Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a scholar of race in America, is departing his current job at New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for a post at Harvard. On June 27, Bill sat down with him to discuss how critical it is for Americans to know the truth about our past in order to understand our turbulent times and reshape our future. We encourage you to listen to the interview and subscribe to our podcast here.
Bill Moyers: I paid a visit to New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture recently to help a large gathering of the Schomburg’s devoted friends and visitors say goodbye — very reluctantly — to Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad. He’s been the beloved director of the Schomburg for the past five years and has done much to expand the reach and the influence of the Harlem institution that devotes itself to researching and disseminating the history of African-Americans.
But Muhammad is also a scholar and he is now eager to evaluate everything he has gleaned about the contemporary concerns of black America from a new vantage point. He’s on his way to join Harvard University’s faculty as a professor of history, race and public policy at the Kennedy School of Government.
This young historian is uniquely well-suited to ponder the contradictions of the past, the present and the future. Muhammad grew up on Chicago’s South Side. He’s the great grandson of Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam for decades, and he’s the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and an educator.
I first interviewed Muhammad in 2012 about the founding paradox of our country, that our Constitution promised “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” despite the entrenched institution of slavery.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Contradiction is part of the human experience. We wrestle with it every single day, whether we admit it or not. Thomas Jefferson and half of the other slaveholders who were presidents all lived daily contradictions.
They could literally look out their windows and see enslaved people in the land of the free and the home of the brave, so on and so forth. But the fact of the matter is that they had a great responsibility for building what would become American democracy. And in that regard, they failed miserably.
Moyers: We also talked about Muhammad’s award-winning book, The Condemnation of Blackness.
Moyers [To Muhammad]: You have written a biography of an idea here. And the idea you’re writing about is how blacks came to be singled out, nationally, as an exceptionally dangerous people.
Muhammad: Think about it this way, Bill. There’s no moment in time — no moment in time exists where race is not a primary factor in the treatment of black people. And so the crime issue — if we just equate crime or criminalization and racial stigma, there is no moment where race is not an organizing principle for how black people’s behavior is defined in American society.
Moyers: In June, in front of a live audience at the Schomburg, Khalil Gibran Muhammad and I picked up where we left off, discussing how critical it is to know the past in order to challenge our turbulent times and reshape our future.
Moyers: All right, let’s get right to it. What can you do at Harvard that you can’t do here?
Muhammad [To the audience]: He said he was not going to ask me any tough questions!
[To Moyers]: One of the things that’s obvious to me — having spent the last five years here but also being a student of this institution in ways that I myself discounted — and by that I always knew that this was a research archive, I knew it was a great repository of learning, and that’s only been affirmed over the past five years by traveling the country and meeting people of all walks of life whose lives as academics were transformed by what’s here. And for someone who started my time here as a researcher, I get that. What I didn’t understand is the lifesaving work that this institution does.
By that I mean there are people who come here every single day of the week to be affirmed. They come sometimes to just read, sometimes to be in a space where their humanity is not to be questioned, sometimes to actively participate in the life of what this institution represents. And oftentimes, academics take those things for granted, because they not only have privileged lives by virtue of having the life of the mind — which is a form of privilege — they’re often two or three degrees removed from the messiness of most people’s lives.
So Harvard, if there is a place that represents all of that privilege at the highest levels, in the greatest way that the world itself reproduces and reifies, then it seems to me part of the opportunity that I have is to take this public sphere into that place and try to change some things.
Moyers: Have you missed being a scholar?
Muhammad: I have, absolutely. I miss being able to follow an idea, to study a problem, to fact-check all of the things that I hear, and to learn them for myself in a way that I’m right now completely reliant on others to do. And I get interviewed a lot, as you know, Bill, and I like to have something new to say about some things.
Moyers: Given the nature of information today, given the swift-moving bots that circle the globe — in the second that I’ve just said they circle the globe — what do you think that scholars have to say and have to offer in particular to the crisis we’re in?
— Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Muhammad: Well, I think it depends on which crisis we’re talking about. I actually think, if we’re talking about the crisis of racial justice, just as a subset of a larger crisis of global capitalism, or inequality more broadly. If we just take that slice of it, I do think we have the problem of historical illiteracy. And we use the term “a whitewashing of history.” I think that in some ways, the fact that each generation seems to have an Emmett Till or a Trayvon Martin or a Rodney King moment is a testament to the need for each generation to be taught that whatever happened in the past is no longer relevant. And so that problem for me of historical illiteracy is in part the political problem of keeping what historians know and write about away from what the public thinks is legitimate knowledge. The culture of anti-intellectualism, the attack on the humanities, are political problems. I do think that we might have a more robust democracy and a better society if we closed that gap.
At the same time, I think we are in many cases over-reliant on a certain kind of scholarship that in common parlance is known as best practices, or data-driven analysis. This is in some ways the problem of policing, of education. This is what I call the efficiency problem in our society. If we don’t have data to prove there’s a problem in the first place, and we don’t have data to tell us how to fix it, then the problem and the solution don’t exist. This I think is part of the appeal of a Bernie Sanders and a Trump, or even the Brexit, which is a kind of —
Moyers: What do you mean? Explain that.
Muhammad: Well, I think to the extent that what you hear in those communities — whether it’s the right or the left, whether it’s here or abroad — is partly a rejection of the technocratic approach. Which is not a conversation about values, which is a conversation that already builds the layers of inequality, the anti-intellectualism into a set of privileges that extend to a small number of people. And I think that concern is absolutely legitimate.
Moyers: You’re up against the same kind of challenge that we journalists face, because you and I are progressive. We come out of a tradition that believes knowledge can make the world better. But if people reject that because it threatens their value, their worldview, their way of seeing and being in the world, we have to work all that much harder and figure out new strategies for reaching them, right?
Muhammad: That’s right. This is the treadmill. This is the rat race. This is the struggle. And I think about, somewhere halfway between my time starting here at the Schomburg and now, I decided that working in the context of an educational institution dedicated to that kind of truth-telling, that kind of progressive spirit, that I probably wasn’t going to get to some utopic ending in this context. In that the best I could in some ways hope for was that I would do my part to keep the pendulum moving back in the right direction, away from fascism on the right, to something closer to a more progressive world we could possibly live in.
I’ve also struggled with the relationship of — and I know this is important to you — the power of myth. And part of the story I tell in my first book is the creation of a set of ideas about black criminality, which is a form of mythmaking or propaganda itself. It’s completely divorced, for the most part, from anything objective we might determine. The preconceived notions precede the data itself and then the data is an artifact of those preconceived notions about black people as a particularly dangerous group of people.
Moyers: You talk about myth, but this has taken me a long time to see, that America has been clothed in myths from the very beginning: the myth of the Pilgrim, the myth of the shining city on the hill, the myth of the frontiersman carving out of the wilderness, against what the Declaration of Independence called the savages, and creating a new nation. It’s only recently that those myths have begun to be deconstructed and we now can talk openly about white supremacy. Can we survive long enough to get through the rest of the myths in order to deal with the sober reality that we face as a country today?
Muhammad: Yes. We have to, right? We have to have the myth of optimism too, of the eternal belief that we can survive.
Moyers: I don’t know if you’ve read much of Gramsci, the Italian political scientist, but he said, “I practice the pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the will.” By that he meant by the pessimism of the mind he sees the world as it is, no rose-colored glasses. But he gets up every morning as an individual to do something he thinks that might bring about a better world — the optimism of the will. I sense that about you. I mean you don’t deny the truth. Speaking of data, your first book was full of data that you helped me understand. You wouldn’t do without data, would you?
Moyers: But in the face of the data, you remain an optimist?
