The Spirit Of The Law: President Obama And The Remnants Of Jim Crow
Come listen all you galls and boys I’s jest from Tuckyhoe,
I’m going to sing a little song, my name’s Jim Crow,
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about and jump Jim Crow
— Stanza from late 1820s song “Jump Jim Crow”
As this writer has watched some of the interplay between Congressional Republicans (and many of their constituents) and the president, it has the distinctive feel and flavor of a racism that has been stewed and marinated in the juices of Jim Crow culture. And although the actual laws regarding segregation and discrimination have been struck down, the spirit and attitudes that spawned them are still very much with us, impacting our interactions and ethnic perceptions.
Jim Crow law and customs: an introduction
Jim Crow was the name of the racial class system which operated primarily, but not exclusively in southern and Border States, between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-Black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African-Americans were relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-Black racism. Many Christian ministers and theologians taught that Whites were the Chosen people, Blacks were cursed to be servants, and God supported racial segregation.
Craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists and Social Darwinists, at every educational level, strengthened the belief that Blacks were innately intellectually and culturally inferior to Whites. Pro-segregation politicians gave speeches on the great danger of integration: the mongrelization of the White race.
Newspaper and magazine writers routinely referred to Blacks as niggers, coons, darkies and worse — their articles reinforced anti-Black stereotypes. Even children’s games portrayed Blacks as inferior beings. All major societal institutions reflected and supported the oppression of Blacks. So racial second-class citizenship was deemed common knowledge — a social hierarchy that was to be innately understood and adhered to.
This maintenance of this system was also buttressed by violence — the violence of the general White populace and local and state law enforcement as well.
The Jim Crow system was undergirded by the following beliefs or rationalizations: Whites were superior to Blacks in all important ways, including but not limited to, intelligence, morality and civilized behavior; sexual relations between Blacks and Whites would produce a mongrel race which would destroy America; treating Blacks as equals would encourage interracial sexual unions; any activity which suggested social equality encouraged interracial sexual relations; if necessary, violence must be used to keep Blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.
In regard to miscegenation, it cannot be ignored nor can it be underestimated — there are vestiges of this ideology that yet reside in the minds of those on the hard right. This is seen, especially, in light of many of the prejudicial measures they have forwarded and racist rhetoric that they have engaged in. So it would stand to reason that the president, being the offspring of such a relationship, would become a target of some of that animus.
Jim Crow etiquette: the unwritten racial rules
The following Jim Crow etiquette show how inclusive and pervasive these norms were:
— A Black male could not offer his hand (to shake hands) with a White male because it implied being socially equal. Obviously, a Black male could not offer his hand or any other part of his body to a White woman, because he risked being accused of rape.
— Blacks and Whites were not supposed to eat together. If they did eat together, Whites were to be served first, and some sort of partition was to be placed between them.
— Under no circumstance was a Black male to offer to light the cigarette of a White female — that gesture implied intimacy.
— Blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one another in public, especially kissing, because it offended Whites.
— Jim Crow etiquette prescribed that Blacks were introduced to Whites, never Whites to Blacks. For example: “Mr. Smith (the white person), this is Eddie (the Black person), the janitor at Acme High School.”
— Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when referring to Blacks, for example, Mr., Mrs., Miss., Sir or Ma’am. Instead, Blacks were called by their first names. Blacks had to use courtesy titles when referring to Whites and were not allowed to call them by their first names.
Stetson Kennedy, in his work, “Jim Crow Guide,” offered these simple rules that Blacks were supposed to observe in conversing with Whites:
- Never assert or even intimate that a White person is lying.
- Never impute dishonorable intentions to a White person.
- Never suggest that a White person is from an inferior class.
- Never lay claim to, or overly demonstrate, superior knowledge or intelligence.
- Never curse a White person.
- Never laugh derisively at a White person.
- Never comment about the appearance of a White female.
In other words, the laws, practices and mores were designed to keep Blacks (and other people of color as well) in their place. This is clearly seen in a great deal of the Tea Party and right-wing attacks against President Obama. It is rarely focused on actual policy and quite often centered on ad hominem assaults steeped in racialized language.
