It began as lynching and other forms of violent terrorism. It’s morphed into spray-painting “nigger” on the walls and throwing “themed” parties that malign and ridicule black people. Now, at Johns Hopkins University, James Crow, Jr., Esquire strikes again… or does he?

(see Baltimore Sun for the complete story)

Hopkins fraternity accused of racism
Black students protest mock lynching, language on Halloween party invitation

Johns Hopkins University administrators suspended the Sigma Chi fraternity yesterday after a weekend “Halloween in the Hood” party that included a skeleton pirate dangling from a rope noose.

Black Student Union members protested the fraternity’s actions, saying the appearance of a mock lynching highlighted the atmosphere of racial insensitivity and tension at one of the country’s most prestigious universities.

There hasn’t been much about this incident in the blogosphere so far. My informal poll shows a slight weighting of opinion toward WTF!?! (see: RELLevance, ptah and Mummy’s Little Batty Bwoy) balanced with a bit of a) black culture is fair game for mockery because it’s pop culture, b) the hanging figure was a pirate, not a black person (see Through the Magnifying Glass, and the GorillaMask forums).

More from the Sun story:

The invitation to the Saturday night party, posted on the Web site Facebook, described Baltimore as “the hiv pit” and encouraged attendees to wear “regional clothing from our locale” such as “bling bling ice ice, grills,” and “hoochie hoops.”

The invitation, students said, was indicative of the pervasive attitude of condescension to Baltimore residents and another example of the university’s strained relationship with the surrounding community.

Black people are still a joke to many white people, and these are the educated white folks. At Johns Hopkins, HIV is now hilarious. The commercial hip hop that began as an authentic outcry from the voiceless masses now encourages its own sad parody. Its global popularity gives license to anyone — those with an understanding that separates truth from hyperbole and those without — to pick up its language and wield it as an entertaining jab or a painful stab.

Here’s the way I see it. Hanging pirates is not racist. Pirates are big this year thanks to Mr. Depp and the promotions department at Disney. Pirates were, in fact, hung.

A “hood” themed party is also not racist by default. As some of the critical blogs I linked to above remind me, there are “white trash” themed parties, pimps and hos parties, and other themed gatherings based on mocking a popular image of culture. To the extent that “the hood” has been glorified and commercialized by the mainstream pop culture industry, we have capitalism to thank for that. The market is painfully adept at co-opting any meaningful movement for superficial financial gain (see Rosa Parks selling Chevy trucks or just see what happened to punk music).

Yet, this situation still saddens me. It’s the combination of the mockery of that which has come to symbolize black culture (hip hop) with one of the most frightening symbols of American terrorism (lynching) and the addition of a completely heartless joke about AIDS in Baltimore (“the hiv pit”).

No party should be held in celebration of these things. According to the Maryland AIDS Administration:

  • African Americans represent 80 percent of living AIDS cases in Maryland (but only 28 percent of the population)
  • Over half of those AIDS cases are in Baltimore City

I understand that holding a college fraternity to any standard of responsibility or basic home training is asking a lot. It’s a lot like asking the Bush administration to think its decisions all the way through — a nice bonus, but not to be expected (see what happens when you ignore crazy Kim??).

However, I’m glad to see a ruckus being raised over the situation, and I’m proud to see those black students at JHU having some knowledge of their history. It would make me sadder indeed if they didn’t stand in opposition to this party

The mass killing of black people decades ago took the form of lynching. In the 1990s it began to look like AIDS. In the 21st century, will it be commercial hip hop that most painfully damages our people?

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