It's a small thing, writing these blog posts on racial injustice. It's no replacement for action, but action starts with awareness, and to that end I write. May these words nudge us toward greater awareness, and may our hands and feet follow.
During this Holy Week, we reflect on the Cross, reminded of Jesus' suffering at the hands of an angry mob whose fervor was fueled by rumors and half-truths whispered in dark alleyways by those who clung with white knuckles to power they neither deserved nor used for the benefit of others. Jesus played scapegoat to their fear. He was made to pay for crimes he did not commit so others could walk free.
|Photo: C Imes|
In some yesterdays, lynching happened under the cover of darkness, with murderous faces obscured by white hoods. Community leaders by day -- elected officials, doctors, judges, businessmen, pastors even -- and the ghosts of white supremacy by night.
But in other yesterdays, lynching became a spectator sport, highly publicized and attended by young and old alike, who jeered as victims were openly burned, beaten, and hung, "crucified" outside of court without a trial. Gawkers brought picnic lunches. Wore their Sunday best. Bought postcards to send to those who missed the big event. Some lynchings drew massive crowds.
|Julius Bloch, "The Lynching," 1933|
The Emancipation Proclamation was a start, but it did not abolish the narratives that allowed slavery to flourish. Like water running downhill, when blocked, those narratives simply changed course, finding new and insidious ways to channel white fear and subjugate black Americans. Blacks could no longer be owned, but they were still not considered fully human. Blacks were beaten down in a thousand other ways. Curfews. Segregation. Discrimination. Abuse with impunity. They were denied services. They were prevented access to education, health care, the right to vote or hold office, the right to buy or rent housing. They were lynched.
Lynching outlasted slavery, gathering speed as it flowed downhill.
Lynching outlasted legalized segregation (though de facto segregation persists today).
Generations of Americans, especially in the South, viewed lynching as "an efficient and honorable act of justice" (5). Even children were tortured beyond recognition and lynched (65).
|The Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, 1930|
Notice the crowds of men and women spectators.
The war or drugs continues to apprehend, convict, and incarcerate black men at a far higher rate than white men, although the use and sale of drugs is about equal among whites. And the uneven application of the death penalty illustrates that we have a long way to go to ensure that our justice system is truly just. Consider these statistics, cited by the Death Penalty Information Center:
• Jurors in Washington state are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. (Prof. K. Beckett, Univ. of Washington, 2014).
• In Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black. (Pierce & Radelet, Louisiana Law Review, 2011).
• A study in California found that those convicted of killing whites were more than 3 times as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing blacks and more than 4 times more likely as those convicted of killing Latinos. (Pierce & Radelet, Santa Clara Law Review, 2005).
• A comprehensive study of the death penalty in North Carolina found that the odds of receiving a death sentence rose by 3.5 times among those defendants whose victims were white. (Prof. Jack Boger and Dr. Isaac Unah, University of North Carolina, 2001).These are hard facts to swallow, especially when you look at the dates of these studies. We're no longer talking about the decades before we were born. We're talking about now. Bryan Stevenson offers a plethora of other recent examples in his book Just Mercy, which I'll unpack in my next post in this series. The focus of this post is to highlight Cone's work connecting the cross and the lynching tree, and to suggest that the narratives of white superiority under which slavery and then lynching became part of our American past have not yet been fully replaced. They have simply found other means of expression.
*Have you ever heard of a "sundown town"? The concept dates back to the early days after the Civil War. These are towns in which a black person was risking his life if he was caught there after dark. According to Cone, "whites often lynched blacks simply to remind the black community of their powerlessness. Unemployed blacks passing through an area with no white man to vouch for them could easily find themselves on a prison chain gang or swinging from a lynching tree" (12). However, sundown towns were not just a feature of the deep South. DuPage County, IL, home of Wheaton and Downers Grove, is likely to have been a sundown county. Oregon City, Oregon, was a sundown town. In 1926, the only black resident of Oregon City, a business owner, was threatened with lynching and run out of town. In 1980, none of Oregon City's 14,000+ residents was black. By 2000, only 150 blacks lived in Oregon City, though the population had swelled to over 25,000. In Grants Pass and Medford, Oregon, "sundown" signs were not removed until the late 60s or early 70s, in spite of the passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.
This is par for the course in Oregon, a state which outlawed slavery in 1844, but also banned African Americans residents altogether. The laws excluding blacks were not repealed until 1927. Laws against interracial marriage were not repealed until 1951.