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Earl Smith, Ph.D. Headshot
Angela J. Hattery, Ph.D. Headshot

Everything Is the NEW BLACK: REALLY!

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In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You're not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.
-- Jenji Kohan writer for Netflix series Orange Is the New Black

This co-opting term is an insult to the unique history of African Americans.

Before we begin, we cannot forget why ORANGE [or anything else] IS NOT THE NEW BLACK:

Slavery:
Begins in Jamestown, Virginia, 1619
Ends with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution approximately December 6, 1865

Dred Scott: infamous US Supreme Court decision (1857) wherein the Court stated that Blacks, not being citizens therefore had no standing to sue in federal courts.

Peonage: After the American Civil War (1865) peonage -- or so-called involuntary slavery -- developed in the US southern states. Blacks were held against their will and "Black Codes" were used to control their movement.

Plessy v. Ferguson: Establishes in 1896 via US Supreme Court ruling that separate is equal. Those persons (Blacks) found to be using facilities such as railroad cars not designated for their race were criminally liable under the statute. Homer Ferguson was arrested for sitting in a "white" railroad car. This law was not overturned until Brown v. Topeka Schools approximately 1955.

Taken into context, all of the "new black" titles, buzz words etc., fail to comprehend the long, tortuous road to freedom for African Americans.

Furthermore, to identify the struggles of a marginalized group as "The New Black" also renders invisible the uniqueness of their own struggles -- having to live in a closet, being held in a cage and forced to labor for a pittance.

It seems that everywhere we look assertions are being made that marginalized groups -- Lesbians, Gays, prison inmates even transgendered people- -- and their struggles are the so-called "new black."

"Orange Is the New Black", the new series on Netflix that focuses on women in prison, is among the most popular and talked about series in 2013. And, a new documentary titled simply "The New Black" focuses on the LGBTQ in the African American community.

Similarly, many social commentators and scholars are adopting the plantation metaphor to explain everything from mass incarceration (The New Jim Crow) to the exploitation of college and professional athletes -- specifically African American men who play football and basketball (Forty Million Dollar Slaves).

Though all of the groups to whom these labels and metaphors are applied have experienced discrimination, restricted civil rights, and limited access to institutions that those of us with privilege take for granted -- housing, work, education -- the application of these labels and metaphors is highly problematic for three reasons.

(1) Declaring that any marginalized group is the "new black" renders invisible the uniqueness of hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Though many groups, including those laying claim to the label "the new black" have faced and continue to face discrimination, prejudice, violence and restrictions on their basic civil rights, no other group has experienced the systematic and nearly universal exploitation of their labor as was done during the more than 200 years of slavery in the United States. None of these other marginalized groups, no matter how significant their exploitation or experiences -- be they in prison or as the unpaid economic fuel for the explosion of tremendous profits in college football -- has experienced this type of universal exploitation. No other group has been subjected to the widespread use of rape as a tool for increasing property. And no other group has been adjudicated by the highest court in the land as being 3/5ths of a human being.

(2) As we say above, this comparison also ignores the chattel aspect of slavery. Slaves were held as property for life, they and their children were bought and sold on auction blocks like cattle. Furthermore, their status as slaves was always inherited by their children. No group, no matter how much discrimination they face is ever literally owned as property, to be bought and sold at the seller's will, and have this status passed on to their children.

(3) Finally, identifying LGBTQ people or prisoners as the "new black" reinforces the widespread belief that nothing, no identity status, is as bad as being black. That is to suggest, that nothing is as bad as being black!

As the sociologist Orlando Patterson exclaimed: "No African American can [sic] achieve something the meanest, filthiest Euro-American bum on the streets has: being "white." (Rituals of Blood. NY: Civitas. 1998, p.257)

We are personally and professionally offended by this co-opting of the very worst experiences that African Americans in this country endured by marginalized groups and by those who write about them and make films about them.

Nothing can possibly compare to the experience of being owned by another human being (that lasted centuries) and to ignore that important distinction is not only offensive but does serious damage by allowing all of us to forget this terrible part of our history.

NOTHING can or ever will be "The New Black."

Hattery, Angela and Earl Smith (2008). "Dred Scott, White Supremacy and African American Civil Rights" In William A. Darity (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (pp. 445-447). Farmington Hill, MI: Thomson Gale, Inc.
http://www.amazon.com/International-Encyclopedia-Social-Science-Sciences/dp/0028659651

Groves, Harry E. (1951). "Separate but Equal: The Doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson."
Phylon 12 (1): 66-72.