The Root Interview: The Schomburg’s Khalil Gibran Muhammad

The new director of the premier research center for African-American culture talks about his famous great-grandfather, coming of age during the Rodney King beating and his plans for the Harlem library.

Terrence Jennings

TR: You have an interest in the intersection of crime and race, as seen in your book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Why?

KGM: I grew up when the war on drugs was making its impact felt across the nation. There was a tremendous increase in federal support for local police enforcement. I was a child of that moment, and I have stories of being picked on by police and asked where I was going and who I was with.

When I was in Philadelphia [at school], the Rodney King beating occurred. My political conscience was piqued by that and larger changes in urban America. When I was choosing my dissertation topic at Rutgers, O.J. was on trial. A lot of this was happening around me at the time. And then much later, there was Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. It shaped my political sense of things.

TR: So why not a career in criminal justice?

KGM: My book, which came out this year, is about this from the perspective of a historian. The field itself needs scholars like me, and I think this shift isn’t the rejection of [criminal justice] work but seeing the public importance of that work. I get to talk to a much broader swath of the public. I’m not just preaching to the choir.

TR: Did you watch The Wire?

KGM: I did! I skipped the first season, but when I did start to pay attention, I was blown away by the nuance and complexity. It made the show exceptional and brought into crystal-clear focus the nature of crime, white flight, education. So many issues were explored, and it really elevated the conversation and made it very difficult to pinpoint heroes and villains, and that’s how the real world functions. It widened the angle for people with a narrow view of good and evil, that certain people should never do X, Y or Z. It dispelled those binaries.

TR: What do you think of the Obama administration?

KGM: I think the administration is caught between a rock and a hard place. He inherited the absolutely worst economic condition in three-quarters of a century, and the road out of that isn’t clear. I think they made some decisions they inherited from the Bush administration, in terms of the TARP and bank bailout. It’s hard not to see the challenges of the administration and also praise it for what it managed to accomplish in terms of the health care bill.

They should take pride in health care, even if it fell short of the public option. Certainly, financial stimulus spending was the right choice instead of tax cuts, though they didn’t go far enough to prime the pump in order to keep people in their jobs and put people back to work. And the reform of credit cards and credit markets is extremely productive to many Americans who are the victims of too much fine print. It’s one of the Obama administration’s signature accomplishments. And the 60-plus Republicans who are coming into the Congress hopefully won’t change that.

TR: How will you use the Internet as new director of the Schomburg?