Fridays in middle school were usually pleasant. Even though Friday was testing day, it was also famous for being something more delightful–movie day.
I remember being excited for my social studies class. The history topic of the week was about Civil Rights, and we were promised a movie. As our teacher was loading the VHS tape, I was expecting to watch something about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King.
But before she started the tape, she warned us that what we were about to watch may have troubling or disturbing content. Being a fan of World War II documentaries during that time, I thought myself prepared for what I was about to see.
I could not have been more wrong.
I was not prepared for fire hoses throwing innocent protestors on concrete. I was not prepared for hounds being let loose on black bystanders. I was not prepared for black boots and thick batons falling and rising over the unconscious bodies of black men and women.
I could not understand the countless photos of black men hanging from trees. I could not understand the faces of the people that surrounded them–their smiles, their joy, their satisfaction. I could not understand crowds draped in white cloaks, encircling a burning cross under a black night sky.
I could not comprehend the fate of a black boy, around the same age that I was at the time, being beaten, tortured, and thrown into a river with bricks tied to his feet for daring to interact with a passing white girl.
Jim Crow is a name that should weigh heavily on the mind of our Nation. It represents one of the darkest periods of America’s history.
But when reflecting on past tragedies–such as Jim Crow–in contemporary times, we have the habit of viewing those periods through a contemporary lens. The media often attempts to draw allegories between our Nation’s dark past and our current social issues. But there is a danger to this: this tendency can lead to a trivialization of those tragedies.
This tendency can be seen in the media’s portrayal of the new Georgia voting laws.
At first, I knew nothing of the bill outside the media’s portrayal of it. According to them, the bill was a blatant attempt at voter suppression, specifically towards black voters. But then our President compared the Georgia bill to Jim Crow in a press conference. He even suggested that the bill was worse than the Jim Crow laws.
When I first heard his statements, I just assumed it to be an exaggerated gaffe. But then the media stood behind his statements.
Perplexed, I looked up information on the Georgia voting laws.
Updated requirements for voter ID, limitations on voting drop boxes, and limits on Sunday early voting appeared to be the most controversial changes.
The premise behind the media’s Jim Crow comparisons is that these changes would disproportionately suppress black voters.
The media claims that the new voter ID requirements are harsh. But the requirements do not change. The law just adds slightly more measures in checking voter ID at the polling stations. The media also claims that limits on Sunday early voting suppress the votes of black worshippers. But this section of the bill was later edited to expand early voting days on Sunday. The media claims that the new voting drop box rules negatively impact the voting numbers of metropolitan areas, which have a high number of black voters. But this is a stretch, and it is completely unlike the violent voter suppression strategies of Jim Crow.
I have grown skeptical of media narratives that connect contemporary issues to humanity’s darkest moments. This is because the media has become too hyperbolic in how they represent the past and the present.
We should reflect on the reality of Jim Crow with vigilance and reverence. We should be vigilant in our value of equality and our inalienable rights. We should be vigilant when overcoming humanity’s propensity for hatred and fear. But we should also have reverence for the black individuals who suffered during this period, and how their sacrifices paved a way for our society today.
Although the media has remained vigilant in its reflection of Jim Crow, it has struggled to adopt a reverence.
For example, the claims about the Georgia bill trivialize the reality of Jim Crow. The enforcement of voter ID does not harken back to days when black people were barred from entering buses. Limitations on voting drop boxes are not reminiscent of a time in which black populated areas were the targets of racial riots, burnings, and lynchings. Sunday early voting rules are not similar to practices in which black voters were discouraged from entering polling booths through violence and murder.
The media has a tendency to use tragedies such as Jim Crow as a platform to launch political discussion. By tying political opinions to infamous tragic events, they are able to grab the attention of a larger audience. Although this strategy is effective, it does have a consequence–it essentially trivializes the reality of those tragedies to conform with their political views.
Tragedies such as Jim Crow or the Holocaust should not be diminished or trivialized in order to support a political opinion. Rather, those events should stand on their own, allowing us to form political views that reflect the lessons learned from those tragic periods.
The media should be wary of hyperbole, and we should be concerned with how history is represented in the media.