Harvard Kennedy School Prof. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Ph.D., gave the keynote speech about black criminality and systemic racism at the Black Lives Matter: Local Movements, Global Futures symposium on Thursday, March 23.
Hosted by the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, the symposium is a two-day event composed of student-led teach-ins, panels, forums, presentations and keynote speeches. The symposium will continue into Friday. “The panel, teach-ins and presentations are all initiated by fellow Brandeis students and reflects their commitment to engaged scholarship and translating theories of racial justice into practice,” according to an informational email sent by the Symposium Planning Committee.
“This symposium fully engages with the local, national, and global significance of the Black Lives Matter Movement, putting in conversation scholars, activists, and artists and paying attention to the particular contributions and concerns of queer, trans, and women of color in the global movement for Black lives,” the email continued.
Muhammad, who teaches history, race and public policy, was Thursday’s keynote speaker. He centered his address around Ida B. Wells, whom he called “the first anti-racist activist of the post-Bellum period.”
Referencing Wells, Muhammad said that the foundation of his address is that “we’ve been here before. The basic idea of Black Lives Matter is an old idea,” he said. “If we’re concerned about the role of criminalization as perhaps the most salient feature of the modern American experience of racism and dehumanization, Ida was there first.”
Muhammad moved through the different sociological opinions on the persistence of racism within American culture. Throughout his analysis, he often returned to Wells. “In many ways, like Black Lives Matter, Wells was anti-respectable. She was queer in her organizing. She was a womanist in her politics and her critique of white feminism. And she was anti-racist in her attempt to expose sexual violence perpetrated against black women,” he said.
“It seems that that foundation that Ida B. Wells gave us, the capacity to see through a queer lense, the work that was required to transform and make possible the full vision of black life in America, met so much of the same resistance that we witness today.”
Muhammad remarked that ideas of respectability and responsibility have been pervasive when addressing systemic racism. Black progressives in the 1900s conceded that it is the responsibility of the black community to solve problems of drugs and violence. In that same vein, members of the white community would address structural racism. This denied the racism that allowed for drugs and violence to remain constant in communities.
“What most explains the punitive turn in black America is not a repudiation of civil rights activism, but an embrace of it. African Americans have always viewed the protection of black lives … as a civil rights issue, whether the threat comes from police officers, or street criminals. Far from ignoring the issue of crime by blacks against other blacks, African-American officials and their constituents have been consumed by it, and certainly the history we have walked in today can certainly attest to that.”
The discussion also centered on the usefulness of crime statistics. They have been used since the early 1900s to show both racist and anti-racist ideas, according to Muhammad. At the end of the presentation, he displayed a piece of a speech from FBI director James Comey. Comey called for more accurate data to understand the crime rate and number of police shootings.
“If you think about the fact that in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement challenge, on the systemic nature of state violence, the recognition … that there is no national administrative data on police killings, whether justified or not, whether the suspect is armed or unarmed, and that the very fact of what we know today comes from newspapers, from the Washington Post and The Guardian just like The Chicago Tribune kept track of lynchings … We have not moved nearly as much as … we think we have moved.”
Muhammad ended his speech with a quote from James Baldwin. “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them; that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds and thousands of lives, and do not know it, and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man … But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”