On NPR, Harvard Professor Touts 'White Fear Being Weaponized' Under Trump

May 29th, 2018 3:16 PM

Havard Professor Khalil Muhammad claimed on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday that President Donald Trump is a "really big part of the problem" for a spate of recent incidents where "white people [call] the police on people of color for insignificant reasons," as host Lulu Garcia-Navarro put it.

Muhammad summaried the issue as "a problem of white fear being weaponized; and...a problem of police officers being a little too prickly when people are upset about having been judged harshly or inappropriately."

Garcia-Navarro wondered if "the base of this...is a sort of cultural conversation that says black people in white spaces means there's something criminal going on."

The NPR journalist used the Tuesday afternoon closure of all Starbucks Coffee locations in the U.S. as a jumping-off point for the segment with the Harvard academic. She outlined that the beverage chain will "hold implicit bias training for more than 100,000 employees, in response to the arrest of two black men at a store in Philadelphia. Since that arrest in April, more and more of these instances have been documented — instances with mostly white people calling the police on people of color for insignificant reasons."

Garcia-Navarro prompted Professor Muhammad to explain "why he thinks these instances are getting more publicity." The guest replied by pointing the finger at President Trump:


PROFESSOR KHALIL MUHAMMAD, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: I think they're getting more attention because the stakes seem to be much higher in our very highly-charged, partisan moment. Our current president ran as a law-and-order candidate, in a country with a long history where the notion of using the police as the foot soldiers of controlling African-Americans — limiting their freedom, deciding that they are indeed second-class citizens, and enforcing those laws when they were legal in this country — is a really big part of the problem. And to evoke that mantra — to run on that mantra; to elicit the support of the entire community of professional police agencies — means that we've now got citizens who are playing out this policy choice — this set of politics. And that's a big, big deal.

The radio host followed up by asking, "How does that work practically speaking? I mean, how does that play into this public debate and public conversation that we're having?" Muhammad contended that "citizens feel that it's okay to be afraid of potential black criminals or brown ones or Native American ones — they are not feeling like they're going to be censured for that....On the other side of the ledger, people who were fighting against this kind of ethos in our country — this very punitive, racialized ethos — want to resist this now."

The Harvard professor then admitted that "we really just can't know for sure how much greater the problem is....What has definitely increased is the amount of video evidence; the amount of copy — meaning what journalists are writing around these issues; and even the organizing around trying to do something about it."

Garcia-Navarro ended the interview with her slanted question about "black people in white spaces means there's something criminal going on." The guest replied with a racially-tinged summary of American history:

MUHAMMAD: Absolutely. What you're describing there is the longest story of America — which is a story that essentially said that this is a white European's country, and everyone else has to play by our rules — including when your presence is defined on very limited terms. And when you step out of that — which was the story that we know so well in the Jim Crow period — then you're subject to all sorts of sanctions, including death by a lynch mob. And so what I'm trying to suggest here is that we've got to come up with some policies that raise the costs of bad behavior — of treating people differently than you would want to be treated. And that is a problem of white fear being weaponized; and that is a problem of police officers being a little too prickly when people are upset about having been judged harshly or inappropriately.

The full transcript of Lulu Garcia-Navarro's interview of Professor Khalil Muhammad, which aired on the May 27, 2018 edition of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, is available here.