An Examination of Structural Racism through “Prison City,” Wisconsin

In Dr. Tricia Rose’s Lecture “How Does Structural Racism Works in the Era of ‘Racial Equality’,” Rose defines structural racism in the U.S. as the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. Structural racism appears in every aspect of United States’ society, from education to housing, and each of these aspects connect on multiple axes. The criminal justice system and the United States’ “democratic” electoral system is one of these connections. As well,he structure of the United States’ criminal justice system contributes to a system in which African Americans tend to have less economic and political power than their white counterparts. This essay will argue that the structural racism embedded in criminal justice and electoral systems of the United States, and the connections between the systems, create a cycle of oppression for African Americans in the criminal justice system. This essay will discuss these issues through an exploration of prison gerrymandering and its consequences in Waupun, Wisconsin.

Waupun, Wisconsin, located about an hour and a half drive outside of Milwaukee is home to three correctional facilities: Dodge Correctional Institution, Waupun Correctional Institution, and Burke Correctional Center. For this reason, locals and people nationally refer to Waupun as “Prison City.” For generations, these correctional institutions have provided employment and fueled the economy of the city. In the city with a population of 11,269, there are 1460 staff members in all the correctional facilities combined. This means around 13% of the city’s population work in the correctional institutions. While the city and its residents profit off of the lives of the incarcerated peoples, they strip those same people of their most fundamental rights.

With its small population and multiple correctional facilities, Waupun suffers from intense “prison gerrymandering.” Prison gerrymandering refers to the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated peoples in the population of the city or district in which they live while incarcerated, and not in the community in which they lived before their incarceration. As a result, cities with large correctional facilities, such as Waupun that tend to be in rural, almost exclusively white, and conservative-leaning are electorally overrepresented. Conversely, the communities that incarcerated individuals come from tend to be urban, primarily communities of color, and liberal-leaning are electorally underrepresented. 

The problems created by prison gerrymandering are further exacerbated in 48 out of 50 states in which incarcerated peoples are disenfranchised; once convicted of a felony, incarcerated individuals lose their right to vote while incarcerated and oftentimes after their release. Since most incarcerated people are people of color, and so are most people who are disenfranchised. This means that not only are districts made of primarily black and brown residents not getting the representation they deserve, the people who make up those districts have no representation in government. In Wisconsin, the state disenfranchises 1 out of 9 African Americans compared to 1 out of 50 Wisconsinites. This severe prison gerrymandering and disenfranchisement is part of the cyclical system of structural racism that decreases African Americans’ political and economic power.

Waupun is a prime example of how prison gerrymandering exploits African Americans to increase the region’s political power while disregarding not only African Americans fundamental rights, but also basic necessities of life. As Robert Alexander, an incarcerated person in the Waupun Correctional Facility says, prison gerrymandering and disenfranchisement is “almost like your body being used.” In two alderpeople’s districts in the city, the prison population makes up the majority of the population of their district. In district 2, represented by alderperson Peter Kaczmarski, incarcerated peoples make up 63% of the population. In district 3,  represented by alderperson Ryan Mielkle, incarcerated peoples make up 79% of the population. Since the incarcerated peoples cannot vote, it makes it much easier for certain alderpeople to win their elections and end up representing fewer people than their districts’ population figures may suggest, and in turn overrepresent their voting-eligible constituents. In the last election cycle, alderperson Mielkle won his bid for reelection with only 43 votes. Since the people in the correctional facilities cannot vote, their representatives ignore their basic needs. When asked what he would say to alderperson Kaczmarski if he could, Kenneth McGowan, an incarcerated person at the Waupun Correctional Facility, said “The drinking water in prison is horrible. I’m talking about you have to have your light on in your cell when you’re drinking water because when you push the button, sometimes it comes out brown.” The local and national government strip incarcerated black and brown people of their basic necessities for life and dignity, catching them in a cycle of structural oppression..

With the 2020 census just around the corner, discussing prison gerrymandering and its consequences is vital. The census has counted incarcerated peoples this way since the first census in 1790. However, after decades of mass incarceration and the prison population boom, prison gerrymandering and felony disenfranchisement and their consequences threaten the fundamental ideals such as liberty and equality stated by our founding documents and common narrative. If the legislature does not address prison gerrymandering and its consequences, they will remain the same for at least the next decade.

Works Cited

“Criminal Disenfranchisement Laws Across the United States.” Brennan Center for Justice. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/criminal-disenfranchisement-laws-across-united-states.

Gauthier, Jason. “Overview – History – U.S. Census Bureau.” Overview – History – U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/overview/.

