Lynching is in the ether. I am unsure as to which side of the colorline it is more noxious. We who are black and brown remain--as Lani Guinier brilliantly observed--the miner's canary. Perhaps this means that we are stronger and more immune from the noxious air as compared to those who have never had to breath it?
The New York Times recently featured a story about research from the Equal Justice Initiative that provides new details and insight on racial terrorism and white on black (spectacular) lynchings in the United States.
Some key findings from the Equal Justice Initiative's new report include:
First, racial terror lynching was much more prevalent than previously reported. EJI researchers have documented several hundred more lynchings of African Americans than the number identified in the most comprehensive work done on lynching to date.
Our conversations with survivors of lynchings show that terror lynching played a key role in the forced migration of millions of black Americans out of the South. Thousands of people fled to the North and West out of fear of being lynched...
In all of the subject states, we observed that there is an astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching.
The Equal Justice Initiative report does an excellent job of highlighting how white racial terrorism was a political act that intimated an entire community by visiting horrific and unimaginable cruelty on the black body politic through acts of violence on the bodies of black individuals:
In Dyersburg, Tennessee, a mob tortured Lation Scott with a hot poker iron, gouging out his eyes, shoving the hot poker down his throat and pressing it all over his body before castrating him and burning him alive over a slow fire...
Lynchings Targeting the Entire African American Community. Some lynch mobs targeted entire black communities by forcing black people to witnesslynchings and demanding that they leave the area or face a similar fate.
These lynchings were designed for broad impact—to send a message of domination, to instill fear, and sometimes to drive African Americans from the community. After a lynching in Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1912, white vigilantes distributed leaflets demanding that all black people leave the county or suffer deadly consequences; so many black families fled that, by 1920, the county’s black population had plunged from 1100 to just thirty.
To maximize lynching as a terrorizing symbol of power and control over the black community, white mobs frequently chose to lynch victims in a prominent place inside the town’s African American district.
It is no coincidence that the NY Times, a journal of record, decided to offer such a high profile platform to the work of the Equal Justice Initiative. The savage immolation murder of Muadh al Kasasbeh by ISIS has placed lynching front and center in the public discourse and collective consciousness.
However, the Times' "History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names" is not without a major flaw.
As the website Vox highlighted, the Times has produced a story about white racial terrorism and wicked violence against black humanity, but never directly names white Americans as the agents of evil:
But when it comes to those details, the Times' coverage leaves out one key word: "white" — and readers have noticed... The report itself says, "some 'public spectacle lynchings 'were attended by the entire white community and conducted as celebratory acts of racial control and domination."
Yet, as critics have pointed out, the only time "white" was used in the article was to describe the women and girls the black men who were lynched were accused of killing or assaulting.
This sort of oversight is in no way something that only happens in the New York Times or that only happens in the media. But this is the most recent example of the clunky awkwardness that accompanies discussions about the ways white supremacy shaped our nation's history.
This is a perverse type of racial erasure: Whiteness has once again made White people a group without history.
[There is also a paradox and contradiction in that transformation: "white" is a socially constructed marker and designation of "race" that is relatively recent and new, having been born in response to the Transatlantic slave trade, the black holocaust, and global European imperialism and colonialism.]
The NY Times' failure to name white people as the murderers of black Americans through spectacular and cruel violence is also an example of Whiteness--and by extension white people--imagining itself as naturally benign and innocent. Here, Whiteness is prefaced on radical individualism.
As such, there are no "white criminals" or "white terrorists". There are only individual white people who happen to be criminals or killers. In a society organized around white privilege, it is only the Other, in particular black people and "Muslims", who are labeled en masse as "pathological" and/or where individuals are subjected to group stigma and punishment.
The racial erasure in the Times' lynching story is also a surrender to what researcher Robin DiAngelo has termed "white fragility":
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.
These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
The white racial frame distorts reality. It is operative even in what are ostensibly moments of "anti-racist" public discourse. And because the white racial frame furthers a possessive investment in whiteness, an investment that reflects and sustains a white supremacist society, it distorts how White Americans process and understand empirical reality.
Through that process, the black or brown truth-teller is transformed by the White gaze into someone who is "angry", "hostile", "emotional", "crazy", "irrational" or "overreacting".
Ultimately, the white racial frame is a type of racial narcissism, one that for those white people who have not renounced their personal and psychological investment in Whiteness and white supremacy transforms the rational into the irrational, the sane into the insane, and warps the morals and ethics of its owners.
As I, and those others, who dared to connect the barbarism of ISIS and the spectacular lynchings and burning alive murders of black Americans by whites recently learned, forcing White America to own its history of racial terrorism is not a popular act.
I am unsure if the NY Times' choice to decouple white people from the barbaric crime of white on black lynchings in the United States was an intentional act or simply the unconscious habit of the white racial frame as social practice.
The Times' intent is irrelevant because the outcome is one that is repeated and habitual in "colorblind" post civil rights America: Whiteness is always a de facto state of innocence and White America always imagines itself as fundamentally good and benign.
We who are the miner's canary most certainly know otherwise.
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