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Today's Word



Aug 10, 2020
This week’s theme
Characters related to slavery who have become words in the English language

This week’s words
Jim Crow
Simon Legree
Uncle Tom
Aunt Tom

The New Jim Crow
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander

Previous week’s theme
Words derived from body parts
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with Anu Garg

In 1991, when I came to America to study computer science in graduate school, I shared an apartment in Cleveland, Ohio, in an area known as Little Italy. This neighborhood was filled with restaurants and art galleries. A couple of times a year they held art fests and closed the roads to traffic so people could walk around and enjoy.

One evening as I was returning from school, I happened to be driving and discovered that Little Italy roads were closed except for the people who lived there. A police car was at the entrance to the area. I stopped, rolled down the window, and the police officer asked me for my driver’s license. I handed him the license, he confirmed that my address showed that I lived in the area, and waved me in. As he returned my license he said, “Thank you, sir.”

Sir? I was basically a kid and here this police officer was talking to me with such respect. I was impressed with American police.

My illusion did not last long. Just a few months later Rodney King happened. In spring 1991, Los Angeles police beat Rodney King, a Black man, so badly that they broke many of his bones. They were tried and a year later found not guilty. If someone had beaten a dog so badly, they’d have been put behind bars for many years, but this was a Black man, so the verdict was: Not Guilty.

That’s when I realized that there’s not one America. There’s a separate America for Black people. I learned that little kids in Black homes have to be given “the talk”. A talk on how to behave when stopped by police because one false move could mean death. Parents have to give the talk because Black people are stopped disproportionately.

Slavery remains a horrific mark on America’s conscience, but far from atoning for it, we continue our history of injustice to Black people in other forms.

If you think it’s nothing, maybe walk in a Black person’s shoes for a day. Talk with them about what their day-to-day life is like, being asked to show ID while mowing the lawn in front of their own house, having 911 called for strolling in a park, having unarmed people shot, having little kids shot.

What can you do? Here are some suggestions:
  • Watch the documentary 13th. The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that outlawed slavery. It was passed in 1865, but we found another way to enslave people. We, in America, are #1 in many ways, including putting people in prisons. One fourth of the prison population in the world is in the US.
  • Read The 1619 Project.
  • Learn more about US history, the real history, not the whitewashed version, starting with this episode from Last Week Tonight.
  • Read the book The New Jim Crow about how we put millions of Black people in prisons.
  • And, most importantly, speak up! When you see an injustice, write, talk, and go out and protest. As the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox once said, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” Also see the words of rabbi and activist Joachim Prinz.
This week we’ll feature five characters related to slavery who have become words in the English language.

Jim Crow or jim crow

(jim kroh)

noun: The systematic practice of discriminating against Black people.

From Jim Crow, the name of a Black character in a 19th-century minstrel show. Earliest documented use: 1832.

“As droves of Black Americans fled the violence of Jim Crow, Canada’s government and residents organized to refuse you entry and even deport those fortunate enough to clear the bureaucratic obstacles.”
Andray Domise; Canada’s Own Legacy of Oppression; Maclean’s (Toronto, Canada); Jul 2020.

See more usage examples of Jim Crow in Vocabulary.com’s dictionary.

The President is not only the leader of a party, he is the President of the whole people. He must interpret the conscience of America. He must guide his conduct by the idealism of our people. -Herbert Hoover, 31st US President (10 Aug 1874-1964)

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