Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society
Khalil Gibran Muhammad
March 14, 2011
This article highlights racialized constructions of criminality that surfaced in the wake of mass migrations and immigrations of African American and European workers to the industrial North during the first few decades of the 20th century. This attention to historical patterns is critical to contemporary studies because it shows processes and dynamics that are far less visible in today’s criminal justice landscape, overwhelmingly dominated by black and brown faces. Too often, policy researchers deem rehabilitative, nonpunitive approaches to illegality among marginalized and impoverished populations fanciful and too abstract to be implemented. The evidence here suggests that earlier responses to similarly stigmatized white immigrant populations actually led to more humane reforms and shifts away from harsh laws and incapacitation as preeminent responses to social inequality. This earlier reformist moment happened in direct relation to increasingly repressive criminal justice responses to African Americans, which shows how blackness was reconfigured as a more durable criminal identity. Understanding this crucial period also helps to map the long road to mass incarceration. In today’s popular postracial discourse about personal responsibility, the guiding logic presumes that the relative absence of white criminals is a product of good citizenship and not discriminatory policies prefiguring the New Deal welfare state. Parables of hard work and law-abidingness have erased this crucial period in the history of incarceration.