Muhammad: Yeah. And I’ve worked on some metaphors of my own, so I’ll try this one on you, because there is a contradiction. What I’ve said to people, particularly when talking about Condemnation, which a lot of people say is a very depressing story because it can lead to the conclusion that this country is irredeemable, that black people are doomed and that white people are the devil, to quote my great-grandfather. You can see I’m on my way out, right? So I can say these things. [audience laughs]
— Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad
But at the same time, my whole point in telling the story is that we always have a choice. And the choice is not to be prisoner to the past, not to be prisoner to the existing myths that shroud us, but to make different choices. Because looking back, the benefit and the beauty of history and hindsight is to see the roads not taken. And there are too many roads that we’ve chosen not to take consistently in this country — yet, self-righteously, as if we’re more evolved, better, faster, more efficient, you fill in the blank. So here’s the metaphor: I say to people, in response to that pessimism, I say when you think about oncologists, the terrible job that oncologists have is to face squarely the facts of cancer. And their job in facing those facts is to deliver the news to the patient with the prospect of saving that patient. But here’s where beliefs and optimism triumph over the facts of cancer and science. Most people, once the diagnosis comes in, will then opt for the 0.005-percent chance of survival. And most oncologists will take the time and the investment and the storytelling necessary for that person to face those odds and to potentially triumph over them. So for me, we can’t get to a saved life without first facing the facts of what ails us and then, secondarily, to make the choice to do something about it.
Moyers: What recent evidence do you have that we make the right choice?
Muhammad: I’m going to reach for this one, because it’s readily available, and that is Ta-Nehisi Coates. He does shatter the myth of American exceptionalism. And he shatters it by saying that it was built on the violence and destruction of black people, that you can’t have one without the other. He also talks about a dream of whiteness, an investment in a kind of reality that is by definition a form of violence to those who are not white. And there’s a commitment to a certain kind of truth telling against the mythology of American exceptionalism that he imparts to his 15-year-old son that I think is necessary in this moment. And that’s the contradiction: on the sliding scale of these moments, is that one could imagine there might not be a time for that particular narrative, but it is absolutely the right narrative for this moment.
Moyers: When did it come upon you that you wanted to focus a lot on the black torchbearers of democracy? I think that’s what you call them.
Moyers: I love that term, torchbearers. Was there a moment? Was it your great-grandfather? Was it someone else who made you want to tell these stories of pathbreakers and torchbearers?
Muhammad: I would say that it was probably my parents, first and foremost. My father is here with us this evening, Ozier Muhammad. I’m very proud of him.
Muhammad: And I was his toady. He took me out on assignments. It was a different time and place. I didn’t necessarily need press credentials, but if I needed them he’d get them for me. I had access to the whole city. I would load his cameras. But in the process I was seeing the world through a journalist’s eyes, and he made it a point to encourage me to read broadly, even when it wasn’t a homework assignment. And my mother, by the same token, was a career educator and showed me what it meant to be compassionate for the least of these. She always had a soft spot for the child who showed up in her classroom who hadn’t eaten or was not properly clothed, and that made an impression on me. So somewhere between his career as a journalist and her career as an educator, I think I breathed enough air about the importance of paying closer attention to us, and lifting up those challenges and examples. I’m not a hagiographer, so no one would say that I’m the person who often is looking for pure celebration, but in my capacity as the director of the Schomburg Center I have seen it as my role to make sure that whatever black people thinking about or doing matters to the world.
Moyers: You want to write a new book and I presume that’s one reason you want to become a scholar again —
Moyers: So you have time for that. What’s the subject?
Muhammad: So the subject is a history of the disappearance of white criminality.
Moyers: Yes. Lead me on.
Muhammad: So, we are living in the midst, right now, of a massive heroin and methamphetamine drug-addiction crisis in white America where we’re seeing mortality rates go up for whites, particularly in the category where people generally live healthier lives — age 45 to 54 — as compared to lower mortality rates amongst blacks and Hispanics. So contrary to what most of us think, life is getting shorter for white people. Of course, there’s still a gap. Now, we’ve heard politicians across the ideological spectrum describe this as a call to compassion for understanding the struggle and the context for what whites are dealing with. I remember the New York Times — [audience murmurs]
Moyers: I think you’ve touched a nerve.
