Framing black men as violent and predatory has been a constant in American race relations. During the lynching era, this characterization was typically rooted in assertions of genetic difference between the races, and these stereotypes were used to justify many lynchings. Tropes such as the “black brute” or “dark fiend” were repeatedly invoked in public discourse, particularly the Southern media. The cry to “protect our women” propelled many to join the white supremacist organizations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To be perfectly clear, lynching was a relatively rare event, with most Southern counties experiencing no lynchings, or only a single lynching, across the entire half century many scholars acknowledge as the “lynching era.” The practice of lynching itself was abhorred by many white Americans, while they simultaneously joined supremacist groups and evinced faith in the threat that black people (men, in particular) posed to the white community. Lynching culture was widely diffused within American society—both North and South. Lynching events occurred within local communities. This duality of the extremist behavior of a few married with cultural and institutional practices that brutalize specific black bodies, and the black community at large, continues to mark American society.
Local legacies of violence continue to resonate today. We see a link between historical patterns of lynching and the local concentration of white supremacist hate groups (Durso and Jacobs 2013), contemporary patterns of inter-racial homicide (Messner et. al. 2005), and resistance to enforcement of federal hate crimes laws (King et. al. 2009). Places with histories of racial violence appear to have durable racial cultures that persist despite sweeping demographic change, shifts in public policy, and cultural patterns that allow blacks and whites to interact on more equal footing—at least within middle class contexts. Indeed, one particularly visible example, Seminole County, Florida, witnessed two lynchings between its founding in 1913 and 1925 (Beck and Tolnay 2013). In 1946, racial intolerance again presented a public face in Seminole County, when white residents forced the Montreal Royals to move their spring training camp—which included World War II veteran Jackie Robinson—out of town rather than tolerate an integrated baseball team (Lamb 2004). And on a rainy night in February 2012, in Seminole County’s seat, Sanford, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. The dancers have changed but the music remains the same.
The cultural impulses towards racial violence and hate are enacted within the context of local communities like Seminole County, Florida. In reality, those communities merely perform behaviors that are in many ways the logical extension of broader cultural patterns. This was true historically and remains so in the present day. During the lynching era, white-controlled social spaces were not much more welcoming to blacks who lived in communities that experienced lynchings than they were in communities that did not. Blacks were systematically denied access to key social institutions, including higher education (Rudolph 1990), the military (Nalty 1989), residential communities (Massey and Denton 1993), and basic social safety net policy (Katznelson 2006). The “fringe element” created by lynch mobs moved the goal posts further out, making support for racist institutional practices, and even membership in groups like the Ku Klux Klan, appear more moderate. This bifurcation takes a page directly from the social movement playbook: pushing the radical fringe as far toward the edge as possible alters the center of gravity, and similarly impacts which groups are considered moderate enough to win a seat at the table. Lynching culture was suffused across the American landscape, even as lynching practices were confined to a small and increasingly stigmatized set of local communities.
Today, African Americans, and particularly black men, are still framed as violent and predatory. In contemporary discourse, however, the blame is placed less on biology and more on deficient cultural environments. Expressing racist sentiments that support biological notions of racial inequality is no longer socially condoned. We have developed a veiled language to discuss racial issues and justify racial inequalities, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2010) has identified, and last month’s essays by Peter Owens (“Racist Movements without Racists?”) and Kim Ebert (“Action, Inaction, and ‘Color-Blindness’”) reference. Perhaps more insidiously, however, because those contemporary groups and individuals who voice active support for biologically-rooted inferiority of people of color have been marginalized, the popular diffusion of culture-based arguments to explain racial inequality is cast in a more favorable light. Much in the same way that lynch mobs made Jim Crow laws seem moderate by comparison, the existence of twenty-first century hate groups and neo-Nazi white supremacists function to shift the landscape of the conversation.
