animalistic characterizations while describing whites as sharp dressers and intelligent, Muhammad said, noting whites were treated as sympathetic characters.

New York’s Baumes Laws, which mandated life sentences for four felony convictions, played a major role in the 1920s and 1930s in shaping how the public, the courts, and the government viewed those deserving or undeserving of punishment. As New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt fought for and achieved the repeal of the mandatory life imprisonment law before becoming president. Roosevelt did this after many whites—whether judges, jury members, or women’s groups—raised concerns about how the mandatory imprisonment laws victimized them.

“When we reached the tipping point of punishment where the system could have wiped out an entire generation of 18- to 24-year-old white men, the whole thing unraveled,” Muhammad said. The establishment’s response: “If that many are up to no good there must be something wrong with the system.”

The United States took a different course of action in the 1980s, Muhammad noted, when the War on Drugs resulted in an exponential increase in the number of African-Americans incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. Today, African-Americans constitute almost 1 million of the 2.3 million imprisoned in America, according to the NAACP.

Long before the War on Drugs, the criminal justice system locked up African-Americans at a disproportionate rate, Muhammad said. The New York State Crime Commission’s annual report in 1929 reported African-Americans formed 18 percent of the prison population despite making up only 3 percent of the state population.

“I’m suggesting we never did right by black folks, even when the New York State Crime Commission said they were three percent in number,” Muhammad said.

This criminal justice disparity only grew after WWII with suburbanization, educational and political policies that stripped resources from inner cities, and increasingly draconian drug laws.

Muhammad expressed skepticism toward the idea that white “troublemaking disappeared overnight.” Socioeconomic incentives pushed second- and third-generation European immigrants to “a more pro-social way of life rather than an anti-social way of life,” he theorized.

Professor Tanya Hernandez, head of the center’s global and comparative law programs and initiatives and one of its two associate directors, hosted the event.

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