News & Ideas

On a Mission

Khalil Gibran Muhammad seated looking over his right shoulder

An Honest Reckoning with Race Will Make America Better, Says Khalil Gibran Muhammad. Now He Just Needs America to Listen.

On an Uber ride from Beacon Hill to Logan Airport, somewhere between deep introspection and raw emotion, Khalil Gibran Muhammad sank into the seat of the car and sighed. It was a moment of quiet indignation—a silence in which the Radcliffe professor reckoned with the limits of the scholarship he has helped produce about America’s pain-inducing racial past. 

But he didn’t stay quiet long. 

Speaking over the click-clacking windshield wipers, Muhammad framed the essence of his work as a scholar-activist in terms of frustration. At age 47, he has grown impatient—exasperated—with the slow pace of change in how we talk about and deal with race. Race is central to the American story, he says, but Americans think and act otherwise, treating our racial history more like a subplot small enough to fit inside Black History Month. 

“I represent 100 years of black scholarship, done by black people or by others committed to the black experience,’’ said Muhammad, who is also a professor at Harvard Kennedy School. “And it turns out that the scope of that work remains mostly outside classroom textbooks, outside the public school curriculum, and outside college and professional school education. We still treat that history as optional.”

As a Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute, Muhammad is working to correct that state of affairs, partly through a book examining historical drivers of structural racism and race-related policy failures. On another front, he’ll continue to develop the Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability Project, a research initiative he founded in 2018 to promote standards through which institutions can assess their progress on inclusion and diversity. Muhammad, a distance runner who displays a passionate resolve, knows that such work will take precious time. All the same, he embraces the role of impatient, outspoken advocate, decrying political and civic leaders for failing as “truth tellers’’ about systemic racism and injustice.  

Muhammad wants a deeper reckoning with racism in classrooms from kindergarten to college. Close to home, he has more than once taken the Kennedy School to task for gaps he sees in its efforts to fully integrate racial history into its curriculum and policies. In his view, too many students leave the school no better informed on racism and colonialism than they were the day they first walked through the door—“ignorant about so much of how the world came to look the way it does and the way the power is distributed in that world.”

As the Uber driver closed in on the airport, Muhammad looked out into the dreary night, his expression a perfect match. Then he leaned forward. “I’m the only black tenured professor there. There are 194 faculty members, and about five are black. I’m the only tenured—the third one in history.” Again he fell silent, letting his disappointment sink in.

In the moments before the Uber ride, Muhammad was in his element at the historic African Meeting House on Joy Street in Boston, where he had taken part in an impassioned panel discussion with Michael Curry, the former head of the Boston branch of the NAACP, and Keeonna Harris, a doctoral student who raised her children while her husband was incarcerated. The conversation tied the need for criminal justice reform to the devastating impact the system has had on the black community, particularly men. 

The history of crime and punishment has been a cornerstone of Muhammad’s academic work. In his research and writing, including The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2010), he has scrutinized high incarceration rates and harsh prison sentences, comparing, for example, the national responses to the predominantly black crack epidemic and the predominantly white opioid crisis. Why, he asks, is one group treated with compassion while the other is scorned and criminalized?

After the panel discussion, the front doors of the African Meeting House swung open, and a young man swooped in carrying a bag full of books written by Muhammad’s great-grandfather, Elijah Muhammad, who led the black nationalist Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death, in 1975, and was a mentor to Malcolm X.

“Your [great-]grandfather changed my life,’’ offered the young man, who had driven more than an hour from Worcester to catch the Harvard scholar. Muhammad kindly obliged by signing his great-grandfather’s books—a first. He never knew Elijah Muhammad, but believes the two would have found common ground. “I think he would have been proud of me for being vocal about the condition of black people in America,” he said. “I don’t know what he would have thought of my integrationist politics.”

Muhammad’s parents divorced when he was a toddler. His father was a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times photographer. His mother, who remarried, was a longtime public school teacher and administrator in Chicago, where Muhammad was raised in a middle-class home on the South Side. 

The future professor was a precocious teenager, fascinated with technology and sufficiently organized to work as a bookkeeper and payroll clerk for a local store called Hyde Park Computers, recalls his childhood friend Ben Austen, a Chicago-based writer. “He would write our checks,” Austen said. “We were the same age, but he was my boss. We were 14.” 

