OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Portrait of Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a professor of history, race, and public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. He is a former director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library and the world’s leading library and archive of global black history, and a former associate professor at Indiana University. Muhammad's scholarship examines the broad intersections of race, democracy, inequality, and criminal justice in modern U.S. history. He is a contributor to a 2014 National Research Council study, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, and is the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (2010), which won the American Studies Association's John Hope Franklin Prize. Much of his work has been featured in national print and broadcast media outlets, including the New York Times, New Yorker, Washington Post, National Public Radio, Moyers and Company, and msnbc. He has appeared in a number of feature-length documentaries, including Slavery by Another Name (2012) and the Oscar-nominated 13th (2016). He has been an associate editor of the Journal of American History and an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice. In 2017, he received the Distinguished Service Medal from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He currently serves on the boards of the Museum of Modern Art, the Barnes Foundation, the Vera Institute, and The Nation magazine, and on the advisory boards of the Cure Violence, The HistoryMakers, and the Lapidus Center for the Study of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Well known are the bleak statistics of incarceration that make America the world’s leading jailer. Racial disparities frame much of the debate about the disproportionate impact of police and prisons on black and brown lives and increasingly poor, rural whites. How does history inform our present moment and help guide us to a greater cultural understanding of how we think about crime and punishment? Are we unwittingly repeating mistakes from the past? How are we supposed to balance individual accountability with social responsibility? By taking the long view, this talk reveals how so much of what defines the crisis of mass incarceration today are rooted in a set of old ideas. And that the solution to today’s problems also grow out of our examples from our history.
The police killing of Michael Brown sparked nationwide protests of which Ferguson, MO, became ground zero for a renewed movement of racial justice in the United States. How do the history of anti-black racism and anti-police brutality activism help understand the Black Lives Matter movement today? How do northern liberal attitudes about race and racism drive racially discriminatory policing like the kind the Department of Justice identified in Ferguson? How is Ferguson a little slice of Americana, a reflection of a broader and deeply-rooted problem of state-sanctioned racial violence and racial control in the United States of America?
In our Big Data age, the facts are supposed to speak for themselves and statistical data are just the kinds of facts everyone loves. With machine learning algorithms, the likelihood of ever greater reliance on numbers to predict everything from climate change to your next online shopping purchase to which detainees should be released on bail, suggests that all of us should be more informed consumers of how facts and Big Data work. As educators, history offers important lessons on the political context in which facts are produced and why some facts matter and others don’t. These lessons also raise important epistemological questions about knowledge itself. How does the need to simplify complex social phenomenon help and hurt human beings. A scholar once said, the most dangerous predator in the animal kingdom isn’t human beings, it’s categorization.
Just as there is a wealth and income gap, a health and achievement gap, and a punishment and opportunity gap, there is also a power gap in our civic and corporate institutions. In a nation where nearly every organization values diversity and inclusion (or at least gives lip service to them), and most every individual believes in “opportunity for all,” people of color are vastly under-represented in senior leadership positions across all sectors of American society. Something is still not working. So what explains this enduring maldistribution of power and influence among men—and especially women—of color? And what should we do about it? Is it even enough to focus on racial representation as the measure of progress? What do fifty years of post-civil rights movement history teach us?