It seems that everywhere I look assertions are being made that marginalized groups—gay folks, prison inmates, transgendered folks—and their struggles are the “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. A new documentary titled simply “The New Black” focuses on LGBTQ folks in the “black 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 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) 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 folks or prisoners as the “new black” reinforces the widespread belief that nothing, no identity status, is as bad as being black. There is literally nothing, no condition worse, than 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)
I am personally and professionally offended by this co-opting by marginalized groups and by those who write about them and make films about them of the very worst experiences that African Americans in this country endured . Nothing can possibly compare to the experience of being owned by another human being 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.”