Black Faces

April 30, 2015

By: Anthony James

The characters of blackface have played a significant role in disseminating racist images, feelings, and perceptions worldwide. Desensitizing Americans to horrors of chattel slavery, these performances were lessons about the innocuousness of southern slavery. For more than one hundred years, the credence that blacks are an inferior species is fostered by multitudes of white performers in blackface.

In the United States’ early years, exaggerated red lips were painted around the mouths of white performers, like those of today’s circus clowns. In later years, their lips were usually painted white or unpainted. Costumes were usually gaudy combinations of formal wear; swallowtail coats, striped trousers, and top hats. Minstrel shows became hugely popular in the 1840s, exposing white audiences in the North to their first introduction to any depiction of black life. Minstrel show entertainment included imitating black music and dance and speaking in a “plantation” dialect. They would often feature a broad cast of characters: from Zip Coon, the educated free black man who pronounced everything incorrectly, to Mammy, a fat, black faithful slave who was really just obviously played by a man in a dress. Black children were depicted as unkempt and ill-raised pickaninnies. The joke about pickaninnies was that they were disposable; they were easily killed because of their stupidity and the lack of parental supervision. From 1840 to 1890, minstrel shows were unarguably the most popular form of entertainment in America, and it is possible that a resurgence of that old song and dance has once again become trendy.

The stigma left behind once the shows were no longer popular continued full steam ahead like a freight train filled with passionate disparagement of the Black people. Many white Americans during the time of the minstrels’ rise were already thinking in this regard, so to see it on stage for the purpose of entertainment gave the stereotypes life. Today, however, even with major steps in a more positive representation, the Black image remains stereotyped as if it were passed down hereditarily.

University of Florida students at a "Black Face party." Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

University of Florida students at a “Black Face party.” Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

From the University Of Florida to the University of California, Irvine to Arizona State University, blackface videos, images, and parties continue to pop up at predominantly white colleges across the United States. The people who attend these functions “dress like Black people,” wearing baggy jeans, gold chains and grills, bandanas, basketball jerseys, and more importantly is the blackface that puts the entire outfit together. Lets talk specifics, on Oct. 24, 2012 two members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at the University of Florida wore blackface to a party called “rock stars and rappers.” The photos taken showed two men wearing thick gold chains, baseball caps and “pants that hang so low they show their boxer shorts.” Beta Theta Pi president Ethan McMahon said, “While their actions were not intended with any malice or ill will to any members of our community, clearly they were offensive, and we accept full responsibility accordingly.”

Following the trend, the fraternity at Arizona State University that decided to celebrate the national holiday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., by holding a party titled “MLK Black Party.” Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity attendees wore basketball jerseys, drank from cups made out of watermelons, and flashed gang signs for the camera. The idea of the party was for White students to “black out for MLK day.” Has this become more of an act of advanced ritualistic racism, or are young adults innocently and unknowingly making a mockery of Black history? The answer is not simple, but it does not matter because the outcome is the same.

Dartmouth College students at a "Blood and Crips" party. Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

Dartmouth College students at a “Blood and Crips” party. Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

In 2013, at Dartmouth College, a fraternity and sorority hosted a “Bloods and Crips” themed party. They invited attendees to dress up as either a Blood or Crip, referring to the notorious, predominately black street gangs based in Los Angeles. A partygoer described it as a “ghetto party” with racialized language, speech and dress.” She even acknowledged that over 200 individuals attended this event. Over 200 potential students “dressed as black people” attended and used slang-like language for the purpose of entertainment. However, the Fraternity made a statement saying, “The idea was never meant to be derogatory to any group, and was intended to introduce a costume theme to the party.”

As a student, my disappointment stems from the lack of empathy or effort to care about the consequences that stem from the actions demonstrated by my fellow colleagues, who represent the most prestigious of higher education facilities in the world. As a scholar, I understand that the best and the worst of history tend to repeat itself. However, as a member of the Black community, I am hurt. Hurt because of the constant refusal as humans to see ourselves in people who do not look like us. Some of these events felt racially inspired and prejudicially motivated, while others seemed clear that the parties involved had little cultural awareness or competency, and did not understand the historical implication of costuming in blackface. Either way the coin flips, the outcome is the same in the eyes of the communities forced to live the lives being depicted for amusement.

Even more disturbing are the locations in which these events are taking place. The future leaders of America are demonstrating the effects that black face had, and still has, on the depiction of Black life. While these are not acts of violent racist nature, how long before the ideas promoted by these caricatures spill over into something more sinister? The idea becomes a thought process, and the thought processes are then carried out in how you act and react. Before long, these seeds of thought become the very trees of public opinion in which Blacks were forced to hang from for years. To ignore that possibility is to ignore the very fabric of thought that brought this issue before us today. The new black face isn’t on television, you cannot find it on broad way at the theatre, instead it is what the future of America does on a Friday night.


