Day 3 of White History Month: Criminalizing Blackness, Part 2 - Jim Crow Etiquette
Images: Jim Crow Museum [x], Smithsonian Institute [x], New York Daily News [x]
The legal aspects of Jim Crow are important to recognize, but Jim Crow was not just a set of laws, but as described by Leophus Taharka King, a “set of ideas, social norms, life ways, mythoforms, role-play symbols, sanctions, and devastations created after the Civil War by white politicians intent on maintaining a system of oppressive control over African American life and economics”.
Often the legal aspects of Jim Crow are the most recognized, leading to other institutions being ignored. The racial etiquette of Jim Crow worked alongside the laws. Jim Crow etiquette was a system of pervasive anti-Black norms that regulated daily life, particularly in the South. These laws were intended to subjugate Black Americans or “keep them in their place”.
Examples of Jim Crow etiquette:
- White Americans referring to Black Americans by their first names or with infantilizing terms such as “boy” or “girl” - all while Black Americans had to address white Americans with the utmost respect, using honorifics
- Black Americans were not to display their intelligence or knowledge in a way that could threaten white Americans
- Black Americans could not suggest that white Americans were lying or even that their intentions were bad
- During World War II, until Eleanor Roosevelt intervened, Black nurses were only allowed to tend to German prisoners of war – not white American soldiers. This occurred even with a severe shortage of nurses.
- Black and White Americans were separated in hospitals and only private ambulances would pick up Black patients.
- Black women received no assistance with luggage or bags on trains or buses.
- When not excluded by law, Black Americans were often were often still restricted from attending movies, the theatre, and other forms of entertainment. If allowed, they generally had to use back entrances and sit upstairs in sections referred to as “nigger heaven” or “buzzard roost.”
- Black Americans were not allowed to try on clothes, as businesses feared that white Americans would never buy them if they did.
The consequences for violating these norms were dire. Black Americans had virtually no legal protection in a system entirely controlled by white Americans. Lynching was used as a tool of intimidation and a way to control and limit the lives of Black Americans. It often took place precisely because Black Americans refused to accept the racist status quo. A number of Black women, often those who resisted white male sexual violence, were raped, tortured, and killed. Thriving Black communities (such as Rosewood) faced violence and destruction. Successful Black women and men were tortured and lynched.
The period of Jim Crow is popularly held to have ended 1950s and 1960s, but many of the norms and ideas about how Black people should behave did not end.
Jim Crow Etiquette Today
Like the racial disparities of Black codes and Jim Crow laws, remnants of the Jim Crow etiquette are still in place.
Black Americans are still often kept out of white spaces. Even middle class Black Americans are frequently followed in stores and excluded from white spaces (see: Sikes and Feagin’s Living with Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience). Recent cases can be seen even at high-end chains; an example of this is Barneys racially profiling customers. De facto residential segregation and housing discrimination still continue today.
George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin because of his own racially-based, anti-Black fears. Nothing about Trayvon Martin was threatening, but the fact that a Black boy would be walking around a largely white, gated community after dark was justification enough for Zimmerman to stalk, confront, and murder him.
Driving While Black
In many cases, Black drivers are stopped for no reason other than their race. When stopped, Black drivers (and often, Latin@ drivers) are more likely to be searched than white Americans. Black and Latino men are more likely to have force used against them.
This is particularly true in cities that are more segregated and that have smaller Black populations.
[See: “Contacts between Police and the Public: Findings from the 2002 National Survey” [x]
"Vehicle Cues and Racial Profiling: Police Officers’ Perceptions of Vehicles and Drivers" [x] ]
Analyzing 130 police-brutality accounts in several cities across the nation, Kim Lersch discovered that the targets of this type of police malpractice are almost always black or Latino. The latter made up 97 percent of the victims of police brutality.Yet the overwhelming majority (93 percent) of officers involved in these incidents were white. Police brutality mainly involves white-on-black or white-on-Latino violence. Moreover, it appears that white elites in many cities sometimes use or allow police harassment in order to keep black residents “in their place.” Some police harassment and brutality targeting Americans of color seem to be linked to maintaining de facto housing segregation. Since the days of slavery, being “out of place” has been potentially dangerous for black Americans, especially black men. If black men are found in historically white residential areas, they still run the risk of harassment by the public or private police forces there. - Joe Feagin, Racist America