Bowdoin’s Brian Purnell Reminds Us of the North’s Racist Past

Brian Purnell is Bowdoin’s Geoffrey Canada Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History, and the author of the book Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn

While modern racism is often characterized as a primarily Southern scourge, “embodied in tiki torches, Confederate flags and violent outbursts,” the North cannot ignore its own racist roots, or, for that matter, its ties to today’s white supremacy movements, Brian Purnell argues in a new co-authored article in The Conversation. 

With Jeanne Theoharis of Brooklyn College, Purnell writes, As historians of race in America, we believe that such a one-sided view misses how entrenched, widespread, and multi-various racism is and has been across the country.”

Understanding racism in America in 2018, they continue, requires an examination of the history of racist practices and ideologies in both the South and the North.

One of the most prominent myths advancing this lopsided view of racism is the notion that Jim Crow, the system of laws supporting segregation and black disenfranchisement, began in the South. In fact, Jim Crow laws originated in states like New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

In the twentieth century, the North embedded racist policies into housing and zoning laws, leading to racially segregated neighborhoods and schools. Black people in Northern states faced job discrimination, and “crime statistics became a modern weapon for justifying the criminalization of Northern urban black populations and aggressive forms of policing,” the authors write.

“If racism is only pictured in spitting and screaming, in torches and vigilante justice and an allegiance to the Confederacy, many Americans can rest easy, believing they share little responsibility in its perpetuation,” Purnell and Theoharis say. “But the truth is, Americans all over the country do bear responsibility for racial segregation and inequality.”

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