Vigilante Injustice

Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana spoke before a Senate vote in 2005 to issue a formal apology for the Senate's failure to enact anti-lynching laws in the early twentieth century.
Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana spoke before a Senate vote in 2005 to issue a formal apology for the Senate’s failure to enact anti-lynching laws in the early twentieth century.

Without a doubt, lynching in the United States is one of the dirtiest stains, if not the single dirtiest, in our nation’s history. Perhaps it even outdoes years of disenfranchisement, internment camps, and the institution of slavery itself. The culture of lynch mobs that was prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one fueled by hate and ignorance. In a formal apology from the Senate floor for failing to enact appropriate laws in the early 20th century, Senator Mary Landrieu proclaimed, “There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility.” [1] Collective memory in the form of music, art, and literature is prone to remember these episodes as white on African-American violence. While the vast majority of lynching victims were African-Americans, it is important to recognize that these injustices were inflicted on many ethnic minorities across the country. These moments from our not so distant past are links in the chain that brings us to today’s episodes of racially motivated violence.

Recently, the Equal Justice Initiative published a report on the history and prevalence of lynchings in America. The report focuses on the American South in the period between the Civil War and World War II, so naturally it predominantly chronicles African-American lynchings. But what about other persecuted groups? An op-ed piece that ran in the New York Times this week discusses the lesser known tale of Mexican lynchings. These occurred largely in the western and southwestern states, resulting from a fear of Mexican revolution and the general bigotry exhibited by white America in this era. Ken Gonzales-Day is also helping to raise awareness of these stories through his Erased Lynching project and his book, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935, which focuses more specifically on the history of lynching in California.

While the incidence of lynching has dropped off dramatically, racially motivated violence is still far too prevalent in American society. In 1982, Vincent Chin was viciously attacked by two white autoworkers in Detroit, on the night of his bachelor party no less. He was left in a coma and died four days later. Chin, a Chinese American, was targeted after being incorrectly identified by his assailants as Japanese. The rise of Japanese auto companies was indeed a contributing factor to the decline of American automobile manufacturing, including the recent layoff of one of the two perpetrators. Following their altercation, the two men searched for Chin and proceeded to savagely beat him with a baseball bat, leaving him unconscious. They would later plead guilty to this crime. Despite fitting obvious definitions of a hate crime, the two men did not serve a single day of jail time and instead paid fines of $3,780 each in addition to three years of probation. This apparently was the value of a young man’s life.

I would like to think that in 2015 this could not happen. The advent of social media and twenty-four hour information services allowed the nation to react and respond to the recent murders of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and other tragedies in real time. Unfortunately, the case of Vincent Chin has faded into relative anonymity through the years, at least among those not old enough to remember the event when it happened.

It is important to remember that hate has no color. Our duty is to stand up and stay vigilant against any and all perpetrators of such heinous crimes. It is relatively easy to sit here researching articles and stories that detail the audacity of lynch-mob and racially motivated violence. What’s hard is engaging in the unpleasant and difficult conversations that must be had for our society to move forward and truly learn from the past.

[1] Thomas-Lester, Avis. “A Senate Apology for History on Lynching; Vote Condemns Past Failure to Act.” The Washington Post, June 14, 2005. Accessed February 22, 2015.

12 thoughts on “Vigilante Injustice

  1. You bring up some excellent points here, Noah. Although physical lynchings do not occur in America anymore, the hate that fueled lynchers still exists. Talking about these painful issues urges people to deeply reflect on their own actions and opinions and (hopefully) inspires them to denounce such treatment of fellow human beings.

  2. I think that it is so important to explore how the lynch-mob mentality has perhaps shifted, but that hate crimes are unfortunately alive and well today. Noah, I agree so much with your statement about hate having no color. Unfortunately, there have been egregious acts of violence because of race, religion, sexual orientation, and many other reasons just within the past twenty or thirty years in the U.S. alone. I regret that I did not know about the many races other than African-Americans who were victims of lynching, but the important thing is that the stories continue to come to light. If we as a society can begin having these painful conversations about hate crimes of the past, perhaps we can begin to eradicate the ignorance that so often is the root of hate crimes in the world today.

