Just Say No to Blackface: Neo-Minstrelsy and the Power to Dehumanize
In recent weeks, social media was set ablaze with news that an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn donned blackface and simulated prison rape in pictures taken while he was a college student. Troubling and offensive on some many levels, these photos are particularly disturbing given that as a DA in Brooklyn – as part of the criminal justice system that puts black and brown youth behind bars in disproportionate numbers – Mr. Justin Marrus has tremendous power in his community. Further undermining confidence in a criminal justice system that has proven itself to be hostile to communities of color, the sight of Mr. Marrus mocking and disparaging leaves me wondering how these past practices shape his present role as a prosecutor.
Jorge Rivas at Colorlines describes the photos of Justin Marrus as follows:
In one picture — from an album called “Halloween” — Marrus sports blackface, a wig made of what appears to be dreadlocks and a tie-dyed T-shirt. “What part of Jamaica you from mon? da beach mon,” the caption reads. A second photo — from an album called “Courthouse for 4th of July” — shows Marrus and another man simulating sex in what looks to be a cell with white bars.
The sight of his finding pleasure in the simulation of prison rape, his posing with his friends with a fake confederate flag tattoo, and his engaging in the time-honored tradition of blackface, should give us all pause for thought.
Ignoring the fact that the pictures remained on Facebook for six years – evidence that Marrus saw little wrong with them – a DA spokesman defended his colleague: “This is something he did about six years ago while he was in college. He apologized. He admits it was childish and inappropriate.” Others, such as Sharon Toomer, have rightly criticized Mr. Marrus. Toomer describes Marrus’s actions as a sign of his sense of “entitlement and privilege” and she calls upon all of us to take this matter seriously:
Through my lens as a Black and Latino woman, a taxpayer and a human being, I view these images as dehumanizing, degrading, arrogant, racist and problematic for a public institution. My lens is not that of White men or women, or even Black men and women who are so jaded by the work they do as prosecutors, that they fail to see or connect the dots on how ADA Marrus’ past thought and actions may influence his current and future decision-making. A ‘let’s give him a break and see what happens’ is too great a risk for my community.
Although some may dismiss the photos and Mr. Marrus’ behavior as youthful indiscretion, as something of the past, and as harmless, these photos point to a larger history, one that whites have yet to reconcile within contemporary culture.
The practice of white students donning blackface is not an isolated incident but reflects a larger trend at North America’s college’s and universities. Although these spectacles usually take place outside the view of the public at large, the minstrel tradition is alive and well at North American universities. Tim Wise, in “Majoring in Minstrelsy: White Students, Blackface and the Failure of Mainstream Multiculturalism,” notes that during the 2006-2007 school year there were 15 publicly known instances of racial mockery. He describes this practice: