You read that correctly. White people love lynchings.
This is not a post about the intricacies of mob violence or racial bigotry or segregation or Jim Crow. Those things are too easy, those things are too commonplace, and their analysis, at this point in history, is obtuse. I’m not interested in Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m not interested in the myth of post-racial America or “how far we have come”. No, what I want to talk about today is the way that white guilt and white discomfort has colored (pun intended) the history of civil rights and the way that it is told in text books, museums, documentaries and homes.
I will say first that the seriousness of lynchings and mob violence is overwhelming and that by no means am I attempting to downplay their importance. But every museum I have seen on this pilgrimage (although not complete) have belabored racist murders and segregation, regaling visitors with the same pictures of burnt men hanging from nooses and colored water fountains that we had seen in every exhibit, museum and textbook before. I started to question, as I have before, why the American public has been fed the same redundant story (which is not to say that this history should be ignored). I wondered where the Black Panthers were, or the history of Black Power, which were both parts of the Civil Rights Movement that highlighted the powerful agency that Black activists had. I wondered where the history of radical thinkers and leaders such as Du Bois (and his subsequent impact), Stokely Carmichael, and Bayard Rustin. But mostly, I wondered where the exhibit illustrating the modern-day impact of slavery, Jim Crow, and the failings of Civil Rights Movement was.
The answer may seem obvious. “Of course, the Civil Rights ended all of that. We are all equal in this country”. This train of thought is convenient, but dangerous. You see, the reason that the concepts of post-racialism and lynching are similar is that they both make white people comfortable. What is comfortable about lynchings? The same thing that makes the Nazi Party comfortable. Because of its outright violence, it’s blatant ignorance and its murderous passion it is very easy for white people to distance themselves from it and to say, “Well, I would never do that, so I am different from those lynchers. I am different from corrupt police with water hoses. I am different from segregationists. That’s absurd to think that we are the same,” when in fact, white citizens today systematically ignore the effects of the history of institutionalized and socialized racial oppression in this country. We do this by voting for representatives that cut off welfare to single Black mothers, made second-class citizens by hundreds of years of racism and sexism. We ignore gang violence as a symbol of the failings of the federal and state governments to support its citizens with resources and respond to young Black men with disdain, incarcerations, disgust and indignation when they are criminalized and victimized by the police tasked with protecting them. We ignore microaggressions and racial slurs. You see, because we have been constantly shown that racism equals blatant violence and outright, obvious, transparent ignorance in the form of lynchings and segregation, we are able to distance ourselves from it, when we are, in fact, supporting and affirming its residual oppressive effects by protecting Zimmerman from life in prison for killing Trayvon Martin in cold blood (in defense of his racial privilege, of course), allowing low-income Black schools to suffer and close, and to silently nod our heads to the beat of Blacks as lazy, stupid, violent people with attitude issues.
This is the problem. Unless racism is as obvious as lynchings, violence, or segregation (all things that we can separate ourselves from), it doesn’t exist to the white community. But here is the reality: We are not post racial. We are silently allowing this country and its unresolved, uneducated racial ignorance to lynch the futures of young Black boys and violently put them into jail. We are allowing ourselves to segregate cities on the increasing income gap, leaving the Black poor without resources, schools, or affordable housing. We are publicly shaming and taunting Black leaders that attempt to speak out, writing them off as “radical”. Until we, the white majority, come to terms with that we have left unresolved and ignored by the catch all Civil Rights Movement, we are just as guilty as the lynchers of the south, the Congressmen that passed segregation into law, and the firemen aiming powerful hoses at nonviolent men, women and children. The choice is ours to truly push lynchings into distant history.