The two have been close since the day they met, in the ninth grade at Kenwood Academy on the South Side, where Austen still lives. They bonded in the colorful mosaic of a neighborhood where it was not uncommon to bump into the heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali at the barbershop or the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson at the deli. They grew up after the civil rights movement, encouraged by the promise of integration and eager to explore the possibilities of the full American experience. As teenagers they played tennis, went on double dates, and got their driver’s licenses together. Years later, they would serve in each other’s weddings, share family vacations, and watch with pride as their children blossomed. 

But the road from Chicago led to a harsh education. In 1989, Muhammad set off for the University of Pennsylvania with his eye on a career in corporate America, which at the time he thought a mark of success. The more he looked around, however, the more his priorities shifted. At Penn, Muhammad became acutely conscious of being a young black man in a predominantly white world. “There was sort of an awakening in him,’’ Austen said.

Muhammad found his voice as an undergraduate, protesting racially insensitive op-eds and defying racist claims that black students were not smart enough for the Ivy League school. The police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 set off another awakening. Then came the racial division that ripped the United States apart during and after the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Muhammad, now a married father of three, earned his doctorate from Rutgers University in 2004 and went on to become a history professor at Indiana University. In addition to targeting racial criminalization as a scholar, he soon proved himself to be an institution builder as the director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He became a tenured Harvard professor in 2016 and started at Radcliffe the same year. 

Ellen D. Wu, a friend, former colleague, and author of The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton University Press, 2014), met Muhammad when she gave a presentation as part of a job interview at Indiana University. “At the end of this presentation, Khalil stood up and just was so excited, and he just started engaging with the ideas,” Wu recalled. “It was both a boost of confidence and one of the reasons I felt good about taking the job—just knowing that I would come into the faculty and have good colleagues.”

Students praise Muhammad for his authenticity and mentorship. They don’t often see people of color in his role on campus, says Sophie Dover, a former student of Muhammad’s who is in her second year in the Master in Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School. “I think he’s really out there and pushing the needle on the conversations that need to be had around criminal justice,’’ she said. “In terms of how polarized things are today, I think he certainly is a voice of reason.” She added: “Everyone really loves and respects Professor Muhammad.”

For now, Muhammad has a central focus—to challenge public, private, and nonprofit leaders to practice, rather than merely preach, antiracism strategies. He sees a ray of hope in his Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability Project, whose mission is to fill the vacuum between what institutions say about diversity and inclusion and what they are actually doing. The solution, Muhammad says, doesn’t end with hiring more African Americans and Latinos. Nor can any single affinity group or implicit bias session erase the past and present of racial injustice. It’s hardly enough, he says, to invite more speakers to the next Black History Month event. 

The initiative will use evidence-based tools—such as an independent rating system and proven benchmarks—to identify actions that perpetuate racism and economic inequality. With better practices in place, the Italian luxury brand Prada might have realized that its monkey bag charm and figurines would be grossly offensive to black people. Gucci might have thought twice about the black wool balaclava sweater that many saw as similar to blackface and racially insensitive. And Starbucks would have avoided the Philadelphia incident in which a store manager called the police on two black men for doing nothing more than waiting for a business associate. 

“We want to make it harder for leaders to grab the low-hanging fruit—the affinity groups, the diversity officer, the implicit [bias] training,’’ Muhammad said. “If that’s what they are interested in, they are going to be at odds with the people they claim to serve. These institutions have to change, and change can’t be who is on the roll. They have to change how they function.”

Muhammad hopes to add to the team of five working on the antiracism initiative. At the moment, he is raising funds for the project, with a goal of $4 million. He shrugged off questions about the cost, citing the potential impact: enlightened institutions; hiring systems that don’t devalue people of color; diversity in leadership that is greater than 1 percent.

“We actually can produce leadership from the corporate, public, and nonprofit sectors that helps America be a better place,’’ he said. “Four million dollars—are you kidding me?” 

The work will take time, he knows. “Part of the problem, of course, is that people have their own ideas for change. They like the familiar. They like what they’re already accustomed to. So it’s an uphill battle.” But he’s determined to see it through. “It’s not enough to be there and to be a first and to be proud of that, and everyone can look around: ‘Look what we did, we brought in an African American.’ This is a big deal. It’s just not enough.”

Meghan E. Irons is a staff writer for the Boston Globe.

News & Ideas