Editor’s Note: Emma Coleman Jordan is the J. Crilley Kelly and Terry Curtin Kelly Professor of Business Law and Economic Justice at Georgetown University. She is best known for her work in the fields of economic justice in legal theory, financial services and civil rights. She tweets at @EconomicJustice. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
In 1899, a mob in Newnan, Georgia tortured, mutilated and burned to death a Black farm worker named Sam Hose, who was accused of killing his White employer.
In that era, it was rare for a Black person accused of a crime to receive evenhanded treatment by the justice system, so it’s impossible to know whether there was any truth to the accusations against him. Some accounts say Hose acted in self-defense. Guilty or innocent, he was subjected to the summary justice of the mob. Hose was hunted down, captured and lynched without a trial.
His grisly execution was widely attended. People arrived by chartered train from Atlanta, some 40 miles away, to witness the appalling spectacle, which was viewed by as many as 2,000 people, according to contemporaneous accounts.
Lynching as public entertainment was not unusual in the decades after the official end of slavery in 1865, when Black people often were terrorized by Whites intent on buttressing an oppressive, racist hierarchy in which they were at the pinnacle. And these oppressors did not hesitate to use violence to safeguard the system.
And lynchings were not only bloodthirsty events, they were also jarringly festive. White parents routinely brought their children to spectacle lynchings of Black men and women as family entertainment. Fathers lifted their young children on their shoulders for a better view. The hideous mutilations were looked at in much the same way as we might regard sporting events today. Their celebratory nature was captured by postcards that were popular souvenir items of the day. These artifacts often bore photos showing graphic lynching scenes as well as the jubilant White crowds in attendance.
Such acts of racial barbarity have not been relegated to America’s past, however. They are links in an unbroken chain of hate that continue. For evidence, one need only look at the shooter in Buffalo who mowed down 10 Black people at a supermarket this month, in a deadly attack fueled by racism and allegedly perpetrated by a young man who identified himself as a White supremacist.
He has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and more charges are expected.
As with the perpetrators of the lynching of Sam Hose more than a century ago, the alleged shooter in Buffalo intended for his heinous act to be witnessed by others who shared his White nationalist views, even if no racist spectators in modern times travel to lynchings on packed train cars.
No less significantly, acts of racial terrorism are meant to strike fear in the heart of Black people, to make them feel hunted, unwelcome and oppressed. And indeed, Black residents of Buffalo dealing with the aftermath of the attack have voiced similar emotions.
In fact, many Black Americans harbored such fears of attack by White terrorists even before the Buffalo massacre. And in the wake of the shooting, a majority of Black Americans recently polled said they live with the fear of another such attack.
As with the lynchings of the past, today’s racially-based attacks put Black suffering on display for the entertainment of a 21st century version of the White mob. In the case of the Buffalo shooting, this was captured on video and shared on online platforms. Those who viewed the violent spectacle were presumably seated in the comfort of their own homes, logged in by computer and via their cellphones.
He streamed the carnage online with a helmet-mounted video camera while he opened fire on the people in the store, many of whom were elderly people purchasing groceries in one of the few food stores in their Buffalo community.
News reports said the video of the shooting was taken down within minutes by the online forums on which it was shared, but not before it could be copied and shared millions of times.
The shooter appears to have embraced White nationalist views after joining similar online racist forums. He reportedly wrote in a long online post he was inspired by the shooting attack carried out by a White supremacist in Christchurch, New Zealand on two mosques that killed 51 people. The shooter in that attack aimed to foment discord between Muslims and non-Muslims, with the goal of driving followers of Islam out of the country. And like the shooter in Buffalo, he filmed and streamed video of the attack, in his case on Facebook.
According to the posts shared on Discord and on the hate-filled online forum 4Chan, the Buffalo suspect planned the massacre for months. The streaming site Twitch, most often used for sharing games — including ones simulating violence battlefield violence — was also used by the shooter, including during his livestream of the attack. In this case however, the violence was all too real.
In a statement to the New York Times, Angela Hession, Twitch’s vice president of trust and safety, said the site had a “very strong response time” to the Buffalo shooting “considering the challenges of live content moderation.”
She added: “In the end, we are all part of one internet, and we know by now that content or behavior rarely — if ever — will stay contained on one platform.”
Posts written by the alleged shooter were made visible to a group of at least 15 people about 30 minutes before the attack began. A 180-page diatribe attributed to him was also posted online, elaborating his racist beliefs.
The document cited resentment over a rising percentage of people of color in American — so-called replacement theory — as his justification for stalking, then launching attacks against unsuspecting Black citizens who already bear the weight of 400 years of structural racism and subordination, and who were trapped in a segregated, redlined community in Buffalo.
One striking phenomenon is so many of the perpetrators in recent mass shooting events have been young people. The shooter’s youth — he was just 18 — was a likely factor in his receptivity to the unsavory ideas he took up so readily.
Other young racists who carried out heinous racist shootings in the United States include the 21-year-old gunman who opened fire on Latino shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and the 21-year-old gunman who killed Black worshippers at an evening prayer service in Charleston, South Carolina.
Now we can add to the roster of youthful mass murderers the shooter in Uvalde, Texas who was just 18. The gun he used to carry out the massacre of school children this week was something of an 18th birthday present to himself, and was purchased the same week he reached that milestone.
The motive for the Texas shooting remains unclear. The alleged shooter was a young man of Latino origin, as were most of his victims. Like some other recent mass shooters, he shared his murderous plot online minutes before carrying it out.
It is a sad statement on the tragedy of spiraling gun violence in America that the shooting in Buffalo already has been supplanted in the public’s attention by the horrifying massacre in Texas.
America has failed to find a way to stem the carnage associated with the proliferation of powerful automatic firearms of the sort used in both mass shootings, which occurred just a week and half apart.
With respect to shooters spurred by White supremacism, this country more than has its hands full. These individuals are like members of a violent gang or foreign terrorist cell: The young racist haters “prove” they belong by exaggerating their power to act to defend the group credo, like members of an exclusive and malign club.
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They claim they must defend White culture from the demographic displacement by dangerous so-called multicultural “replacers” who must be erased by racial violence. They form a virtual family of like-minded racists steeped in resentment over the loss of White entitlement and the diminishing prospects of White male dominance in America.
Those were the motives of lynchings after Reconstruction, and they remain the motives today. More than 120 years after the murder of Sam Hose, Buffalo makes clear the violent racial war for the soul of our nation continues.