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Dr. David J. Leonard Headshot

Just Say No to Blackface: Neo-Minstrelsy and the Power to Dehumanize

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In recent weeks, social media was set ablaze with news that an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn donned blackface and simulated prison rape in pictures taken while he was a college student. Troubling and offensive on some many levels, these photos are particularly disturbing given that as a DA in Brooklyn - as part of the criminal justice system that puts black and brown youth behind bars in disproportionate numbers - Mr. Justin Marrus has tremendous power in his community. Further undermining confidence in a criminal justice system that has proven itself to be hostile to communities of color, the sight of Mr. Marrus mocking and disparaging leaves me wondering how these past practices shape his present role as a prosecutor.

Jorge Rivas at Colorlines describes the photos of Justin Marrus as follows:

In one picture -- from an album called "Halloween" -- Marrus sports blackface, a wig made of what appears to be dreadlocks and a tie-dyed T-shirt.
"What part of Jamaica you from mon? da beach mon," the caption reads.
A second photo -- from an album called "Courthouse for 4th of July" -- shows Marrus and another man simulating sex in what looks to be a cell with white bars.

The sight of his finding pleasure in the simulation of prison rape, his posing with his friends with a fake confederate flag tattoo, and his engaging in the time-honored tradition of blackface, should give us all pause for thought.

Ignoring the fact that the pictures remained on Facebook for six years - evidence that Marrus saw little wrong with them - a DA spokesman defended his colleague: "This is something he did about six years ago while he was in college. He apologized. He admits it was childish and inappropriate." Others, such as Sharon Toomer, have rightly criticized Mr. Marrus. Toomer describes Marrus's actions as a sign of his sense of "entitlement and privilege" and she calls upon all of us to take this matter seriously:

Through my lens as a Black and Latino woman, a taxpayer and a human being, I view these images as dehumanizing, degrading, arrogant, racist and problematic for a public institution. My lens is not that of White men or women, or even Black men and women who are so jaded by the work they do as prosecutors, that they fail to see or connect the dots on how ADA Marrus' past thought and actions may influence his current and future decision-making. A 'let's give him a break and see what happens' is too great a risk for my community.

Although some may dismiss the photos and Mr. Marrus' behavior as youthful indiscretion, as something of the past, and as harmless, these photos point to a larger history, one that whites have yet to reconcile within contemporary culture.

The practice of white students donning blackface is not an isolated incident but reflects a larger trend at North America's college's and universities. Although these spectacles usually take place outside the view of the public at large, the minstrel tradition is alive and well at North American universities. Tim Wise, in "Majoring in Minstrelsy: White Students, Blackface and the Failure of Mainstream Multiculturalism," notes that during the 2006-2007 school year there were 15 publicly known instances of racial mockery. He describes this practice:

For some, it means dressing up in blackface. For others, a good time means throwing a "ghetto party," in which they don gold chains, afro wigs, and strut around with 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor, mocking low-income black folks. For still others, hoping to spread around the insults a bit, fun is spelled, "Tacos and Tequila," during which bashes students dress up as maids, landscapers, or pregnant teenagers so as to make fun of Latino/as.

At the core of these spectacles is a sense of power and superiority. These students feel they have the right to mock and degrade black and brown people. Moreover, because the longer history of blackface is neither taught in schools nor discussed intelligently in the mainstream media, these spectacles also reflect widespread ignorance about the social, political, and cultural implications of minstrelsy. In any case, we see white privilege in action. We see the impact of having citizens that "know little about the history of how ghetto communities were created by government and economic elites, to the detriment of those who live there." We see the consequences and manifestations of ignorance in operation; we see what happens when American racial history is erased from textbooks; we see what happens when whites are more likely to come in contact with people of color through pop culture stereotypes than through personal contact. Evident with Marrus, and with the countless incidents on college campuses, this mix of privilege and ignorance is a recipe for continued racism.

Ignorance, however, is no excuse.

The ability to be ignorant, to be unaware of the history and consequences of racial bigotry, to simply do as one pleases, is a quintessential element of privilege. The ability to disparage, to demonize, to ridicule, and to engage in racially hurtful practices from the comfort of one's segregated neighborhoods and racially homogeneous schools reflects both privilege and power. The ability to blame others for being oversensitive, for playing the race card, or for making much ado about nothing are privileges codified structurally and culturally.

There is no acceptable reason to ever don blackface. It's not a joke; it isn't funny. No claims about humor or creative license can ever make it okay. Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarceration, whites have utilized blackface (and the resulting dehumanization) as part of its moral and legal justification for violence. It is time to stop with the dismissive arguments those that describe these offensive acts as pranks, ignorance and youthful indiscretions. Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes...the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and a centuries worth of injustice.