Reports that Wisconsin has the country's highest rate of incarcerating black men have sparked outrage and concern - including worries over how those statistics might be used to portray the state's black men. But it turns out these concerns are almost as old as the state itself.
And that's for good reason, says writer Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. He's the author of a book on some of the first data ever collected about African-Americans and crime. He says this earliest of data - and its manipulation - still shapes how society views blacks even today.
In The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, Muhammad explains that the United States' 1870 census was the first to include some four million former slaves and document their health and welfare statuses. Previous censuses had merely recorded the numbers of enslaved people.
"It's also a generational moment; this census records the first African-Americans not born into slavery," he says. "You could actually see how are black people doing without having been touched by, for people who defended slavery, the 'beneficent hand' of slavery."
But without the institution of slavery, Muhammad says, "there's need to justify discrimination...to keep black people in a particular location in society, to expand the criminal justice system to simply coerce the actual practice and meaning of freedom in America."
An opportunity was found in that early census data for those who wanted to circulate the idea, rooted in racism, of black people as inferior and create an "early legalization of Jim Crow."
The solution: link black people with high crime rates.
"One might think looking back on this period that the criminalization of African-Americans was always there and a deliberate project, when in fact...part of slavery was predicated on this notion that black people were 'a child race,' that they were not sophisticated enough to commit some of the high crimes of the white race," Muhammad says.
At the same time freed blacks were settling in the North, European immigrants were coming in great numbers to U.S. cities to fill labor shortages stemming from the Industrial Revolution. With unstable work and a lack of living wages, crime and violence soared in these urban areas.
But black and white criminality were treated differently. Crime committed by working-class whites and immigrants, "the great army of unfortunates," was considered by reformers to be "symptomatic of class inequality," Muhammad says.
"But black people live in those cities, too," he says. "So in the same space - in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia - black people's criminality is fueling a discourse of pathology of racializing African-Americans as different and deficient, while at the same time the high rates of criminality and poverty among whites is fueling a class narrative that ultimately is about transforming society."
Muhammad puts much of the blame for such theories on one man: Frederick Hoffman. A German immigrant to the U.S. in 1884 with few credentials, Hoffman became an actuarial for Prudential Life Insurance in New Jersey. He began making observations after stumbling on 1890s census data indicating blacks accounted for 30 percent of the nation's prisoners, but only 12 percent of the population.
Rather than attributing this to convict-leasing, the criminalization of Southern blacks or even former slaves not knowing the laws, Hoffman instead interpreted the numbers as "unimpeachable evidence that black people actually are predisposed to crime if left to their own devices," Muhammad says.
Because Hoffman was an immigrant himself, he was seen as removed from the American experience of slavery and the U.S. Civil War, with no blatant racial bias. Rather, given his arguments were based on numbers, they were seen by the white public as "elegant" and "colorblind," Muhammad says.
"He also did it from the perspective of the North, which is a big deal. He says, 'Listen, people in the North fought for black freedom and if it turns out there are higher rates of criminality in Newark or Chicago in the early 20th century, then it must be something wrong with black people and not whites,'" Muhammad says.
With the fields of sociology and criminology barely established, Hoffman's theories become "the baseline for other scholars to look at," and Hoffman becomes "the foremost authority on the question black criminality...the dean of American homicide statistics."
The narrative of the criminality of blacks got new ammunition with the uniform crime statistics in the 1930s. Whereas previously foreign-born groups were separated out, these new data sets lumped European immigrants in with whites. No longer were blacks compared against separate categories for Italian-Americans, German-Americans or Irish-Americans, but rather against "whites" in general.
"So essentially 'black' became the uniform category for measuring deviance against a white norm, a uniform norm of whites of propriety, of law abidingness," Muhammad says. "But with a population as small as African-Americans, you can have huge statistical disproportions."
Muhammad argues that much of today's modern thinking about black people and criminality links back to these early moments in history. But he says in all these years, we've made little progress in correcting these ideas.
"Most people today articulate notions of black people's criminality based on statistics, so the disproportionate evidence of black people committing crimes - whether it's inner city violence, whether it's drugs, or even in school suspensions, the facts are tied to the statistics," he says, "which is to say, we're no different than Frederick Hoffman in saying, 'Because of the statistical evidence that we see of disproportionate offending, black people have a crime problem.'"
In thinking that way, we can ignore the roles racism, economic insecurity and inequality play in crime rates, Muhammad says.
"That's not going to change the economic security that transformed the situation for working class for whites and Europeans," he says.