Day 2 of White History Month: Criminalizing Blackness, Part 1- Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws
“This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.” - Andrew Johnson [x]
[Images: Black Codes in Georgia [x], [x], Stop, Question & Frisk Policing Practices In New York City: A Primer [x], The Death Penalty in Black and White [x], Pager (2003)]
While the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery and involuntary servitude (except as punishment for a crime), legal restrictions were quickly placed upon newly freed Black Americans. By no coincidence, these laws made it easier to penalize Black Americans and turn them into criminals. Blackness itself was grounds for legal restrictions.
Black Codes - the precursor to Jim Crow - restricted the rights of Black Americans to move freely in public space, buy and own land and property, and conduct business. Black Americans were strongly disadvantaged in the legal system. Most Southern states enacted various laws that restricted the lives of Black Americans in 1865 and 1866.
There were common features among many of the Black Codes. Many states simply changed the wording of Slave Codes such that restrictions continued that prohibited Black Americans from learning to read or write. Vagrancy laws made it so that all Freedmen were required to be employed; penalties for being unemployed resulted in vagrancy charges, which could be punished through forced unpaid labor.
Children of those arrested for vagrancy could be forced into “apprenticeships” where they would be forced to work, often for their former slaveowner. Black Americans were executed for crimes that white Americans merely received jail sentences for. The lives of Black Americans were worth little as many white Americans could avoid penalties for murdering Black Americans.
Examples of Black Codes (by no means an exhaustive list):
- Separate jailkeepers for Black and white Americans (North Carolina)
- Black men convicted of raping white women would be given the death penalty (North Carolina, Tennessee)
- Inability to testify against white Americans in court (North Carolina, Kentucky)
- Taxes - that if left unpaid, would result in vagrancy charges (Mississippi, South Carolina
- Forced apprenticeship (North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi)
- Work contracts required which often could not be broken without penalty (Texas, Mississippi)
- Fines for “disobedience and negligence” and for missed work (Texas) or insubordination (Florida)
- Restrictions on owning and carrying firearms (North Carolina, Florida)
- Restrictions on voting, holding office, or serving on juries (Texas, Tennessee)
- Restrictions on moving into and out of the state (North Carolina
- Restrictions prohibiting Black Americans from “impudence,” “swearing,” and other signs of “disobedience.” (Louisiana)
Most of these laws were repealed because of action taken by Northern states, but similar laws came into place with Jim Crow. Jim Crow laws continued to criminalize Blackness and valorize whiteness. These laws resulted in disparities in the criminal justice system and restrictions on civil rights up to a century after slavery ended.
Jim Crow is generally used to refer to institutional discrimination in the South between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but these laws and norms existed even earlier in the North. While Louisiana passed a law creating “separate but equal” train cars in 1890, segregated railroad cars were used in Massachusetts long before that.. Northern states provided a model for Southerners to treat newly freed Black Americans.
Examples of Jim Crow Laws (from the Jim Crow Museum):
- Buses.All passenger stations in this state operated by any motor transportation company shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the white and colored races (Alabama).
- Education.The schools for white children and the schools for negro children shall be conducted separately (Florida).
- Housing: Any person…who shall rent any part of any such building to a negro person or a negro family when such building is already in whole or in part in occupancy by a white person or white family, or vice versa when the building is in occupancy by a negro person or negro family, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five ($25.00) nor more than one hundred ($100.00) dollars or be imprisoned not less than 10, or more than 60 days, or both such fine and imprisonment in the discretion of the court. (Louisiana)
- Militia. The white and colored militia shall be separately enrolled, and shall never be compelled to serve in the same organization. No organization of colored troops shall be permitted where white troops are available and where whites are permitted to be organized, colored troops shall be under the command of white officers (North Carolina).
- Promotion of Equality: Any person…who shall be guilty of printing, publishing or circulating printed, typewritten or written matter urging or presenting for public acceptance or general information, arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine or not exceeding five hundred (500.00) dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months or both. (Mississippi)
Penalties for Blackness Today
When slavery (and slave codes) ended, the Black Codes took their place. When Black Codes were eliminated, it was only a few years before Jim Crow developed. Jim Crow laws ended with the Civil Rights Movement, but these disparities did not just disappear. The legacy of these laws can be seen in the criminal justice system today.
Stop and Frisk
In New York, Toronto, Southern California, Black people are much more likely than white people to be stopped. In New York, when stopped, they are more likely to be frisked and have physical force used against them. This is despite the fact that whites who are frisked are more likely to have weapons and contraband on them.
[“Stop, Question & Frisk Policing Practices in New York City: A Primer”]
When compared to white Americans, Black Americans are more likely to face longer sentences, more severe charges, and full prosecution.
Black defendants are over three times as likely as white defendants to receive the death penalty when the victim is white. In one study, Blackness itself is found to be an aggravating factor comparable to “causing great harm, fear, or pain”
Some states used Black Codes to exclude Black Americans from jury duty, but Black Americans are still excluded from juries today. Prosecutors have used supposedly race-neutral reasons such as “low intelligence” to remove Black Americans from jury duty. In Houston County, Alabama, 80% of Black Americans have been struck by prosecutors in death penalty cases.
[See: Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy by the Equal Justice Initiative]
Job Opportunities With a Criminal Record
Black applicants with a criminal record are at a disadvantage in the labor market when compared to their white counterparts. In fact, Devah Pager found that job opportunities for Black Americans without a criminal record were worse than those of white Americans with a drug conviction.