Saint Cloud State University Jim Crow Laws Essay

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Humanities

Saint Cloud State University

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The Jim Crow

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of bhobia, the nature m Crow, and THE CRUEL HAND 173 mass incarcere The Minstrel Show sexual orientation ce, criminality decadence, None of the foregoing should be interpreted as an excuse for the violence, or misogyny that pervades what has come to be known as gang- sta culture. The images and messages are extremely damaging. On an aver- one need engage in only a few minutes of channel surfing during eatly exacerbated ed them, but the age night, ig trade is noth nity and does no prime-time hours to stumble across images of gangsta culture on television. The images are so familiar no description is necessary here. Often these im- ages emanate from BET or black-themed reality shows and thus are consid- k men labeled en rounded up red in middle illegal drugs carce—often ely resemble nt. And be of children sult, many 1. They are Any won means of ered "authentic" expressions of black attitudes, culture, and mores. Again, though, it is useful to put the commodification of gangsta culture in proper perspective. The worst of gangsta rap and other forms of blaxploi- tation (such as VHl's Flavor of Love) is best understood as a modern-day minstrel show, only this time televised around the clock for a worldwide au- dience. It is a for-profit display of the worst racial stereotypes and images associated with the era of mass incarceration-an era in which black peo- ple are criminalized and portrayed as out-of-control, shameless, violent, over- sexed, and generally undeserving. Like the minstrel shows of the slavery and Jim Crow eras, today's displays are generally designed for white audiences. The majority of consumers of gangsta rap are white, suburban teenagers. VH1 had its best ratings ever for the first season of Flavor of Love-ratings driven by large white audiences. MTV has expanded its offerings of black-themed reality shows in the hopes of attracting the same crowd. The profits to be made from racial stigma are considerable, and the fact that blacks—as well as whites-treat racial op- pression as a commodity for consumption is not surprising. It is a familiar form of black complicity with racialized systems of control. Many people are unaware that, although minstrel shows were plainly de- signed to pander to white racism and to make whites feel comfortable with-indeed, entertained by-racial oppression, African Americans formed a large part of the black minstrels' audience. In fact, their numbers were so great in some areas that theater owners had to relax rules segregating black y turn to tructure < people port and s do- esper heap e "no ves. Is (a ifies patrons and restricting them to certain areas of the theater. 89 Historians have long debated why blacks would attend minstrel shows em, when the images and content were so blatantly racist. Minstrels projected a [0 greatly romanticized and exaggerated image of black life on plantations with a positive identity 6 174 THE NEW JIM CROW amount to little more has its roots in the st cheerful, simple, grinning slaves always ready to sing, dance, and please laughing at the over-the-top characters from a sense of "in-group recogni- their masters. Some have suggested that perhaps blacks felt in on the joke, tion.”90 ements of African culture that had been suppressed and condemned fors long but were suddenly visible on stage, albeit in racist , exaggerated form Undeniably, though, one major draw for black audiences was 91 It is difficult to look during the Jim Cro simply seeing fellow African Americans on stage. Black minstrels were largely viewed as people actually co mouths with whit OP- pranced on stage 1 were tickled by t) stereotypes thatj ful they can cau minstrel's compl we hate the min unfortunate exp Most people stop short of co seems the like celebrities, earning more money and achieving more fame than African Americans ever had before. 92 Black minstrelsy was the first large-scale portunity for African Americans to enter show business. To some degree , then, black minstrelsy—as degrading as it was—represented success. It seems likely that historians will one day look back on the images of black men in gangsta rap videos with a similar curiosity. Why would these young men, who are targets of a brutal drug war declared against them, put on a show—a spectacle—that romanticizes and glorifies their criminaliza- tion? Why would these young men openly endorse and perpetuate the very stereotypes that are invoked to justify their second-class status, their exclu- sion from mainstream society? The answers, historians may find, are not that different from the answers to the minstrelsy puzzle. It is important to keep in mind, though, that many hip-hop artists today do not embrace and perpetuate the worst racial stereotypes associated with mass incarceration. Artists like Common, for example, articulate a sharp critique of American politics and culture and reject the misogyny and violence preached by gangsta rappers. And while rap is often associated with “gangsta life" in the mainstream press, the origins of rap and hip-hop culture are not rooted in outlaw ideology. When rap was born, the early rap stars were not rapping about gangsta life, but “My Adidas” and good times in the 'hood in tunes like "Rapper's Delight." Rap music changed after the War on Drugs shifted into high gear and thousands of young, black men were sud- denly