Jim Crow mentality and the opposition of a Black president
This writer has never been shy in voicing opposition to aspects of the President’s agenda and policies that are detrimental to the nation. Nevertheless, the racist and prejudicial antagonism towards Barack Obama is too blatant to ignore. Stetson’s analysis of Jim Crow etiquette gives us insight into the ethnic dynamics that are taking place in some of the unjust and unfounded critiques of this president.
Never assert or even intimate that a White person is lying: disagreement between political parties is not only a common occurrence it is an absolute certainty. So a certain level of rancor and dissent should be expected, but some on the far right (a very loud faction by the way) has adopted something akin to this Jim Crow belief that it’s not the place of Black person, president or not, to point out the casual relationship with the truth that some of his Republican (and overwhelmingly White) opponents have had. The optics of an African-American man challenging Whites is still, for many, a far too bitter pill to swallow.
Never suggest that a White person is from an inferior class: the very existence of a Black man in the White House is by inference, to some, an assault on right social order — let alone a black man with a “Muslim-sounding” name. There are those who are ill-at-ease with the employer or supervisor of color; with that Black, Hispanic, religiously-different person in authority; it is, to them, an unnatural relationship.
The bottom line to racist and prejudicial paradigms is to keep a certain population, or populations, of people powerless. So when a member of one of the “less-favored” populations becomes, essentially, the most powerful person on the planet, one can see how that can be a tremendous shock to the system.
Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when referring to Blacks, for example, Mr., Mrs., Miss., Sir or Ma’am: from the finger in the face disregard of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, to the “you lie” interjection of U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson, to the derogatory and insolent claims of the birthers, this president has been disrespected in ways that is readily identifiable by those who suffered through Jim Crow-era bigotry and to those who are the targets of modern-day discrimination.
Although many far-right elected officials have been craftier about the xenophobic questioning of Obama’s legitimacy than, let’s say, some of their constituents, they have been more than willing to exploit those leanings to their political advantage. Nevertheless, make no mistake about it, elected official or average citizen, at the heart of these assertions is the drive to deny the rightfully, and resoundingly, elected occupier of the Oval Office, the respect of being called or considered Mr. President.
And the need to bring him down a peg was and is, particularly, personified in the birther claims. Think about the tremendous feeling of renewed superiority one must feel when their protestations forces “the most powerful person on the planet” to produce a birth certificate.
Never lay claim to, or overly demonstrate, superior knowledge or intelligence: the aim of this form of Jim Crow etiquette was and is to maintain the myth of White supremacy; to pacify the fears and to give a false sense of security to an insecure White populace that, no matter their station in life, their ignorance would never descend lower than that of a black person — any Black person.
So even if the Black individual was the dean of a college and that White person never finished sixth grade, it could never be as much as insinuated that the Black dean was more intelligent than the White person who never made it to seventh grade.
Uppity was the designation used most often when describing such a Black person who even appeared to possess superior knowledge or skill to any White person. This term has been used by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) when describing the president and the first lady.
To be sure, there is a great deal of disdain for people with Ivy League educations, Ph.D.s and the like, from certain quarters of our society — no matter the ethnicity of those who have them. Yet, the level of disdain and the racially-coded language used to deride the president (as well as his wife), are clear indications of a whole other agenda — making sure that Obama knows that no matter his title or what position he has ascended to, he will always be less than they. Less American, less legitimate and yes, even less human.
For many Blacks in America, the racist treatment that Obama has received is a signal to them as well. And that signal is this: If they treat the president this way, what hope is there for the average Black citizen?
Martin Luther King said many years ago:
It is true that Old Man Segregation is on his death bed. But history has proven that social systems have a great last-minute breathing power, and the guardians of a status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive.
Many believe that the absence of the laws and signs that pointed out in brutal clarity the false notions and myths regarding the inferiority of Blacks in America, means the absence of the attitudes and spirit that gave birth to them. Nothing could be further from the truth. We still live in a society that requires that the “other” perform some extraordinary act, before they (maybe) give them the grudging respect and consideration of an ordinary citizen or human being.
And when think about it, whether you agree with his policies or not, becoming the president of the United States is pretty extraordinary. And even that couldn’t break the stronghold of the spirit of Jim Crow.
Yes, Jim Crow laws; de jure discrimination, by and large, have passed. Yet, the spirit of the laws still haunts us because although the laws changed, this nation has never had a true change of heart.
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