Saturday, March 11, 2017

What is Race? Part Three: My Mother - On Jim Crow's Children

Jim Crow had many children.



"We're all Jim Crow's children," my mother said to me when I was a little girl. "I mean the black ones, the brown ones, the white ones and all those in between."

"Jim Crow is not my daddy," I said.

"Jim Crow may not be your daddy," she said. "But you're still Jim Crow's child."


Mason-Dixon Line and the perpetuation of slavery in the United States
Mason-Dixon Line

Many people think the only children affected by Jim Crow laws were black children. This is simply a myth. Jim Crow's children include everyone who lived in any part of Jim Crow's world and went through America's public education system--past and present, North and South, urban, suburban and rural. Most people are not aware of the impact of Jim Crow laws on their own lives, and the lives of their ancestors. And some of those ancestors may have been responsible for creating and enacting Jim Crow laws without realizing the lasting effects inside their very own homes for generations to come.


Deep-seated feelings of superiority and inferiority are the reasons we still need to have conversations about race relations in America.



Sophia Gordon Runaway Slave
Sophia Gordon Runaway Slave
Washington, D.C.
"Some people don't know there was also slavery in northern states above the Mason-Dixon Line. Don't know what that line demarcates?" My mother asked.

I shrugged.


"The Mason-Dixon Line is the cultural line separating the North and the South," she said. "It was established by a 1763 and 1767 survey to settle a border dispute between states, and had everything to do with racial classification in the United States and the perpetuation of slavery, the lifeblood of the nation, North and South. Because Washington D.C. is below the Mason-Dixon Line, there was slavery conducted within your nation's capitol.

"What?" I asked, getting interested.

"That's right," she said. "Even though Jim Crow laws have been erased from the books, their influence on all of us is still with us. This includes people who are products of the old segregated system in both the North and the South, many of their children, their children's children and so on and so on." 

"I hate them!" I said.

"Try to understand what the next guy is going through," she said. 

"Why do I care what the next guy is going through?" I asked her.

"Self preservation," she said.

"Self preservation?" I asked.

"If you understand what the next guy is going through," she said. "You may be able to guess his next move. If you can guess his next move, maybe you'll have time to do something."

To define race, cast a wide net. 


Racial classification was so blatant in the United States during the early 20th Century that southern Italians were classified as a different nationality from northern Italians, who thought themselves to be more “white” and more closely related to the French and Germans. This classification seems to have been based on shades of complexion—fair-skinned northern Italians as opposed to dark-skinned southern Italians. 

Home of an Italian Rag Picker via Preus Museum

In some cases of Italian racial classification, there seemed to have been a reliance on shades of complexion—fair-skinned northern Italians as opposed to dark-skinned southern Italians with latter receiving lower wages and harsher treatment economically and legally. Based on these criteria, segregation was imposed, which affected education and social services.

Racial categorizing led to the largest mass lynching of any group in the history of the United States in 1891. Although African Americans were customary targets, Southern Italian immigrants were targeted as well and many scholars believe the color of their skin played a significant part in the outcome of the injustice they sustained. Eleven southern Italian merchants were hanged in New Orleans and their corpses placed on public display. In fact, in the 1890s, 22 Southern Italians were lynched in parishes around Louisiana. 




Gerald R. Gems
Sport and the Shaping
of Italian American Identity
 (Sports and Entertainment)
Southern Italian immigrants were called guineas, one of the most offensive racial slurs be to coined against Italian Americans, referring to the Guinea Coast of Africa as they entered plantation life in Louisiana and other rural agricultural regions. 

Gerald R. Gems said in his book on page 62, Sport and the Shaping of Italian American Identity, "Many Sicilians disembarked at New Orleans, and took up work on the sugar plantations of Louisiana, where hard physical labor became known as nigger work or dago work. At the 1889 state constitutional convention, representatives asserted, "according to the spirit of our meaning when we speak of a white man's government [the Italians] are as black as the blackest Negro in existence."

Italians, like African Americans in Louisiana and other parts of the Deep South, could not hold public office or vote and were restricted to segregated housing, employment and schools. 


A tactic of racial classification was to pit one group against another as a practical power strategy to control human behavior and resources,  and control the region's politics.  On the other hand, however, over time, some members of manipulated white, black and other groups have developed deep psychological mistrust, resentment and feelings of superiority or inferiority toward each other that have lasted throughout history. 

White Sharecroppers
White Sharecroppers

After Emancipation, the elite class, who had everything to lose by the commingling of different races of poor people, encouraged poor whites to think of and treat former slaves as beneath them to make themselves feel closer to the ruling class even though these poor whites did not own land, had no lines of credit, had no employment, were illiterate and could not vote--no better off than sharecropping former slaves, but deceived into thinking they had a God-given right to expect more and to do better than their black counterparts. And when white poor saw black poor doing better than them, it caused hostility, jealously and violent retaliation, as in Ku Klux Klan  rapes, cross burning and lynching, actions they felt justified in taking to protect the competitive edge of their favored group. 