swept off the streets and into prisons. Violence in urban communities flared in those communities, not simply because of the new drug-crack- but because of the massive crackdown, which radically reshaped the tradi- tional life course for young black men. As a tidal wave of punitiveness, stigma, and despair washed over poor communities of color, those who were demonized—not only in the mainstream press but often in their own communities—did what all stigmatized groups do: they struggled to preserve the minstrel ir he was mirro onto him. He been treated the pain When the guide, it will extraordina the United waged and trapped in up by the stigmatiz discrimir benefits shamer THE CRUEL a positive identity by embracing their stigma. Gangsta rap—while it may amount to little more than a minstrel show when it appears on MTV today- has its roots in the struggle for a positive identity among outcasts. AL 0 The Antidote It is difficult to look at pictures of black people performing in minstrel shows during the Jim Crow era. It is almost beyond belief that at one time black people actually covered their faces with pitch-black paint, covered their mouths with white paint drawn in an exaggerated, clownish smile, and pranced on stage for the entertainment and delight of white audiences, who were tickled by the sight of a black man happily portraying the worst racial stereotypes that justified slavery and later Jim Crow. The images are so pain- ful they can cause a downright visceral reaction. The damage done by the minstrel's complicity in the Jim Crow regime was considerable. Even so, do we hate the minstrel? Do we despise him? Or do we understand him as an unfortunate expression of the times? Most people of any race would probably condemn the minstrel show but stop short of condemning the minstrel as a man. Pity, more than contempt, seems the likely response. Why? With the benefit of hindsight, we can see the minstrel in his social context. By shuckin' and jivin' for white audiences, he was mirroring to white audiences the shame and contempt projected onto him. He might have made a decent living that way—may even have been treated as a celebrity-but from a distance, we can see the emptiness, the pain. When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color-people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt-these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families. They 176 THE NEW JIM CROW gotta hate the crime it is a prescription 4 care, compassion, a Movement-rather exist today. were chastised for succumbing to depression and anger, and based landing back in prison. Historians will likely wonder how we could describe imagine a system better designed to create-rather than prevent-crime. the new caste system as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to None of this is to suggest that those who break the law bear no responsi- bility for their conduct or exist merely as "products of their environment" To deny the individual agency of those caught up in the system—their capacity to overcome seemingly impossible odds--would be to deny an essential el ement of their humanity. We, as human beings, are not simply organisms or animals responding to stimuli. We have a higher self, a capacity for transcendence. Yet our ability to exercise free will and transcend the most extraordinary obstacles does not make the conditions of our life irrelevant. Most of us struggle and often fail to meet the biggest challenges of our lives. Even the smaller challenges-breaking a bad habit or sticking to a diet-often prove too difficult, even for those of us who are relatively privileged and comfort- able in our daily lives. In fact, what is most remarkable about the hundreds of thousands of people who return from prison to their communities each year is not how many fail, but how many somehow manage to survive and stay out of prison against all the odds. Considering the design of this new system of control, it is astonishing that so many people labeled criminals still manage to care for and feed their children, hold together marriages, obtain employment, and start businesses. Perhaps most heroic are those who, upon release, launch social justice organizations that challenge the discrimination ex- offenders face and provide desperately needed support for those newly released from prison. These heroes go largely unnoticed by politicians who prefer to blame those who fail, rather than praise with admiration and awe all those who somehow manage, despite seemingly insurmountable hurdles, to survive. an already As a society, our decision to heap shame and contempt upon those who struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and locked out says far more about ourselves than it does about them. There is another path. Rather than shaming and condemning deeply stigmatized group, we, collectively , can embrace them-not neces- sarily their behavior, but them their humanness. As the saying goes, “You and THE CRUEL HAND 177 list gotta a care, compassion, and concern across racial lines during the Civil Rights it is a prescription for liberation. If we had actually learned to show love, Movement-rather than go colorblind-mass incarceration would not exist today aply 2 extraor Nos es bei often ada CODE JUSTE Snar of f More sabar M udom under
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The Jim Crow
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Submission date: 25-Mar-2020 11:42AM (UTC-0500)
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The Jim Crow
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