Initiative, Prison Policy. “The Problem.” Prison Gerrymandering Project. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/impact.html.

“Political Prisoners?” NPR. NPR, October 2, 2019. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/764809210?storyId=764809210?storyId.

“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Waupun City, Wisconsin.” Census Bureau QuickFacts. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/waupuncitywisconsin.

2019. Aclu.Org. https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/votingrights/wi_flyer.pdf.

2019. Doc.Wi.Gov. https://doc.wi.gov/DataResearch/DataAndReports/WCIInstitutionalFactSheet.pdf.

The Ungendering of Black Women

Clara Pritchett

In Dr. Scott Poulson-Bryant’s lecture on the intersections of performance theory, queer theory, and Africana studies, Dr. Poulson-Bryant raised the question of how and why we adhere to cultural norms around race, gender, and sexuality. Building upon this initial query, he asks what happens when characteristics attributed to specific groups conflict with each other within people who hold identities perceived as contradictory to one another. This essay will explore this question through an analysis of the ungendering of black women throughout history and how the effects of that ungendering manifest today.

Throughout history, white supremacists and segregationists have ungendered black women for political and social gains. One way white supremacists and segregationists ungendered black women was desexualization; often the same women underwent this process in different contexts. One way black women were desexualized was through the commoditization of their reproductive capacity. The Virginia Law written in 1819, Partus Sequitur Ventrem, literally translated to  “that which is brought forth follows the belly (womb),” made it so the offspring of slaves would also have enslaved status even if the father was white or even the owner himself. This incentivized slave owners to sexually assault and rape female slaves to ensure the future of their workforce. This meant sex with black women was not something of pleasure but something for monetary gain. In this same period, black women were not able to marry. Marriage, as a legally binding contract, would have given slaves recognition under the law and therefore implied humanity and citizenship, neither of which were economically or politically valuable to those in power. One of the fundamental markers of gender performance for women was marrying a man and taking care of a home, especially in the Antebellum South, and black women did not have the option to do so. 

After emancipation, women were still excluded from cultural norms surrounding gender. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Redemption, unprecedented numbers of lynchings occurred across the country. One of the most common reasons given for lynchings was being accused of raping or assaulting a white woman. Mobs and vigilante groups ran ravage for the stated reason of protecting their women even when the relationship was consensual or did not exist at all. White women were also not required to testify in cases of rape or assault for the stated reason of protecting their fragile, emotional selves. The need to protect their sexual purity was a defining characteristic of their womanhood. Black women did not have this same level of legal protection. Additionally, while there was no longer a monetary incentive for raping black women, rape still persisted. Rape was a tool of terror used by the Ku Klux Klan and other white vigilante terrorist groups. Rape of black women not only occurred as a show of public terror, but in private spaces. Many black women worked as domestic servants or otherwise in the homes of white people and were subject to sexual advances by their employers. Even though these occurrences were common, the legal system did not recognize them or afford the victims representation. Black women were rarely granted a trial, and when they were they were confronted with insurmountable obstacles. One example of an obstacle is the implicit ideas around black women’s inherent promiscuity. In 1918, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that, in statutory rape cases, rape could only happen if the person had not previously had sex. The ruling also discusses that most white women are moral, meaning they have not previously had sex, and most black women were immoral, so black women could not legally be raped. They did not have the legal protections created for maintaining the purity of  women, but black women were not “true women” in the eyes of the law. The period of mass lynching was also the rise of Jim Crow segregation. Segregation in public facilities showed in black and white how culturally normative gender did not include black women. Bathrooms were the most obvious example of this. A photo from this time period shows three sets of public bathrooms labeled: “Men,” “Ladies,” and “Colored.” A separation between white men and white women was inherently necessity it seems in subscribing to the cultural norms around gender, but a separation between black men and black women was not.

Consequences of the ungendering of black women and the stereotypes surrounding it still remain today. One example of this is evidence of bias of juries in rape cases. Conviction happens much more frequently in cases of black men charged with raping a white women than in cases of white or black men charged with raping a black women. The main cause of this is the same ideas around black women’s promiscuity. Another example of how these stereotypes manifest in present day is the expunging of the childhood of black girls. A report written by the Georgetown Law School people perceive black girls as less innocent than their white counterparts. People believed they required less protection and nurturing and that they know more about adult topics, especially sex. These assumptions, similar to those made of black women one hundred years ago have consequences in the educational and criminal justice systems. In both systems, black girls are receive harsher punishments compared to their white counterparts for identical offenses.

