Lynching: Some Words Should Be Consigned to History

Debbie says:

A couple of years ago, I read a biography of Ida B. Wells, who is famous for, among other achievements her tireless crusade against lynching. When I read it, I felt secure in my belief that lynching–vigilante killings for unproven crimes–of African-Americans in this country was a thing of the past. We have a dirty record of over 4,000 lynchings of black men between the Civil War and roughly the 1930s, but (I still hope) no more.

I don’t believe anyone who’s been reading the news for the last several months can be unaware of the sudden reappearance of the lynch mob’s noose in a disturbingly wide variety of places.

I first noticed it in news reports about the Jena 6. Today, I was reading about the noose left for a professor at Columbia University (!)

Dr. Constantine is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia and has published several books on race relations, including Addressing Racism in 2006 and Strategies for Building Multicultural Competence in Mental Health and Educational Settings in 2007.

I knew I had seen more in the intervening weeks. This New York Times blog post confirmed my suspicions (many links in the blog post not reproduced in this quotation).

In addition to other racially charged incidents, an article in USA Today noticed nooses in almost a dozen recent news reports. The Lede tracked down a bunch of them: At a Home Depot store in South Elgin, Ill.; on the campus of the University of Maryland; in a police-station locker room in Hempstead, N.Y.; at two Coast Guard facilities; at high schools in North Carolina and South Carolina; and at least two cases of nooses with black dolls in Pittsburgh.

Mark Potok, who monitors hate crime activity at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project told USA Today that a typical year passes with about five reports of incidents involving nooses.

So far, no one has actually been lynched: the nooses have been the equivalent of nasty anonymous emails or hate letters.

USA Today quotes Brian Levin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Copycat offenses are most often committed by men under 22 who are bored or drunk and looking for attention, Levin says. They generally are not members of hate groups, he says, but they harbor racial animosity or feel threatened by racial groups they think have unfair advantages, such as affirmative action.

“Those prejudices are already there for the most part, and what the Jena incident did was give them a green light on repeating this novelty,” Levin says. “It’s a way of reasserting their importance.”

The comment thread on the USA Today article is predictable, disturbing, and informative all at once.

Is this a body image issue? Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Racism is about skin color and skin color in a racist society is an enormous factor in how we feel about ourselves. Fear for one’s life is as big an opponent to self-love as can possibly be imagined.

Before any of these copycats decide that it would make them feel even more important actually to lynch a person of color, every one of us needs to stand up against the symbol of the noose, and all it represents.

lynching, noose, Jena 6, racism, Ida B. Wells, Body Impolitic

4 thoughts on “Lynching: Some Words Should Be Consigned to History

  1. Now they’ve found anti-Semitic graffiti:

    Police are investigating a second hate crime at New York’s Columbia University after a caricature of a man wearing a yarmulke above a swastika was found on a bathroom door on Thursday.

    The same news report mentions:

    Police arrested an 18-year-old woman earlier this week on suspicion of hanging a noose on a tree in her yard and threatening to hang the children of her black neighbors.

    I can’t come up with an eloquent plea for love or tolerance or even good manners. All I can do is quote Ben Franklin’s words to the squabbling, divided group of (white, male, well-off) would-be revolutionaries trying to draft the Declaration of Independence.

    “We must all hang together, or most asuredly we shall all hang separately.”

  2. The hanging of a noose or the painting of a swastika are very different acts from the sending of hate mail. While hate mail sucks and can be scary, it is intended to provoke a response from a particular person in a particular context. Using symbols like nooses or swastikas are intended to provoke a response in entire communities, evoking a strong historical context that is still very present in that community. While one (hate mail) is an act that aims to do harm to one person, perhaps on behalf of a community, the use of historically loaded symbols is intended to frighten/intimidate/harass the entire group that the particular symbol has historical significance for.

  3. I agree with RadicalFemme, but only to a point.

    Yes, sending hate mail is visible only to its recipient unless she chooses to make it public. At the same time, because of that invisibility the use of hate mail as intimidation of and deterrent against the wrong sort of people participating in a community — “wrong” being defined by that community’s self-identified defenders.

    Every so often among the top-tier political bloggers, for example, someone, usually a good liberal like Kevin Drum, raises the question of why there are so many more male political bloggers than female, and the discussion, when it doesn’t go into listing the usual Amandas, Lindsays, Avedons, etc., often veers into “women aren’t interested in the food fight.” More true, though, is that many women aren’t interested in inboxes full of rape threats.

    The use of physical nooses or spraypainted grafitti is indeed a quantum jump in the severity of the intimidation, but it is only an escalation of the same thing. Don’t you think that the private, anonymous hate mail contains the swastikas and nooses, too?

  4. I would, in no way, endorse hate mail as the fluffy bunny cousin to the public display of hate symbols. As a woman who has received hate mail detailing exactly how some sick individuals would like to rape then dismember me, I don’t at all downplay the effect of hate mail. It sent me running double quick to the hardware store for some bear strength pepper spray, and then to my therapist’s office. I still sleep with a bat next to my bed.

    A little more than two years later, there was a hate crime committed against a lesbian in my liberal, hippy, “we love everybody (as long as you’re white, thin, straight and have oodles of cash)” town and I watched as most of my community of queer people had similar reactions; many bought pepper spray or other forms of non-lethal self protection, took self defense classes, and wound up crying a lot. (I realize this is not a perfect example, because it’s a hate crime against a person as opposed to the display of a hate symbol, the threat was realized instead of insinuated, but I feel uncomfortable talking about the use of hate symbols that threaten identities that I don’t claim.)

    Both hate mail/hate symbols are acts of terrorism. But it’s all about the scale of the terrorism, and the intent. One is used to terrorize an individual, one is used to terrorize a community.

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