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Shirley Q. Liquor and the Long Beach Ten: For Thos
The same week the threat of a massive protest caused the cancellation of a white (gay) male’s “blackface” routine in West Hollywood, that same protest threat failed to save nine of ten black youth on trial for what was deemed a racial attack in Long Beach. I’ve been preaching for some time that “Colorblindness is the new Jim Crow,” and the clock is being turned back. However, lately, there been such a blatant disregard for African American humanity that people now think they can take unbridled liberties with the race’s imagery and constitutional rights. The lesson in this? When we don’t protect our imagery and our rights, others won’t either. For those who don’t believe “Jim Crow” is back, it’s time to take another look.
This is “deeper than deep” time for Black America. The race is going through a “great divide” as the wealth gap impacting the larger society has one segment of African Americans trying to hold on for dear life to a middle class lifestyle, while the other segment continues to scrape the bottom of the economic well of deeply entrenched poverty. Black America, as cultural trendsetters, gives America it’s fashion and music style—a flavor that everyone wants to emulate—but at the same time, faces such horrendous social circumstances that the rest of society chooses to ignore its plight and in some instances, mock what those circumstances have produced.
That’s actually how Jim Crow started in the 19th Century. A white minstrel, calling himself a “delineator,” saw a crippled black man in tattered clothes—a victim of the antebellum South’s social and economic exclusion of Blacks, enslaved or free. He took the man’s clothes, put on blackface, mocked the man’s gimp and dialect in a minstrel show that night—calling himself “Jim Crow.” The popularity of minstrel shows took off in the mid-1800s as many whites, some who had never seen a real Black, romanticized about “the good ole’ days" in the post Civil War depression (economic and social). Jim Crow soon transitioned from entertainment to social protocol, as racial etiquette required Blacks to subordinate themselves in ways to which Whites had come to know them—as ignorant, buffoonish, docile, smiling, shufflin’ and most of all, subservient to white people. When Blacks didn’t succumb to the expected etiquette, they were framed as hostile or maniacal. Either way, Blacks framed in imagery as uneducated or as hostile, were viewed as unfit to govern themselves and required tight oversight—in essence, a Master over their affairs. Blackface became the mask that Jim Crow wore, as America took extreme liberties with African American imagery, for a century, in their attempt permanently to denigrate the race into an inferior socio-economic position to justify the maintenance of white supremacy. Fast forward to the 21st Century, where you have a modern day southerner (from Lexington, Kentucky) named Charles Knipp, taking stage in blackface as “Shirley Q. Liquor” (shirleyqliquor.com) and performing such routines as, “Who Is My Baby’s Daddy?,” “Brownbakeded Beans,” and even denigrating an African-centered cultural holiday in an act called, “the Twelve Days of Kwanzaa.” Though the latest southern California appearance was canceled, Knipp is booked all over the nation to sold out performances. Ladies and gentlemen, Jim Crow, Jr. is “in the house". And blackface minstrel shows have made it into the “here and now.” Have we really turned back that far? Obviously so.
The case of the “Long Beach 10” was a case that involved ten black youth being charged for what was being called a hate crime assault against two white women. It is a case where for the first time in American history—any where in the nation—young African American girls (it was actually nine girls and one young man) were being tried for a race crime against a white person. The case was highly controversial because all the children were under-aged, and had been accused based on the solely circumstantial evidence that they were present during the assault. Certainly those who commit hate crimes, black or white, should be prosecuted—to the fullest extent of the law. However, the victims in this case only know that they were jumped and their assaulters were black. So were 30 or 40 other youth at the scene during the time of the attack. This is the latest iteration of “the black man did it (only they were women)” and somebody has to pay. As back in the Jim Crow days when a white woman's virtue was allegedly assaulted by a Black—any Black would do in carrying out justice (which was usually the injustice of lynching, or mock trials—if it got to trial).
This case was the most egregious conviction of circumstantial evidence since the Scottsboro Boys in 1931. While the youth are facing the death penalty like the Scottsboro Boys, they are facing the same king of discriminatory justice that only sees the color of their skin and not the reasonable doubt in their purported guilt. The abuse of criminal justice system, as it did during Jim Crow days, worked in collusion with the prosecutorial process, worked to construct a case that exonerated the white girls despite the obvious flaws in their testimony. During Jim Crow, white people were never guilty of anything (even when they were) and black people were guilty of everything (even when they weren’t). It always came down to who’s word was more credible, and as Scottsboro proved, less credible white testimony was given more credence over more credible black testimony that supports reasonable doubt.
As we witnessed during Jim Crow, mob violence can never be attributed to individual culpability. Absence of identity is why so many hate crimes went unprosecuted. And when they were prosecuted, Jim Crow judges and juries made sure justice peeked though her blindfold. While there was no Jim Crow jury in this case, there was a Jim Crow judge, and today, nine black youth stand convicted on circumstantial mob violence charges. The Long Beach Ten case will be (or should be) appealed, but the point is, Jim Crow trials were once thought to be a thing of the past.
As we saw last week, mock trials have made their way into the 21st Century, too. This was a gross miscarriage of justice, and as King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Silence on the Long Beach Ten trial only allows the practice of circumstantial convictions to spread, and Jim Crow will make a comeback—at the expense of “guess who”? Two segments of the black population, the uneducated and those perceived as maniacal, are being managed (mastered) today, and their images in the media (and now on stage and film) are the most grotesque (and perpetuated) in what it means to be Black in America today.
These were two blatant demonstrations that a system of cultural compromise, that we thought was dead, spawned offspring. Jim Crow, Jr., in blackface and a robe, is now grown and perpetuating the legacy of his father. As history tells us, the twisting of culture image and the law is a dangerous combination. The danger is when an entire people are represented as ignorant and hostile, and nobody objects as society accepts these images and acts on them. And for those who thought Jim Crow couldn’t come back? Think again. The proof is in blackface, and in the courts.
BC Columnist Anthony Asadullah Samad is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of 50 Years After Brown: The State of Black Equality In America. His website is AnthonySamad.com. Click here to contact Mr. Samad.
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