Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Rise and Fall of an All-American Catchphrase: 'Free, White, and 21'


“Free, white, and 21” appeared in dozens of movies in the ’30s and ’40s, a proud assertion that positioned white privilege as the ultimate argument-stopper. The current state of contention over the existence and shape of white privilege weaves back into the story of this catchphrase: its rise, its heyday, and how it disappeared. White America learned the same lesson as the society woman saying “free, white and 21” to the fugitive: you can’t be sure to whom you are speaking. Every time a movie character uttered this phrase so casually, they were giving black America a glimpse into the real character of American democracy. Decades before it came to a head, they inadvertently fed the civil rights struggle. The solution to this problem would be quintessentially Hollywood, and thus quintessentially American—a combination of censorship and propaganda that would erase “free, white, and 21” from films, from public life, and nearly even from national memory. Full article here.