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When discussing Jim Crow and the change it has undergone since first appearing in America, it is important to define the meaning of Jim Crow and what its purpose was when it began. Jim Crow is best defined as a set of laws that appeared post-Reconstruction and lasted until 1965, affecting those states of the south predominantly by de jure (law) and de facto (cultural customs) in the north. Following the Black Codes, in effect from 1860-1866, Jim Crow limited and restricted the civil liberties and rights of African Americans in the United States with no hopes of equality. Jim Crow was prime in highlighting the inferiority of blacks and separating them from whites in any social, political, and economic way possible through segregation. As the Civil Rights movement thrived and eventually paved a new way for Blacks in America, Jim Crow in the segregating and racial aspect died out but became a new face in America as society modernized and developed. In today’s world, that new face of Jim Crow is best used to describe the inferiority of Blacks once again but with focus on the drug war. Those in relation with the drug war are labeled as felons and hold many myths of the “standard” drug dealer and/or kingpin that will resonate an ugly and unequal image to the rest of society, further labeling them as inferior. With Jim Crow as a general theme, it would be fair to say that no matter the issue, the Black man in America has always been labeled as the scapegoat and enemy of war. While looking at the old Jim Crow and the new Jim Crow, there are parallels and differences that can be identified and further broken down for analysis and labeling. The parallels that I found through the lecture and readings include the question of “what is real crime?” between the eras and the stereotypes faced by men of the times.
With asking the question, “what is real crime”, I can immediately link together the incidents of innocent lynching in the South during the early 20th century and the harassment of Black men facing misdemeanor crimes such as Driving While Black (DWB), in today’s society. With the outcomes of both, there is an obvious inferiority of the man from society but it cannot be easily determined why these petty offenses are labeled as crime and they face punishment leading to their demise and negative outlook. When it came to lynching during the 20th century, this was commonly a punishment for said petty crimes known as pig crimes in the south (Mississippi). With lynching, there was dignity stripped of the black man because of all the social indignities that occurred in correlation with the event itself. A prime example of the inferiority the black man faced can be found in the lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916. The social events and cues that came from the whites were those of moral disgust that no man should ever go through, including postcard photographs, “picnic” like socializing, and a general feeling of content from those who were witnessing. To parallel this to modern society, we can look at the black man who spends his life innocently but is automatically profiled, ridiculed, and forever labeled as an enemy. Trayvon Martin was a young black man who was “lynched” by society and the fear he gave George Zimmerman simply from being black. There was no evident and/or obvious threat but because he was a lone black man, he was doing all wrong in the eyes of the majority who would forever be labeled superior. In both of these situations, any many others where race is an obvious factor, the black man is held to the stereotypes that prospered in white America: the Sambo, the coon, and the picaninny (Ethnic Notions). These stereotypes showed the growing laziness, the ability to not care and the unintelligible façade of the black man simply through image and speech. With early establishment and heavy use, none of these stereotypes every truly deteriorated but slipped into the unconscious mind of society and are quickly brought back into play when an incident occurs to an innocent black body.
Along with the inferiority label that the black man was labeled with in society, he was also under the darkness of disenfranchisement, especially if a previous crime/felony record was in place. The disenfranchisement of the black man in the Reconstruction era and the black man during the 21st century is quite parallel, and almost skewed with more men being disenfranchised in 2004 than in 1870 following the ratification of the 15th amendment. This statistic was determined on the basis that there are more men in correctional facilities or in our judicial system losing their privileges as Americans than enslaved men in 1870. Why deprive our men of rights they once held once they have done their repentance and again become free? With the rights to voting, education, economic prosperity, and general equality being stripped away, a second-class system once again appears and the black body becomes the enemy of war in society. Once labeled as a felon, the label is forever granted and all discriminations become “legal”, parallel to the label of a black man living in Alabama during the height of Jim Crow. The stereotyping and Jim Crow still occur and will always occur, with modernization of the times, because to society, it is much easier to rationalize because of what we are fed and see in the universe.
The differences that we see between the two eras of Jim Crow include the mass incarceration of the black body and the drug war that is threatening the black man itself. The mass incarceration of the black body has taken a huge toll over the holding of black men in society today and the comparison between this holding and slavery is far from parallel. “There are approximately 2 million inmates in state, federal and private prisons throughout the country. According to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens” (Palaez). With a statistic as significant as this one, the mass incarceration exists on the basis of the drug war that is occurring in America. As the drug war was first declared in 1982 by President Reagan, prison expansion was at an all time high and the federal government took lead in what should have been the job of local law enforcement and forcing politics to drive the rise in drug prosecutions (Jones/Mauer 41). With the war on drugs already at a high by the mid-1980s, crack became the frenzy and the media was able to run with it, fueling information that could not later be proven for statistics and truth of its incarcerating effects and death tolls. As the government was still in control over federal drug agencies and the ongoing debate of a drug-free America continued, the mass incarceration was still allowing black men to be locked out of free society and the hanging inferiority “turned back the clock of race and discrimination in the US” (Alexander).
After taking in all accounts and incident of Jim Crow over the black men, I am able to pull the theme and generalization that the construct of Jim Crow may be summed up as a race to incarcerate. Since the beginning of time in America for Africans and African-Americans, our men have been held through bondage and hard-labor systems for the work and will of the white man, having no true meaning of emancipation and the ability to not be labeled. Although Jim Crow died out before the 21st century, the basis and its principles of separating the society in color form still exist and are more susceptible to adapt to the social taboos and events of the time, holding onto the values of inferiority and superiority between blacks and whites. With the parallels and differences highlighted, it is also easier to form the concept of “branding” and how the next generation might be affected by the crime rates of previous generations for its own incarceration cycle. From slavery to Jim Crow to the rhetorical wars we fight in society today, black men will always be a felon and hold the label of superior. If ever there was a chance to break the myth and mold, it must be done through the most extreme or traumatic of events for all of society to witness and let resonate through time, breaking the colorblind and cookie cutter image of the black man.
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