We are perhaps less horrified than we should be at the extraordinary level of incarceration plaguing Black America (Western 2006), because our horror is reserved for those who join hate groups and openly voice their fears of the loss of white social ascendance. By comparison, belief in the risk posed by the myth of uncontrolled black male violence becomes more acceptable, despite its coherence with radical white supremacist doctrine. We embrace “tough on crime” policies as a means of increasing our own safety. As a culture, we develop the ability to overlook the devastating impact that criminal justice policy has on black people, black families, and black communities (Alexander 2010; Pettit 2012).
With the myth of a post-racial society, we have lost sight of both the durability of racial inequalities, and the recency with which black Americans have been granted the most basic civil rights. The increasing currency of that myth stands to impede the momentum for redressing issues of social and economic disparities by race. For example, a recent Pew Foundation report found that only 16 percent of white Americans thought that there was “a lot of” discrimination against African Americans today (Doherty 2013). We simultaneously see the reinscription of race and racial inequality as rooted in biological mechanisms (Hernstein and Murray 1996), and a shift in federal funding from research projects that examine social processes that lead to differential social and economic outcomes by race to those that investigate cellular and genetic causes for differential group-level outcomes (Duster 2006). This recent turn from social to biological explanations not only signals a possible return to pseudo-scientific and ideological perspectives on race from an earlier era. It also echoes the reshuffling of disciplinary prestige that occurred in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, as the humanities were forced to cede status to the ascendant mechanical and physical sciences.
In reflecting, then, on how historical racist practices and movements comport with contemporary facsimiles, I would offer the following. First, the specific communities that serve as the locations within which the most extreme racist practices are enacted appear to be durable. Local histories of racism leave footprints that present-day residents must understand and decide whether to repeat or to actively work to change. Second, the most outrageous incarnations of racist ideology and behavior continue to provide a fig leaf for more widespread social and institutional practices that work to reinforce racial inequalities. Resolving this tension—essentially replacing the middle ground in a location that will enable progress to be made toward racial equality—will undoubtedly require collaboration between social researchers and activists. And finally, I would argue, along with Troy Duster, that social scientists must be constantly vigilant of efforts to marginalize our disciplines and invalidate our research perspectives. We know that social structure matters. We know that institutional practices matter. Our place at the table is insecure until and unless we can convince decision-makers of that fact. It would appear, on all three of these dimensions, that if history does not repeat itself, it at least reinvents itself in its own image.
Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2010. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and Racial Inequality in Contemporary America, Third Edition. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Doherty, Carol. 2013. “For African Americans, Discrimination Is Not Dead.” Retrieved October 26, 2013 (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/28/for-african-americans-discrimination-is-not-dead/).
Durso, Rachel M., and David Jacobs. 2013. “The Determinants of the Number of White Supremacist Groups: A Pooled Time-Series Analysis.” Social Problems 60 (1): 128-144.
Duster, Troy. 2006. “Comparative Perspectives and Competing Explanations: Taking on the Newly Configured Reductionist Challenge to Sociology.” American Sociological Review 71 (1): 1-15.
Hernstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. 1996. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: The Free Press.
Katznelson, Ira. 2006. When Affirmative Action Was White: The Untold Story of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
King, Ryan D., Steven F. Messner, and Robert D. Baller. 2009. “Contemporary Hate Crimes, Law Enforcement, and the Legacy of Racial Violence.” American Sociological Review 74 (2): 291-315.
Lamb, Chris. 2004. “Robinson and Wright Flee Sanford by Sundown,” pp. 81-100 in Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Messner, Steven F., Matthew P. Zevenbergen, and Robert D. Baller. 2005. “The Legacy of Lynching and Southern Homicide.” American Sociological Review 70 (4): 633-55.
Nalty, Bernard C. 1989. Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: The Free Press.
Pettit, Becky.2012. Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Rudolph, Frederick. 1990. The American College and University: A History, second edition. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Western, Bruce. 2006. Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.