Muhammad: — in showing an illustration of the rising mortality rates of whites in this group, quotes a 35-year-old construction worker who says that he can’t have the quality of life and the job that his father once had and that it’s hard.
Now, I don’t think I have to spend a lot of time describing the other side of the coin where problems of premature death or drug addiction have been an issue among African-Americans or blacks more generally. And yet, the starting point for that conversation is usually a pathological one and a confirmation of the bad decisions, the bad blood or the bad environment that these people come from. There’s a kind of throw your hands up, what are we to do about it except build more prisons or put more police in their communities. But as much as we can see it in this moment, there is really no story to tell because no one has written that one yet.
Condemnation starts some of this, but what I really want to do is track the emergence of the New Deal state, the creation of white suburbs and see what crime, poverty and delinquency look like in those new white spaces. What is the conversation?
Moyers: What’s your hunch?
Muhammad: My hunch is that it’s similar expression of compassion, but probably as much an issue of erasure than anything else.
— Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Muhammad: Erasure in the sense that there’s nothing to stick to. There’s no enduring narrative any longer. So, for me, one way to think about this — which is part of the conceit of the book — is we could hypothetically say that everything that every white or black sociologist or social scientist has ever written about black people is absolutely true, absolutely true. That the hypersurveillance and technologies of surveillance that make it possible to see every bad choice you make, every moment where a young person does the wrong thing, is a confirmation of the preexisting conceived notions that these people are pathological. What doesn’t happen for most white people is there are no technologies of surveillance equivalent to what happens in black people. There are no armies of social scientists and sociologists there to capture every moment of failure that exists in those communities. So that’s what I mean about erasure. There’s a kind of power and agency for whites, no matter where they are on social ladder that comes with invisibility. For us, part of the violence of America is partly the violence of visibility. It is also partly our source of strength, so it’s also a contradiction.
Moyers: What does it take to change that process, that both physical and metaphysical process that is involved?
Muhammad: I have very little patience for people who lie to themselves or to others. And so, for me, part of the antidote is where we started which is that, at best, we ought to get closer to truth.
And, if we can face the truth head on, if I can sit here with someone whose own version of mythology is to write policy that says that black kids can’t learn, or to write policy that says that police officers have every right to be more fearful of the people who they are supposed to serve and protect than those people themselves. Then, I want to be able to look that person in the eye and say, “You’re kidding yourself and you’re lying to others.” Now, if they go on and do it anyway, that’s a different problem. But, let’s not at least start with the premise that they somehow think they’re doing the right thing on our behalf.
Moyers: Would you suggest that’s what Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about when he talked about unarmed truth?
Muhammad: Exactly. That’s right, or the comfortable vanity of self-deception.
Moyers: Yes. Speaking of the truth, what do you make of the facile way that Donald Trump called Mexicans rapists and murderers? Did that have a spillover? Did that have fallout on peoples of other colors?
Muhammad: Oh, absolutely. I think for me, Trump’s rhetoric is more about the rest of America than it is about Trump himself. I’ll ask you this question, have journalists given Trump too much attention as an individual? As an individual, rather than as a symptom of the actual country we live in?
Moyers: I have a mixed reaction to that question. Because you don’t solve a problem by hiding it, you’ve indicated that. And you don’t eliminate a demagogue by ignoring him. Now I happen to know that the networks are jiving to Trump, because every time they have him on, whether they let him for the first time ever do interviews by phone or whether they bring him to the studio, their ratings go up. So, there is this promiscuous relationship between the corporate press in particular that gets a big audience. But I’m trying to think who are those people who tune in? I don’t think all of them are tuning in because they adore Trump, or even affirm or think what he saying. I think they’re really curious. Who is this guy? Where did he come from? Why is he saying this?
