Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Playing the Violence Card





Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, is the author of “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.”

EVER since the culture wars of the 1980s, Americans have been familiar with “the race card” — an epithet used to discredit real and imagined cries of racism. Less familiar, however, is an equally cynical rhetorical tactic that I call “the violence card.”

Here’s how it works. When confronted with an instance of racially charged violence against a black person, a commentator draws attention to the fact that there is much more black-on-black violence than white-on-black violence. To play the violence card — as many criminal-justice advocates have done since the Rodney King police brutality case of the early 1990s — is to suggest that black people should worry more about the harm they do to themselves and less about how victimized they are by others....

Consider the crime waves of 1890 to 1930, when millions of poor European immigrants came to America only to be trapped in inner-city slums, suffering the effects of severe economic inequality and social marginalization. Around the turn of the century, the Harvard economist William Ripley described the national scene: “The horde now descending upon our shores is densely ignorant, yet dull and superstitious withal; lawless, with a disposition to criminality.” But the solution, Ripley argued, was not stigma, isolation and the promotion of fear. “They are fellow passengers on our ship of state,” he wrote, “and the health of the nation depends upon the preservation of the vitality of the lower classes.”...



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