The state of Louisiana played an integral role in the development and implementation of Jim Crow laws in the United States. Beginning with the separation of white and Black people in schools and on public transportation, Jim Crow expanded rapidly to become a codified system of justification for the subjugation and violent treatment of Black Americans throughout the country.
Because of Louisiana’s French and Spanish history, laws regarding the integration of races in the territory during the 18th century were significantly more relaxed than they were in the United States. This resulted in a large population of free persons of color who were adversely affected once Louisiana became a part of America with the Louisiana Purchase, and even more so with the advent of Jim Crow laws in the wake of Reconstruction.
Additionally, Plessy v. Ferguson, the famous 1896 Supreme Court case that cemented the legality of “separate but equal” treatment, originated in New Orleans. Conditions only got worse in the years that followed. The Ku Klux Klan was re-established in 1915. Certain towns in the south instituted curfews in which Black residents could not be out of doors between certain hours of the evening and the following morning. Simply living as a Black person became a dangerous proposition.
Jim Crow was in full force during the early 20th century and even extended to segregation within the military. During World War II, Black soldiers were not accepted into the Marines and the Army Air Corps (the precursor to the Air Force) at the beginning of the war, and in the Navy and Army, they were only allowed to take on non-combat jobs. In addition to the injustices that these separate but inherently unequal policies reproduced, the military had its own hierarchies, structures, and laws that created a pressure cooker for the Black soldiers living under its rule.
Inequitable systems such as Jim Crow breed conflict and competition among those they subjugate as a way of dividing the population and thereby decentralizing their power. There is a long history among Black Americans of intraracial prejudice enforced through respectability politics. There was a belief that if Black people behaved more “respectably,” then they would not be subject to criticism and therefore would not be victims of racism. Many prominent Black social critics and journalists write about this phenomenon even today.
In his article, “Black-on-Black Racism: The Hazards of Implicit Bias,” professor, writer, and retired U.S. Navy commander Theodore R. Johnson writes,
“Too often, racism is seen as a social phenomenon that happens to Black people. But it happens through Black people as well. That is, the negative associations thrust upon Black people and Black culture can color how we Black people view each other.”
It’s easy to see, in the aforementioned pressure cooker of the Armed Forces in the 1940s, how Black soldiers might internalize this racism. Jim Crow laws put a ceiling on the potential success of Black individuals, and some fell prey to the false narrative that by breaking through that ceiling they could rise above the limits of systemic racism—when in reality, this was just another “coping mechanism,” in Johnson’s words, that put the onus back on Black Americans rather than on the system that oppressed them in the first place.