No Class for Low Class

February 3, 2015

By: Johnny Hollis

In reflecting on the transition from an HBCU (Historically Black College and University) to law school, I realized that highlighting disparities based on race alone totally missed the point of what the real issue is in our country.[1]  That issue is the socioeconomic challenge that widens the gap between those who can escape poverty through educational means.   There are many American citizens forced to live under the oppression of poverty because of socioeconomic challenges that rob them of the chance of obtaining an education.

1

How Does Socioeconomic Status Affect Education?

Socioeconomic status is the measure of influence that the social environment has on individuals, families, communities, and schools.[2]  Most of the time it is simply referred to as class, and is a strong indicator of performance in academic settings.  Socioeconomic status is often measured as a combination of education, income, and occupation, and is conceptualized as the social standing or class of an individual or group.  When viewed through a social class lens, privilege, power, and control are emphasized.[3]

A student who comes from a higher socioeconomic status has the greatest opportunity to succeed in academic studies.  Their parents are in a position to encourage creativity and extended studies.  The student has less financial worries and is able to focus solely on the academic challenges and tools presented.  The student is confident, poised, and excels without much external interference.[4]

As with other areas of life, a person who grew up in a lower class may have to overcome challenges such as maintaining health, a living area, transportation, and adequate food.  The simplest tasks become monumental because the power of money cannot be used to cross the hurdle.  For example, a young man who came from a poor family cannot call home and ask his parents to buy his books.  So either he must use the books in the library (which are in short supply and high demand), or he must work more in order to purchase his books, both of which may detract from his study time.  Additionally, if he is placed in a position where there is no on-campus housing, then he likely has worry about paying rent and utilities on top of tuition and other academic expenses.  While his wealthy colleague has a parent who may generously pay for living expenses, the poor student has to work in order to live.

2

When it comes to the classroom, instructors often do not understand the reason that a student may have to work, or why a student is sleepy or not performing well.  The instructor can only perceive that the student is on edge and is performing poorly in the class.  An oft-proclaimed mantra is: a student is responsible for his own future.  Failure to succeed can be perceived as laziness or incompetence.  It is difficult to relate to the poor student without an understanding of the systemic imperatives that deflect, detract, and deter poor students from escaping the cycle of poverty.

Paul Gorski, an associate professor in New Century College and a Research Fellow in the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, states that:

If we convince ourselves that poverty results not from gross inequities (in which we might be complicit) but from poor people’s own deficiencies, we are much less likely to support authentic antipoverty policy and programs. Further, if we believe, however wrongly, that poor people don’t value education, then we dodge any responsibility to redress the gross education inequities with which they contend. In our determination to “fix” the mythical culture of poor students, we ignore the ways in which our society cheats them out of opportunities that their wealthier peers take for granted. We ignore the fact that poor people suffer disproportionately the effects of nearly every major social ill. They lack access to health care, living-wage jobs, safe and affordable housing, clean air and water, and so on—conditions that limit their abilities to achieve to their full potential.[5]

How Do We Move Forward

Historically, our nation has experienced difficulty in providing the tools needed to achieve “the American dream.”  While schools are plentiful, the cost of college education continues to skyrocket.  Since 1985, the college education costs have risen over 500%.  This deters the amount of poor students who attempt to achieve a college degree.  These rising costs also leave those who do attend college with an even greater debt.  According to U.S. News, over 25% of graduate students will graduate with college debt that tops $100,000.  As our nation moves forward, we could advocate for making college education more affordable, while restructuring our public assistance programs towards promoting post-secondary education.

The Washington Post writes that Germany eliminated or significantly reduced tuition because they understood that the rise in cost “discourage[s] young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up study . . . and [ensures] that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge.” [6]   In France’s public institutions, undergraduate tuition is based on the income of a student’s parents.  Meanwhile, in Sweden, one of the richest countries in the world, PhD programs are completely free.

Perhaps the United States is far from reaching a point in its politics and social policies to allow for the free education programs that are provided in Germany, France, and Sweden.  However, we can challenge the current public assistance regulations and incentivize recipients who return to school and learn a trade or earn a professional degree.  If we can at least make college education and graduate studies more affordable, this will be a huge step towards abolishing the obstacles that create no class for low class.

[1] http://www.ed.gov/edblogs/whhbcu/one-hundred-and-five-historically-black-colleges-and-universities/

[2] http://www.education.com/reference/article/socioeconomic-status/

[3] http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/factsheet-education.aspx

[4] http://www.education.com/reference/article/socioeconomic-status/

[5] http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr08/vol65/num07/The-Myth-of-the-Culture-of-Poverty.aspx

[6] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/10/29/7-countries-where-americans-can-study-at-universities-in-english-for-free-or-almost-free/


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