Philadelphia city councilman Kenyatta Johnson rallies outside the Starbucks where two black men were arrested, May 2018.
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comment / justice

The North’s Jim Crow

“Quality of life” laws were created in the early 1900s to enforce racial segregation, and are still doing so today.
Last month in Philadelphia, a white Starbucks manager summoned police officers to confront a pair of African-American men after one asked to use the restroom before he had purchased a drink. About two weeks later, at Lake Merritt Park in Oakland, Calif., a white woman called police to report a black family that was grilling food for a picnic.

In both instances, the victims were accused of violating laws or rules governing conduct in commercial establishments and public spaces. In the first case, it was for trespassing or loitering. In the second, it was for using a charcoal grill outside of the designated areas.

“Quality of life” laws serve as a potent instrument of racial segregation. They provide commercial establishments, law enforcement officers and everyday citizens with tools enabling them to police racial boundaries while at the same time claiming to simply be upholding the law.

In contrast to the Jim Crow laws of America’s dark past, these laws supposedly apply to everyone. But in practice, they clearly don’t. Like most middle-aged white people, I have spent countless hours in Starbucks without buying anything. Plenty of white people have barbecued, blasted music and drunk alcohol at that same Oakland park, without anyone calling the police.

The selective enforcement of minor ordinances, as many critics note, performs the same work today that segregation laws did in the past. But it would be inaccurate to call this a new form of Jim Crow. What it is, rather, is a form of Jim Crow that whites in the North have been developing since the early 1900s.

As white segregationists in the South were placing “whites only” signs in the windows of restaurants, in the North, more enlightened (or, rather, more savvy) white proprietors and public officials realized that rules restricting public spaces to local residents and the strict but selective enforcement of laws against things like disorderly conduct and loitering could be used to impose racial segregation.

Take public beaches. In the South, white officials literally drew color lines in the sands and the waters off shore. In the “racially liberal” Northeast, towns devised elaborate, and ostensibly colorblind, procedures for determining who could access public shores, and what they could bring and do once inside, and then proceeded to enforce them for black and brown people only.
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