The ungendering of black women has had dire consequences to the lives of black women from slavery to present day. While gendered stereotypes and performance roles have had horrendous consequences for women of all races, exclusion from them has also attributed to struggle.

Works Cited

Epstein, Rebecca, Jamilia Blake, and Thalia Gonzzlez. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girlss Childhood.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2017. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3000695.

Hunter, Tera W. “Putting an Antebellum Myth to Rest.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 2, 2011. 

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/opinion/putting-an-antebellum-myth-about-slave-families-to-rest.html.

Morgan, Jennifer L. “Partus Sequitur Ventrem: Law, Race, and Reproduction in Colonial Slavery.” Small Axe. Duke University Press, April 3, 2018. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/689365.

Stern, Mark Joseph. “The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Transgender Rights Brief Is a Trenchant History Lesson.” Slate Magazine. Slate, March 3, 2017. https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/03/naacp-ldfs-trans-rights-brief-is-a-trenchant-history-lesson.html.

Wriggins, Jennifer. “Rape, Racism, and the Law.” Rape and Society, May 2018, 215–22. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429493201-26.

Minstrelsy: The First Form of American Popular Entertainment

Clara Pritchett

AFRI 0090

Professor Hamlin

October 4, 2019

Introduction

Ideas and perceptions of blackness have always been an integral part of mainstream entertainment and culture in the United States. One of the first and longest-lasting ways that blackness has appeared in entertainment is through minstrelsy. Minstrelsy in the United States was characterized by performance of exaggerated, stereotyped black caricatures often performed in blackface. It is thought of as the first form of American popular entertainment (Citation 1). From the stage, to the television, to novelty items that inhabited parlors and mantels around the country, these caricatures appeared. Although these caricatures shared commonalities, they were adopted to the political and social landscape of the United States at the time of their performance. Even in modern culture and media in the United States, these caricatures are present.

A Brief History of Minstrelsy

The first iteration of minstrelsy appeared in New York in the 1830s (Citation 2). Thomas Dartmouth Rice, the “Father of Minstrelsy (Citation 3),” saw a man with a disability dancing the “Jim Crow,” a dance developed when slaves for forbidden from dancing. Dancing was characterized by one’s feet crossing, so the “Jim Crow” never required feet to cross. Rice proceeded to paint his face black and imitate the man he saw dancing on stage naming his character Jim Crow after the dance. With the show’s success minstrelsy bloomed. Troupes soon began to form and travel performing variations of Rice’s performance. Antebellum Minstrelsy was characterized by presentations of the sambo and coon, caricatures used to morally justify slavery presenting enslaved black people in their “rightful place” and free black people as incapable of functioning outside of domestication. After the Civil War, the core caricatures of minstrelsy were forced to change. 

As opposed to before the Civil War, when caricatures in minstrelsy were used to justify slavery, after the Civil War, caricatures had to adopt to morally justify mob violence and lynchings that ravaged the United States in the late 1800’s. Caricatures changed from cheerful, attentive black people to animalistic savages longing for sexual encounters for white women. Alongside vigilante violence and lynchings was the development of the movie and television industry. At this time tropes moved from the stage to the screen in live-action films and cartoons. Appearing on television also made the tropes a favorite of companies advertising products and novelty items. This period was also when black people joined the minstrel stage. Bert Williams, a light-skinned vaudeville performer, was one of the first black actors to infiltrate the field. While opening doors into an industry that excluded black people, he was made to darken his face and portray a caricature of himself further validating the stereotypes (Citation 3). In the mid 20th century blackface started to leave the screen, but the tropes still remained hidden under an American society self-identified as having racial equality.

The Sambo

The sambo is a southern caricature of a slave evolved from the original Jim Crow. They are carefree, docile, simple, irresponsible, always seen laughing and avoiding work while taking pleasure in substances, food, and music. The sambo represents black people in their ‘rightful place.” Black people in the Antebellum period needed to be domesticated and were happy to work for their white masters. They morally justified slavery by showing that black people were content in their position and wouldn’t be able to survive in any other state (Citation 1).

The Coon

The coon is the “sambo gone bad (Citation 4).”Abbreviated from “raccoon” the coon is a sub-human, lazy, buffoon (Citation 4). Differing from the sambo, the coon is often a northern caricature of a free black person in the Antebellum period. The coon was used to mock the idea of racial equality showing that, when left to their own devices, black people could not integrate into society. After emancipation, the coon developed into an urban caricature. The urban coon has many of the same characteristics as the original coon, but the urban coon adds a love of drinking and gambling to the caricature (Citation 1).