  3. “The Ways of White Folk” by Langston Hughes leaves a strong depiction of how precarious and dangerous life was for African Americans in the South during the early 20th century. Roy William’s merciless death and lynching at the hands of white men who believed he was “raping” Miss Reese is one of the most painful stories of racial hatred and violence can lead to. The fact that the white population in Hopkinsville enjoyed his musical talents but strongly desired that Williams be kept in his place really makes me think that this is a direct cause of his lynching. No blacks were safe and they could be lynched for any slight indiscretion against whites. It leaves a painful image of how racism led to lynching and heinous crimes against blacks in the past, but also how recent acts of violence towards blacks today show us how these issues are still part of society. Only by reading about the issues and having dialogue and training to help educate others about the severity of racial tensions and how racism affects people will we be able to correct these injustices and prevent racial violence.

  4. The way you connect the history of lynching with violence today is very interesting. I completely agree that racially motivated violence is still happening today and that it’s horrifying. Your comment about 24-hour information networks allowing a larger and faster response time is really interesting. I haven’t really thought much about the media’s role in getting justice for and stopping these hate crimes. When lynching was so prevalent, justice wasn’t served because of entrenched white racism. Now the media and technology have the potential to be an impartial tool for justice. It’s much easier to prove things when there is video and photographic evidence everywhere. Can technology be an impartial voice for justice or is it just another potential arm for corruption?

    1. Tori, you raise an interesting question about the media’s ability to expedite and facilitate justice, or to do the opposite. It is true that the ubiquity of technology and news stories can spread the word quickly and raise awareness. But the media also perpetuates stereotypes, such as using an unsmiling photo of Michael Brown designed to produce white suspicions about him rather than one of him smiling in a suit or a graduation cap and gown. Also, in the case of Eric Garner, there is actual video of the murder taking place, but that did nothing to save him AND nothing to get to get the murderer indicted.

  5. I think you put it very well with “links in the chain that brings us to today’s episodes of racially motivated violence”. We like to think that lynchings and other racially motivated crimes are something that happened a long time ago and far away from us, but in reality, they have continued, in different forms, up to today. Even if none of us personally participated in a racially motivated crime, we still have to confront the legacy our ancestors have left us, and figure out how to confront these issues today.

    1. I completely agree with Emily about lynching existing in different forms today. In reality, we see young people of color (especially young African Americans) being taught how to act if they don’t want any trouble. Especially after Trayvon Martin, new clips and cartoon depict parents talking to their children about the horrors of our society. While a mass mob might not be killing people, people have allowed it to happen by statements like “looked suspicious.” Will discussion really stop these events or do we need to figure out a different way such as harsher laws?

  6. Noah, you really shed light on current-day hate crimes that are not too far off from the lynchings of the 20th century. We must end the cycle of turning to violence, racism, and prejudice. But how can this change when those who commit hate crimes are not always punished accordingly? We must address this as well.

  7. Noah, your last two sentences really struck me. You say that it is easy for you to sit here researching articles and that the difficult part is engaging in productive conversation–I’d say you are right about that. But from my research on the Mary Turner Project and the readings for this week, I think that research can be a really strong tool with which to anchor tough race related conversations. Perhaps using historical research in dialogue can contextualize current race issues and help society move forward.

  8. I thought you brought in a lot of new information that was interesting in seeing the similarities and differences in hate crime throughout the recent decades. You’re absolutely right that racially motivated violence in still far too prevalent in American society. Even if it takes different forms, that mentality of us vs. them is still very much alive. I think that with current technology it has become easier to voice outrage and demand justice, but we still have a lot of work to do to fix this problem.

  9. Noah, I particularly liked your last paragraph. How can we as museum professionals engage the public on tough topics like racially motivated violence? Racially motivated violence is still prevalent, and a huge issue today. I’d like to see more museums respond to social issues in real time.

  10. Noah, I find your statement about social media and 24-hour news interesting. I completely agree that I would also like to think that something like Chin’s murder would not happen today. That the activity on social media and news coverage would demand justice. This makes me think of the impact of social media today on events such as you mentioned.

    Some could say the events of Ferguson spearheaded a unified need for civic engagement. When I first saw #blacklivesmatter, #handsupdontshoot, and #icantbreathe appear on my Instagram and Facebook newsfeeds, I could not help but think it was just another popular social media trend and not an active solution to the upraise in racial tension nationwide. Facebook ensured the phrases popularity by listing it as “trending” on its users’ timelines. On Instagram, many users not only used the increasingly popular hashtags, but also created virtual blackouts by displaying all black photos as profile pictures. Because of the phrases sweeping popularity, it was difficult for me to discern which friends were genuinely concerned and involved in the issue, versus those who were simply following the trend perpetuated by social media.

    But the hashtags in its self-created a modern form of civic engagement because of the awareness they draw to the controversy. Social media and 24-hour news coverage is changing the way people interact with racial tensions today.

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