The socio-historical paradigm of race manifests the centuries of people’s struggle and fight for fundamental rights and freedoms. As far the African American history is concerned, the historical timeline is replete with oppression, slavery, dehumanization, and social justice breakthroughs such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. While the latter secured the ethnic and racial minorities’ rights to employment and access to public accommodations regardless of ethnic heritage and skin color, the latter secured the minorities’ right to vote without discriminatory policies such as literacy tests (Civil Rights Act, 1964; Voting Rights Act, 1965). However, prior to the social justice activists’ success, the history of racial minorities in the United States witnessed an exhaustive list of highly discriminatory precedents, with Jim Crow segregation laws constituting the most damage to the African American history in the 20th century. Thus, considering the segregation provisions, it becomes evident that the fact of segregation abolition does not eliminate its presence per se, manifesting Jim Crow discriminatory implications through the lens of mass incarceration and crime-free ordinances.
Jim Crow Laws
Prior to the proper investigation of segregation laws in terms of their impact on modern social patterns, it is critical to define the primary provisions and scopes of the so-called “Jim Crow” laws. First, there is a need to explain the emergence of such a term in the historical paradigm. Thus, Jim Crow is an allusion to a stage persona created by a New York showman Thomas Rice who used a black-faced minstrel image called Jim Crow (Laughlin-Stonham, 2020). Consequently, the hyperbolized image of a black man popular with the white audiences became a symbol of legal provisions aimed at creating an illusion of promoting equality in an exclusive and inherently racist society.
These provisions included the laws passed after the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution (1865), granting the abolition of slavery and ensuring freedom for all residents regardless of ethnic and racial affiliation (US Const. amend. XIII, 1865). However, despite the revolutionary implication for the termination of slavery per se, the Amendment itself, stating that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,’ was rather ambiguous in terms of its interpretation and enforcement (US Const. amend. XIII, 1865, para. 1). As a result, state and federal legislators found a way to follow the racial equality guidelines without ensuring equality in terms of racial treatment. Such a perception of the 13th Amendment eventually resulted in racial segregation, promoting the distinct division between the services provided for white and black residents.
In the beginning, such considerations existed de facto without explicit legal support. For example, the 1890 Separate Car Act of Louisiana required railway stations to have separate train cars for black passengers that were not different in terms of quality (Laughlin-Stonham, 2020). Another example of such provisions included laws passed in Tennessee since 1865, promoting the segregation of public accommodations between white and black residents, with the latter receiving instructions to be followed in order to enter a certain public establishment (Laughlin-Stonham, 2020). The turning point of this tendency is usually marked with the legal case of Plessy v. Fergusson (1896), also known as the “separate but equal” legal doctrine that allowed for racial segregation laws as long as the facilities were equal in quality.
Such explicit racial discrimination lasted for another sixty years before the social justice activists managed to ensure the ratification of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965). However, with the end of the segregation era, the African American community witnessed an entirely new manifestation of oppression and racial biases. The post-war period in the United States was characterized by a rapid increase in the crime rates caused by global havoc and financial instability (Alexander, 2020). However, the primary association with such a tendency concerned the civil rights movement and African American communities. Considering the fact that the American law enforcement system at the time had already been known for incarcerating African Americans for minor misconducts in order to use their labor for economic purposes without violating the 13th Amendment, the rapid increase in crime rates contributed to an unprecedented growth in the number of African Americans’ incarcerations (Alexander, 2020). Hence, the beginning of mass incarceration has marked the initiation of implicit racial segregation known today.
Modern Context: Crime-Free Ordinances and Mass Incarceration
The presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan are notorious for their initiation and active promotion of what is now known as the “war on drugs.” However, while seemingly related to drug policies, this political agenda is implicitly focused on the criminalization of African Americans as people associated with heroin and crack cocaine dealing and use (Alexander, 2020). The emergence of the crack cocaine crisis has eventually become synonymous with the African American community, as the low socio-economic status of African Americans on account of racial inequality made crack cocaine one of the few available drugs for the community. As a result, the radical drug abuse policies introduced by Reagan presumed harsher criminal responsibility for a smaller quantity of crack cocaine in possession compared to powder cocaine and other drugs (Alexander, 2020). However, apart from discriminating criminalization of African Americans, the social aspect of US history has also faced a severe process of ex-convicts’ marginalization in society.
Naturally, the primary victims of such stigmatization appeared to be African Americans who were punished and incarcerated for the slightest misconduct. Bill Clinton became one of the most prominent contributors to the intensification of the national criminal legislation. First, Clinton introduced a “three strikes and you are out” policy, which secured at least a twenty-five-year sentence for “recidivists convicted of a third felony, no matter how minor” (Alexander, 2020, p. 89). Moreover, it was under Clinton’s management when the Federal Crime Bill was passed, securing an unprecedented increase in the federal funding of the penitentiary system and law enforcement in general (Alexander, 2020). Although the amends for such a policy were made by both Hillary and Bill Clinton over the past decade, the repercussions of these policies are irreversible, as they caused thousands of African Americans to spend the majority of their lives behind bars due to being convicted several times for misdemeanors.
In the modern context, conviction makes a US resident a social pariah with limited to no options of employment, social security, and accommodation. In a study by Archer (2019), the author emphasizes the fact that while segregation continues to take place in the US, it is not an unfortunate coincidence that encourages African Americans to attend different educational establishments and live in separate neighborhoods. In fact, it is the government that continues to empower racial segregation with new laws, just like Jim Crow laws did back in the 19th – 20th centuries. Free-crime housing ordinance, according to Archer (2019), “is one of the most salient examples of the role law plays in producing and sustaining racial segregation today” (p. 173). This policy stands for encouraging landlords to evict tenants who appear to be ex-convicts with no account for the degree of felony and the time passed since one’s incarceration.
While applicable to everyone, it becomes clear from the content of this paper that the population affected by such a policy is predominantly African American. Moreover, as Archer (2019) notes, while there is no direct correlation between the free-crime ordinance and decrease in crime rates, there is indeed evidence on how such a provision contributes to racial segregation. Hence, it may be concluded that the historical past of racial segregation in the United States should not be labeled as “past” proper, as there is no indication that the current policies are not Jim Crow laws in disguise.
The phenomenon of racial segregation has always been associated with discrimination, racism, and limited opportunities for social security. However, while the notion of segregation is not currently used to describe socio-cultural patterns within the US, the associations remain nothing but relevant to modern society. While African American community has achieved a lot in terms of social justice since the Jim Crow laws introduction, implicit racial segregation continues to poison today’s environment in the form of ex-convicts’ stigmatization and mass incarceration of African Americans. Hence, as far as racial segregation is concerned, the common opinion that history is cyclical is not quite applicable, as this phenomenon has never ceased to exist.
Alexander, M. (2020). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration and the age of colorblindness (tenth-anniversary ed.). New Press.
Archer, D. N. (2019). The housing segregation: The Jim Crow effects of crime-free housing ordinances. Michigan Law Review, 118, 173-232.
Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub.L. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241 (1964).
Laughlin-Stonham, H. M. (2020). From slavery to civil rights: On the streetcars of New Orleans 1830s – present. Oxford University Press.
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 US 537 (1896).
US Const. amend. XIII. (1865).
Voting Rights Act of 1965. Pub. L. 89-110; 79 Stat. 437 (1965).