Some people are coming because they hear their opinions and their bigotry and their feelings, real feelings, played out in it. And some will come because they’re scared, they want to know more. There’s no question that there’s a profitable relationship between Trump and the for-profit networks. I tend to think, as you talked about cancer, that you don’t solve the cancer by hiding it, that we have to ride carefully when we enter that arena. But I’d rather know what Trump is saying, and hear him, than have it said to me second-hand.
— Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Muhammad: I will say that, just as a point of clarification, the issue to me is really a both/and. It’s not the erasure, or the limited coverage of Trump as a demagogue, it is to take the bait to see something more cancerous in our society that fuels Trump’s rhetoric. One way to read Trump is that he’s inauthentic in his bigotry; that there’s a kind of bigotry there that lies in the hearts of women and men wherever they can be found, where the other is concerned. But what I’ve not seen is a kind of mainstream, as you say, corporate media, attempt to really wrestle with the heartland and the “take our country back” beyond the simple individual who stands in. There is plenty of room to talk about Rush Limbaugh and his radio audience, plenty of room to talk about Trump, but I don’t see the kind of on-the-ground, investigative journalism that helps us to see the impact of the kind of historical illiteracy and ignorance that exists in too much of America.
Moyers: Sooner or later — I’ve been around a lot longer than you have, and I remember hearing Father Coughlin on the radio, the anti-Semitic Catholic priest who had a huge audience. I remember Pitchfork Ben Tillman, who was —
Moyers: I mean reading about him. Lyndon Johnson once said to me, “If Pitchfork Ben Tillman had not been a racist, he’d be president of the United States.” He was smart, clever, intelligent, effective and charismatic. And of course I remember George Wallace. Sooner or later, Khalil, I knew someone was going to escape from that crowd, and they were going to then represent the very large segment of America that has always been that way.
Now the question is: American politics is usually fought between the 45-yard lines — 45 percent of people [who have] made up their mind, 45 percent of people on the other side [who have] made up their mind and the fight is for the 10 percent between the two 45-yard lines. Now the question is, how many people have pulled back from that 45-yard line, and are not going to vote for him no matter what? Don’t know that! I thought, Brexit — you mentioned Brexit earlier, I wondered why you mentioned it, I’d love to hear you talk about it — but Brexit represents the potential of Trump to appeal to the same fears of immigration, the same disdain for bureaucrats in Brussels, i.e., in Washington, that we get. And so I don’t think this is a settled game.
Muhammad: And I wouldn’t pretend to be any smarter than the journalists who have already written about the relationship of Brexit to Trump’s rise here. But, just to say the same thing very clearly, the fact of Brexit should scare us here in this country.
Muhammad: For the same reason that Pitchfork Ben Tillman could have become president if he weren’t racist, as you put it. I think the interesting thing about that formulation, I was thinking this as you said it, is that it was his personal racism that cost him success. I think Trump’s success is the widespread racism that exists in this country, despite his own personal ineptitude.
Moyers: I agree.
I heard a great sermon yesterday at Riverside Church, from Brad Braxton — do you know Braxton? He was, for a period of time there, the senior minister. He founded the Open Church in Baltimore. He taught at Wake Forest for many years. He’s now doing some lecturing at Harvard.
The point of his sermon was that racism is bone-deep in America — that was the term he used. It is, isn’t it?
Muhammad: Absolutely. The fact that most Americans can’t wrap their head around the fact that they would never have survived here but for the contributions of enslaved people is the ultimate denial that somehow this nation could exist without them.
So, it has to be bone-deep, both physically and spiritually, in order to continue to perpetuate that myth, that somehow we can imagine a future in America where we no longer talk about race, and I’m only using “race” in that context because that’s the only word we have available to us to recognize that many people beyond people of European descent helped to shape this nation into what it is, for all of its flaws and warts. The simple fact of its wealth is a consequence of black people’s contributions. The simple fact of its democracy, despite its flaws, nevertheless represents the highest expression of democracy this world has seen, and that is the contribution of black people pushing for something greater than was put on paper, as we talked about four years ago.
