'Lynching in America' Report -- more than a metaphor

'Lynching in America' Report -- more than a metaphor

Anti-lynching campaigners, 1934 Crime Conference in Washington, D.C. © NAACP

Lynching in Omaha, Nebraska. © Chicago
Tribune, 1919

Cover of Southern Horrors, by anti-lynching campaigner, Ida B. Wells. The EJI report highlights the work of Wells on pages 48-49.

Cover of Southern Horrors, by anti-lynching campaigner, Ida B. Wells. The EJI report highlights the work of Wells on pages 48-49.

In the Autumn term, I taught a seminar called ‘European Perspectives on State Violence,’ in which we attempted to analyse those forms of physical and ideological violence either carried out or otherwise legitimised by state structures.  While we looked mainly at deaths in police custody, we also discussed detention, death at sea, extreme forms of racial and gender-based exclusion, and mainstream media depictions of the state’s protection of the good citizen from the irresponsible and dangerous other.  The students were brilliant, identifying patterns, interrogating the absence of structural analysis, and thinking of ways to articulate the role of the state.  One term that came up when comparing police shootings in the UK with those in the US, and particularly when discussing Ferguson, was lynching.  Once we looked beyond the metaphorical potential of lynching, we analysed the important ways in which lynching provides a sound and rigorous analogy for describing the racial, gendered physical state violence of today. 

The Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organisation based in Montgomery, Alabama, has recently published a report called Lynching in America.  Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.  The report is an important contribution to scholarship on lynching, both for its archival research and its intellectual interrogation of the fabric of American policy and social thought regarding race, law and the criminal justice system.  A summary of the report is available on the EJI website.  You can also order a full version of the report by emailing staff of the EJI at contact_us@eji.org.  I recommend reading the full version, if you are interested.  

Lynching should not be regarded as a mere footnote in American history. It is a profoundly important part of the way that US race politics and criminal justice policies are structured, maintained and justified.  Lynching can be understood as a legitimating practice, preserving a moral posture and, more importantly, perceptions about threat.  It is more than just frustrating that lynching is regarded as an aside in mainstream US education; it is intellectually dangerous.  Incidentally, the first time I learned of lynching was not in school.  My grandfather casually mentioned to me when I was small that in his early twenties, he was threatened with a noose for having demanded service in a bar for white people in early 1950s segregated Kentucky.  Lynching did not make it onto the curriculum of my primary or secondary-school education.  It was not until I took a course on Afro-American history in college that I learned about lynching in a formal educational setting.  But it's more than just Black history, though.  It is at the core of US history.

Lynching is a form of state violence, one should make no mistake about that.  The EJI report highlights mob-led hangings, burnings, and dismemberment, but it also makes important points that characterise lynchings as mediating practices that shaped the relationship between the state and civil society. 

First, lynchings were public practices.  They did not take place under the cover of night, as did the cross burnings perpetrated by the masked men of the KKK.  Lynchings were public spectacles (p. 34), carried out in broad daylight, planned sometimes well in advance by upstanding citizens who were regarded as heroes for ushering society in the direction of justice, rather than against it.  The lynchings were done to intimidate, but with tacit moral authority.  There was a wide base of support for these executions in the majority society, for which such a sense of justice represented the proper order of things—one that white citizens chose to expedite in cases where the police were too slow in enforcing this order.  The rules in this dispensation of justice were different if you were Black, or Mexican (p. 53).  Transgression was racialised and gendered (note the lynchings based on sexual relations or advancements) and otherwise in enforcement of a ghastly form of social and sexual apartheid.  

Second, lynchings were collective acts.  The EJI report refers to participating in lynching as ‘participation in collective violence’ (p. 67).  It also refers to the construction of an intergenerational social posturing of lynching as a legitimate form of administering ‘justice’, which the report notes ‘profoundly compromised the criminal justice system’ (p. 57).  Of course, thousands of people, including children, attended the larger lynchings.  Food was served, photos were taken, and some of the photos were mass-produced and sold as post cards, highlighted in Leon Litwack’s Without Sanctuary. Body parts also served as souvenirs.  Some men were castrated.  One woman's unborn child was cut from her body and stomped. Lynching was a ritualistic public dehumanisation, described by the report as traumatic not only for those terrorised, but for generations of participants in the practice.  

Third, these public acts, while technically extra-legal, were done with the knowledge and, in many cases, support of police and local government.  Indeed some lynchings were attended by police officers. With the lines of legality sufficiently blurred, the mere question of whether lynchings were legal or not is not as interesting as whether the lynchings held the moral and political force of something law-like.  And, with the complicity of the state, they did.  Over 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, but none were passed.  In 2005, the US Senate issued an apology for its complicity. 

The EJI report is important in the way that it links the three aforementioned aspects of lynching as state-sponsored racial violence with the violence not only of the Reconstruction Era, the Black Codes and the Jim Crow Era in the US, but also with present-day policing practices and social attitudes around race and criminality.  It maintains lynching as a focal lens, but extends the analysis of lynching into the fabric of thinking about the confluence of racism, law and the criminal justice system in the US.  

View a summary of the report at the EJI website.

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