If you have seen the Oscar-nominated film Green Book you got a sense of what the Jim Crow South was like before the Voting Rights and Civil Rights bills were passed later in the decade of the 1960s. Victor Hugo Green’s “Guide for the Negro Motorist,” first published in 1936, was designed to aid the Black traveler in finding eating and sleeping accommodations in the rigidly segregated South. The film, and the mere existence of the book, put in high relief how extreme American apartheid was. Here are several facts that explain the era. The first is from C. Vann Woodward, explaining how attitudes and policies shifted in the late 1880’s/early 1890s. As a result of an extended agrarian economic depression and a disillusionment with the Conservative Democratic Party:
There had to be a scapegoat. And all along the line signals were going
up to indicate that the Negro was an approved object of aggression.
These “permissions to hate” came from sources that had formerly denied
such permission. They came from the federal courts in numerous opinions,
from Northern liberals eager to conciliate the South, from Southern
conservatives who had abandoned their race policy of moderation in
their struggle against the Populists, from the Populists in their mood of
disillusionment with their former Negro allies, and from a national temper
suddenly expressed by imperialistic adventures and aggressions against
colored peoples in distant lands. (The Strange Career of Jim Crow, p. 82)
The Federal Courts --- and most specifically the Supreme Court--- had approved and institutionalized rigid Southern segregation starting as early as 1873 (The Slaughterhouse Cases) and reaching its apex in 1896 with the Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”) case. The emergence of the South’s Federal political power began to dictate how African-Americans would not only be perceived but also how they would be treated, North and South. As Lewis Menand notes in his excellent New Yorker article “In the Eye of the Law:” (February 4, 2019)
From the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction, to the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, American race
Relations were largely shaped by the states that had seceded from the
Union in 1861, and the elected leaders of those states almost all spoke
the language of white supremacy. They did not use Dog Whistles. “White
Supremacy” was the motto of the Alabama Democratic Party until 1966.
Mississippi did not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed
Slavery, until 1995.
As the United States approached the 20th century, the die had been cast and the creation of a two-tiered caste system became the law of the land, not just a cultural custom. This shift was accompanied by a serious uptick in violent terrorism against Blacks. As Menand notes: “between seventy-eight and a hundred and sixty-one black men were lynched every year between 1890 and 1899.” This kind of terrorism is at the heart of a 2018 Mississippi Senate candidate claiming, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row.” The idea of lynching as a White public celebration/spectacle is not far from our collective historic memory. It was during this time of public (and widescale “private”) lynching that many of the Confederate statues that are now “venerated” across the South were erected. Vivid, physical reminders of White Supremacy, these representations of the “Lost Cause” emphasized that White Southerners would “never forget” not only the “War of Northern Aggression” but, most significantly, who caused it.
As Menand further notes, referencing Woodward’s work, “segregation began in the North, where it was the product not of the practice of slavery but of Negrophobia.” The North is in no position to point fingers when it comes to white supremacist racism. Menand, again: “After 1900 the South had Jim Crow, a legal regime of separatism, but the rest of the country had ghettos, redlining, gerrymandering, quota and exclusion systems, and the artifice of the local school district. De-facto discrimination --- we now call it ‘institutional racism’ or ‘structuralism racism’ --- is much harder to address.” This history of separation and segregation goes hand-in-hand with white supremacy and racism, of course, and we are only now beginning to face it in our media and public discourse.
The recent spate of “revelations” regarding office holders appearing in blackface may seem “shocking” to some but is it really surprising? It is difficult for White people to honestly face up to the sins of our history. It was not until ubiquitous cell phone cameras began to reveal just how Blacks are treated by police that some (and by no means all) White people began to realize their common (historic?) reaction of “Oh, come on, now, it can’t be that bad,” or “Well, it may be tough but I’m sure they’re exaggerating” shifted. That we are hearing, in today’s Blackface discussion, that “in the South 30 years ago” the practice was still part of a “harmless” fraternity-like culture reveals a great deal about how resistant White people are to not understanding what it’s like to live in America if your skin isn’t White. We all know the stories about doctors who are mistaken for custodians, and professors who are arrested trying to enter their own home --- let’s stop kidding ourselves.
This is not a matter of feeling “guilty” or getting defensive. It’s time for White people to learn to listen empathetically and seriously, as you would to a dear friend. There is a deep need to work at understanding the rifts, chasms, spaces between the races if there is to be any hope of healing this nation of its oldest and deepest wound. As with any disease or addiction our first step needs to be honestly admitting there is a problem in hope of finding some kind of cure or solution.