The Mammy

The mammy is the antithesis of the mistress of the plantation household. As Barbara Christian, now a former professor at University of California at Berkley said, “she {the mammy}  is strong, asexual, and ugly where a woman is supposed to be beautiful, fragile, dependent (Citation 1).” A completely desexualized woman , the mammy is dark-skinned, large, and never seen without a rag tied around her head covering kinky hair. “Even though masters frequently sexually exploited the black women slaves in their house, the mammy caricature was used to comfort white mistresses by claiming there was no logical reason that their husbands would be attracted to the women slaves, since the mammy is not a sexual being. The mammy takes gracious care of the master’s children, but not her own. She is as a strong, authoritarian figure who beats and harassed her children, while she is gentle and loving with the master’s, showing that the black family, where the wife ran the house and the husband was emasculated, was inferior to the patriarchal white family (Citation 1).” One example of the mammy in popular culture is the character of Aunt Jemima depicted on Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup. Aunt Jemima emulates the content black woman servant in a rag head wrap and apron. While the character changed slightly overtime, the fundamental features of Aunt Jemima remained (Citation 5).

The Pickaninny

The pickaninny is a depiction of the sambo or brute (depending on the context) as a child. “Picaninnies were portrayed as nameless, shiftless natural buffoons running from alligators and toward fried chicken (Citation 6).” The pickaninny was used to show that, at their roots, black people were no more than animals and would grow up to become sub-human adults if they weren’t eaten by alligators first (Citation 1).

The Brute and The Buck

The creation of the brute caricature is the primary example of how tropes were adapted and created to fit the political and social situations of the time. The brute was created during the Nadir period during the first Great Migration. Before emancipation it was advantageous to slave owners and white supremacists to depict black people as happy in their “rightful place.” As black people were no longer in their enslaved after the Civil War, the brute was what black people had become now that they were free. The brute is a savage, animalistic criminal (Citation 1). As the Nadir period was defined by mob violence and mass lynchings, depicting black people as criminals justified that violence (Citation 7). The buck is a variation of the brute that has all the same characteristics but has a longing for sexual encounters with white woman. One example of the buck is the character of Gus in the 1915 film Birth of a Nation. Gus follows a young white woman Flora into the woods and confronts her demanding her hand in marriage. Flora runs away, but Gus follows. She reached the edge of the cliff and threatens to jump. Gus does not stop his pursuits and Flora jumps (Citation 8). Gus and other brutes and bucks were created in incite fear in the idea of black people, especially men, having close contact with white people, especially women. 

Conclusion

Even though overtime the extremes these caricatures presented no longer had a place in popular culture, certain fundamental aspects of the old tropes remain. Black men are still depicted as thugs, a variation of the Brute (Citation 9). Black women are still desexualized in variations of the mammy such as in Tyler Perry’s Madea character. The ideologies these caricatures attempt to implant in people’s minds still infiltrate individuals, but they are hidden behind a veil of American society’s prescribed goals of racial equality. Until they are unveiled, their influence will still remain in American popular and political culture.

  1. Ethnic Notions. California Newsreel, 1987.
  2. “The History of Minstrelsy : African American Minstrel Performers · USF Library Special & Digital Collections Exhibits.” Omeka RSS. Accessed October 4, 2019. http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/minstrelsy/jimcrow-to-jolson/african-american-performers.
  3. “Bert Williams.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. Accessed October 4, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/stars/bert-williams/.
  4. “The Coon Caricature.” The Coon Caricature – Anti-black Imagery – Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University. Accessed October 4, 2019. https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/coon/.
  5. Stereotypes of History: Reconstructing Truth and the Black Mammy. Accessed October 4, 2019. https://www.albany.edu/womensstudies/journal/2009/kowalski/kowalski.html.
  6. “The Picaninny Caricature.” The Picaninny Caricature – Anti-black Imagery – Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University. Accessed October 4, 2019. https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/antiblack/picaninny/homepage.htm.
  7. Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. “Http://Nationalhumanitiescenter.org/Tserve/Freedom/1865-1917/Essays/Nadir.htm.” Somewhere in the Nadir of African American History, 1890-1920, Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe®, National Humanities Center. Yale University. Accessed October 4, 2019. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1865-1917/essays/nadir.htm.
  8. “The Depiction of African Americans in The Birth of a Nation.” Themes in The Birth of a Nation. Accessed October 4, 2019. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA99/diller/mammy/birth/depictions.html.
  9. Smiley, CalvinJohn, and David Fakunle. “From ‘Brute’ to ‘Thug:” the Demonization and Criminalization of Unarmed Black Male Victims in America.” Journal Of Human Behavior In The Social Environment. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5004736/.