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Brown Bag Lecture series. . .

“Disappearing Acts: White Criminality in the Age of Jim Crow”

Professor of History Khalil Muhammad
April 9, 2008

The age of Jim Crow in the first half of the 20th century saw the American focus on criminality switch from ethnic groups of whites, such as the Italian and Irish gangsters, to blacks. Professor Khalil Muhammad, in the second phase of a three-part project he is engaged with, is researching how, and why, that switch took place. In his lecture - prefaced by a declaration that he is approaching these projects as an African-Americanist, not as a black man - Muhammad outlined his research topic in detail and asked the audience to help him discover weaknesses and strengths in his work to date.

Most previous work on criminality, dealing with 1890 until the 1920s and on into the 1940s, that takes race into consideration has focused on white criminality or has used primary resources from the South. Muhammad is taking his data from neutral sources, such as the census, and is focusing on the North. Nevertheless, he includes pertinent materials from a number of sources, including letters to the NAACP that came mostly from the South. This approach to the data, he said, is more instructional because it is less tainted by the complexities of Southern history, which is so often compartmentalized and not seen as applicable to the whole nation. It also allows him to use the alcohol economy of the Prohibition era and the criminals engaged in that activity — criminals who were at first notable ethnically as Italian and Irish, but who later became simply white, marking the early breakdown of ethnicity into a white and black dichotomy.

During the period in question, Muhammad explained, there were "four-strike" laws, similar to today's three-strike laws, that mandated the minimum prison time for repeat offenders. Statistical lists of crimes committed by various ethnic groups show that officialdom tracked the criminality of "German, Italian, Irish, Chinese, Negro," etc., perpetrators, with no more emphasis on blacks than on any other group. By the '40s and '50s, however, this tracking disappears and focuses on white and black statistics.

Despite that change, said Muhammad, the traditional approach to crime tracks whites in the North and blacks in the South. Nor has race as a factor in incarceration been considered until recently. Muhammad also noted that most prisons are filled with, not violent criminals, but rather petty burglars who are property criminals. Further, most of those who are put away under the three-strike laws are black, while most of those imprisoned under the old four-strike laws were white.

Muhammad's research is concerned with the "disappearance" of white crime from the first half of the 20th century to the second half. He asks such questions as, What is going on at that time in the white slums and suburbs of Chicago, where African Americans do not live? Why do the popular and official notions of black and Latino criminality prevail? Why, instead of being noted as white crime, is the methamphetamine crisis generally defined as a rural problem?