Muhammad: The fact that they can’t teach that in their classes, as you reported in Texas whitewashing its textbooks, or in Arizona saying Mexican-American children can’t learn about the fact that Arizona used to be Mexico. So that is, to me, the starting point for coming to terms with the healing and the recovery that has to happen.
Bryan Stevenson says this better than anyone: It is now time, not only for a form of truth and reconciliation that might lead to reparations, but also “truth and reinvestment.” We need to reinvest in a new narrative so that America can actually be something different than what she has been, beyond the limitations of race and inequality.
Moyers: Has Barack Obama pushed hard enough for that?
Muhammad: No, absolutely not. And, I can just tell you, honestly, that during the first term of the president — and I had my fair share of criticisms, usually from the left, so it’s predictable — not enough concern about poor people in general, and not enough concern about black people’s condition as distinct or exceptional relative to the rest of the population.
I think the president also represents a certain kind of vision of America’s black past that wanted to believe that whatever happened before is no longer important to the present, other than the heroes’ and sheroes’ stories of the civil-rights movement. You saw it in his March on Washington speech from the Mall. We heard it in the second inaugural, where, as a sound bite, he talked about Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. And yet, literally, Attorney General Eric Holder was fighting against the retrenchment of the Voting Rights Act, which ultimately landed in the Shelby v. Holder case, which took the teeth out of the Voting Rights Act, as he was writing the speech. So, the bully pulpit of the presidency to educate, to empower Americans, to challenge us, to come to terms with this truth and reconciliation, was a missed opportunity from [the] beginning to the end of this presidency.
Moyers: I know you did watch the president as he delivered his final State of the Union message. You heard him invoke Martin Luther King Jr. as a champion of unarmed truth and unconditional love. You remember what you were thinking as you watched?
— Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Muhammad: I was thinking that we’re done with firsts, black firsts in particular. That there’s no office in the land we can aspire to landing in that will magically save black and brown people. Whether it was initially the Supreme Court or the secretary of state or the attorney general, the presidency, governors, mayors, you fill in the blank — that black firsts have run their course. Now, it’s not to say that the principle of diversity and inclusion has, as is so commonly evoked in these troublesome times whether in corporate America or on our college campuses, is not a real thing with respect to the presence and contributions of black people. But this presidency has shown us that it matters who the individual is, and their relationship to that history, and to those institutions of power. And it matters going forward that we hold the institutions accountable, regardless of the leadership, regardless of what their color of skin is, regardless of their racial identity, accountable to those institutions doing right by the people they must serve and protect.
Baltimore is an all-black city, by and large, and in every level of government has been failed leadership on the issue of policing and of justice, as that city continued to pay out settlement after settlement after settlement, long before we got to Freddie Gray. So what I thought that day is that Dr. King’s message of unarmed truth has not been embodied in so many positions of leadership, because it’s been too easy to fall into those institutional spaces, and someone comes along — anyone who watches Scandal — you know, Cyrus comes along, and he hands you a script! And all of a sudden, you read from that script and you follow the tradition.
And when the black people show up and knock at your door, you turn them away just as everyone else has done before, or the Latinos or the Mexicans. And that script — we’ve got to throw the script out. We’ve got to rewrite it. As I say on college campuses, the issue of Woodrow Wilson’s name on the school of public policy to me is important, but what’s even more important is that no tour guide ever walk by that building and evoke Woodrow Wilson’s name as president of Princeton, and as former president of the United States, without saying that he was also a white supremacist. And, until we get to that point — because you can keep the name or can take it off — but until we get to that point, we’ve not learned this lesson.
Moyers: I think you have a future, even at Harvard.
This interview was edited for length, but you can watch a video of the full conversation on the Schomburg Center’s Livestream page.