Being classified as better than former slaves and closer to the ruling class was a mere deception. It would take many generations for poor whites to assimilate. Seldom did the wealthy ruling class have more social or marital relationships with poor whites than they did with blacks. Neither group was equal to the wealthy class and would never be. Neither group could, at that time or this, reasonably hope to amass the fortunes that drifted down through the generations, except today through great sports ability, entertainment talent, technology, social media, luck of the lottery, crime or a good education. Then watch what happens as the nouveau riche immediately join the old rich in political maneuvering. Nothing personal, though, because the rich are not required or expected to deal with the poor of any color. It is more of a class issue than a color issue and always has been.

The dominant class considered some immigrants as undesirable for assimilation as African Americans because of immigrants' dark complexion, foreignness of their customs and former cotton-picker status, regardless of the white racial classification these immigrants may have claimed.


They are all children of Jim Crow.



Child Labor Laws and Discrimination
Lewis Hine 1900 Photo
Pennsylvania Child Coal Miners
Further, in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the poor white class would be utilized by the wealthy to control and indoctrinate all other ethnic groups that came to these shores or were brought to this land or were indigenous to it, including reservation-restricted Native Americans and fresh-of-the-plantation former slaves. 

Children of poor white immigrants were enslaved in factories and mines for little more than a meal and a few pennies a day to help take care of desperately impoverished families.

Also included in the farm working class were Eastern European, Asian, Pacific Islander, Mexican and Middle Eastern immigrants, who were denied full citizenship rights before they were assimilated, if they were allowed to assimilate when these families came to America to work on plantations after the Civil War. These immigrants' children were customarily denied schooling and forced to work in unsafe conditions not much better than slaves or former slaves. However, like other white persons, they were indoctrinated by the Jim Crow tradition and some became active in the promotion of the Jim Crow laws separating them from African Americans and other groups that could be readily identified by physical features. 

Chinese Immigrant Farm Laborers
Chinese Immigrant Farm Family

Indentured Chinese were imported to build California railroads and levees. Afterwards, they were burned out or driven away. Mississippi Delta plantation owners imported them to Delta farms to replace slaves after Emancipation. Through labor agents, the same tactic was used to import Italian, Lebanese and Syrian indentured servants to Delta plantations to pick cotton alongside black workers who had stayed on farms after being freed.

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, immigrant families, who were already entangled in tenant farm agreements, were further victimized by a crashed economy. Unable to pay their sharecropping farm store debts, desperate indentured immigrants could not leave the sharecropping plantation system. Many ran away, leaving in the dead of night, and tried to find work in other locations. However, at that time, hungry people filled cities looking for free food, public relief and charity handouts. 

Jobs had become scarce for all workers and especially for immigrants, who were customarily subjected to increased Jim Crow discrimination and bigotry in times of economic distress. So, like former slaves, some unfortunate immigrant farm workers stayed on plantations where they could get a meal, even though, the meal cost them their freedom and held them in virtual slavery by dishonest bookkeeping of plantation owners who operated in the same fashion as before the Civil War. The difference was the workers were not exactly slaves; they were in debt to the farm store, a predicament also shared by a large number of poor white families who owned no land. Assault on the citizenship and political participation of former slaves and others through Jim Crow laws, a legal system designed to maintain separation and justify discrimination against nearly freed and newly freed U.S. citizens, continued until adequate education was provided for former slaves and immigrants.

Jim Crow laws continued into the 1960s in public education, employment, housing, justice, voting and all other aspects of American society. In the past, using skin color, race, ethnicity, gender, culture, language or other physical difference to determine how a person was treated made discrimination rather easy. Although separation, discrimination and treatment can still be seen along the lines of skin color, race, culture, ethnicity or language, these factors are not so easily identified in today's world with bi- and multiracial, biological, step, in-law, and extended families. It is not uncommon to find mix-raced families, exhibiting a variety of physical features and interracial relationships. In fact, not long ago, an elderly white man was stopped and questioned by police when they saw him walking his young black granddaughter home from school.

The United States, no longer comprised of homogeneous groups that keep their distance from each other, is the home of mixed groups of Jim Crow's children struggling to find identity in a nation that still struggles with questions of difference. This is not to say that there were no mixed-race people in the past. There were. The difference today is that the members of these families accept and acknowledge each other in a way they never could in the days of old Jim Crow. In fact, many ethnic people passed as white when their physical features allowed them to do so, hiding their true identities from new families, offspring, friends and the government.

"Who was Jim Crow, anyway?" I asked my mother.

"That's a conversation for another day," she said.


Be sure to read other conversations with my mother:





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Sunny Nash is an author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations. 





Sunny Nash writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking. Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement.

Sunny Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations. Nash's book is also listed in the Bibliographic Guide for black studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism.

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Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America

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