David Love: Language and images of lynching are re-emerging as tools of racial intimidation and oppression
If we address this issue now -- both in the classroom and on a larger political scale -- we can prevent its normalization, writes Love
Over 150 years since the founding of the Ku Klux Klan – a white supremacist group that unleashed terror against African Americans across the South – language and images of lynching are re-emerging as tools of violence, intimidation and oppression. Society must identify and address this form of hateful rhetoric, or ignore it at our peril.
Last week, Mississippi State Representative Karl Oliver called for the lynching of the politicians who support the dismantling of Confederate monuments in neighboring Louisiana. The Koch-funded Republican freshman represents a district where Emmett Till, 14, was lynched in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
“The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific,” Oliver said on Facebook. “If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, ‘leadership’ of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State.”
Although Oliver later apologized for his remarks, acknowledging the word “lynched” was a particularly poor choice, the damage was done. This comes as Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) has received lynching threats after he called for the impeachment of President Trump on the floor of the House.
The symbols associated with lynching have reached college campuses as well. On May 1, white supremacists littered the campus of American University with bananas hanging from nooses. Their target was Taylor Dumpson, a black woman and the school’s student body president. At the same time, a slaying at another campus is being investigated as a possible hate crime. White supremacist Sean Urbanski – a University of Maryland student and member of the “Alt-Reich: Nation” Facebook group – allegedly stabbed to death Richard Collins III, a black graduating senior at Bowie State and an Army lieutenant.
Lynching holds a particular significance in American history. For decades, lynching took the form of ritualized killings performed by white supremacists to uphold their racial purity and ensure their continued political and economic domination. The violence associated with lynching was part of a larger system of Jim Crow segregation that kept people of color subjugated, stripped them of their voting rights and precipitated the mass migration of millions of black people from the South.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative – which plans to build a national memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama – 4,075 people were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950. Black children, women and men were beaten, burned, shot, drowned, mutilated and hanged from trees and telephone poles.
And this brutality was for one reason and one reason alone: the color of the victims’ skin. Though white supremacists would argue it was because black people has sassed them, taken their place at a restaurant counter or dared to assert their civil rights, the underlying reason was always racism.
As if lynchings weren’t tragic enough, racists turned them into sporting events. They sold tickets, in fact. Entire families would attend and have picnics, afterward posing for photos with the victims, whose body parts were sometimes taken as souvenirs.
Today, in echoes of the Jim Crow South, laws that target racial minorities and stifle a representative democracy are gaining momentum. Several white politicians are promoting voter ID laws, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and deportations, the war on drugs and other policies that largely penalize minority communities. They claim these measures are designed to “Make America Great Again,” but really they are enacted to intimidate, scapegoat and suppress the rights of racial, ethnic and religious minorities.
Fortunately, there are efforts society can take to prevent the normalization of this kind of hate – and the subsequent racial violence that accompanies it. To begin, we can teach the dark history of lynching in this country – both in the classroom and at home. If young minds learn the truth, they can play a part in preventing history from repeating itself.
Further, we must acknowledge and address the problem of domestic terrorism and the rise of white nationalist movements, which, according to one study, are growing faster than ISIS on Twitter. Law enforcement and government officials, in particular, must tackle the threat of violence from right wing extremists and social media forums.
And initiatives, such as President Obama’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, should continue to be funded. CVE programs provide institutions of higher education, community groups and other organizations with the resources to develop projects that tackle the root causes of violent extremism and deter people from joining these groups.
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Finally, we must reject the mainstreaming of extremism by ensuring districts are truly representative of all of their constituents. Eliminating voter suppression and gerrymandering will create more diverse constituencies that elect moderate, sensitive and accountable leaders.
Stemming the tide of racial violence requires solutions that treat everyone with dignity, equality and respect. These three actions are a step in that direction.