Our Divided House: Khalil Muhammad, Ph.D. on Systematic Racism

Khalil Muhammad, Ph.D., Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, dissected the biased statistics and mindsets that contribute to perceived biological inferiority and systemic racism in the American justice system during his lecture in Kemper Auditorium last Thursday.

Muhammad, a great-grandson of the founder of the Nation of Islam, focused on the implications of analyzing statistics without context to make assumptions of the African-American race as a whole. His talk was the first of the three-part “Our Divided House” series, which offers a different perspective on the current racial climate in America by tying together history and public policy.

“Essentially, the world was chopped up into winners and losers, and you could track winners and losers by where they come from in the world,” said Muhammad during his presentation. “Africa was a great continent of darkness, as understood by etymologists and racial scientists [of the 19th century], who simply used statistics to define the worst possible categories of human suffering in Africa to prove the point.”

Certain racial features then became associated with specific indices, and statistics became a new science of race that denotes biological inferiority, said Muhammad. He described how these statistics were steeped in white supremacy, as popular media outlets only publically shared ones that shed a more positive light on white Americans. Tiffany Chang ’19 said in an interview with The Phillipian that the most important thing she took away was that “we always need to be conscious of how supposedly objective realities actually serve to suppress minority voices. [Muhammad] talked a lot about how… what we worship as science actually just makes it harder for people’s experiences to speak for themselves. I thought that was really illuminating.”

Muhammad also highlighted the implications of the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy that was implemented in New York City. The law allowed police officers to stop, question, and publicly search any pedestrians. “[Stop-and-frisk zones] are everywhere and are involuntary. Moreover, they impose a huge cost to your personal sense of self-worth and dignity… Being physically manhandled, questioned, and made to feel like a bad person who has hurt someone [imposes a great deal of ] personal injury. Imagine how much greater the pain when an officer takes aim and fires at an innocent or unarmed person,” said Muhammad.

Muhammad questioned the effectiveness of this policy when looking at the larger picture of crime in America. Although statistics show that crime sharply decreased in New York City once stop-andfrisk was implemented, there was a plunge in crime rate all over the world and stop-andfrisk methods mostly targeted African Americans who lived in “high-crime areas.” Muhammad argued that these kinds of systems were meant to profile African Americans and create an unfair system in which African Americans are arrested, sentenced, and killed more frequently for less serious charges.

“People [respond to this claim by saying], ‘Oh, how original. [Muhammad] said it’s racist.’ But the truth is that the story is in the details, and the way out of the problem is in the details… Just because something sounds familiar, doesn’t tell you enough what it looks like in the present or what it looked like in the past, or how we got from the past to the present,” said Muhammad in an interview with The Phillipian.

Zizo Bahnasy ’17 said, “People like Donald Trump bring up statistics as though they are the end all be all, as though they can tell their own story… When people like Donald Trump use stop-and-frisk as a weapon or attack on ‘the bad’ in a way that’s not supposed to happen – especially when it’s been deemed unconstitutional – it creates unnecessary fear that causes Americans to be divided.”

Amadi Lasenberry ’17 believes that students are able to help the situation by speaking out and spreading awareness on the topic.

“Not a lot of people have the opportunity to have these kinds of conversations, especially in high school,” said Lasenberry in an interview with The Phillipian. “We’re [going to] go our separate ways to other people who have never had that type of exposure. I think it is on us, as people who are privileged enough to learn [these] things, to go and speak about it more. It should be common knowledge.”

Muhammad emphasized the tremendous influence students have in this movement. Apart from being an informed citizen, he also advised students to join advocacy organizations that support and strive to fix these issues.

“Every organization needs back-office people. It’s not always about putting your body on the line… You can actually do the hard work of putting together a social-media campaign, educating people about what that particular organization wants to accomplish, how they want to behave. There are a lot of roles to play,” said Muhammad.