Modern-Day Lynchings: El Paso Shooting, Other Attacks Draw Comparisons to Historic Violence Against Minorities
Carol Anderson was scanning Twitter recently when she saw something that brought back a chilling memory.
Someone asked Latina women if they had changed the way they acted in public after a white man allegedly targeting Mexicans was arrested for gunning down 22 people in an El Paso Walmart. One woman said she no longer speaks Spanish when out alone, checks store exits and now feels like a marked person when among whites.
“The hate feels like a ball in my stomach, and a rope around my neck,” the woman said.
For Anderson, the allusion to lynching wasn’t just a metaphor. It was personal. She had an uncle who was almost lynched in the early 20th century for standing up to a white man in an Oklahoma store. She also is a historian who wrote about the lynching era in her book, “White Rage.”
She says the white men who are driving a surge in white supremacist violence in places like El Paso today are sending the same message to nonwhite Americans that their counterparts did in the lynching era: You will never be safe wherever you go.
“The thing about the lynching era was the capriciousness of it — no space was safe,” says Anderson, an African-American studies professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
“Folks of color were never at ease. You’re looking all the time. You’re wondering. Is this a place I can go? You could be walking down the street or in a store or you could be sitting on your front porch and you could get killed.”
The term lynching evokes images of a bygone era: black men dangling grotesquely from trees, Southern whites posing proudly by charred bodies, Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.”
But Anderson and others warn that many of the same elements that spawned the lynching era are stirring once again in America. One commentator even described the El Paso shooter as “a lynch mob of one.”
The result, Anderson says, is that more Americans — Latinos, blacks, Muslims, Jews, anyone not seen as white enough — are now experiencing the same fear of being murdered at random in public that their relatives faced during the lynching era.
“It is tiring. It is ridiculous. It is infuriating,” she says.
Here are three parallels between the white supremacists of the lynching era — roughly the late 19th century through the 1960s — and today:
Both are driven by the same fear
There’s a perception that lynch mobs were motivated by mindless violence. But they were primarily driven by fear.
White supremacists were afraid of losing their dominance and being replaced by blacks in positions of power throughout the South.
“It’s a weapon of terror to say to the people you’re attacking that you don’t belong in the mainstream of our society, and we want you to stay back,” says Gibson Stroupe, co-author of “Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells as Prophet for Our Time,” a biography of the most famous anti-lynching crusader.
“You shouldn’t have political rights, make demands on white people, and shouldn’t have the same rights in courts.”
One of the biggest fears of the lynching era revolved around sex — white paranoia about black men doing to white women what white men had been doing to black women for years. White supremacists were obsessed with being replaced on a biological level and fixated on the notion of black men raping white women and creating a ”mongrel race.”
Modern-day racists are also voicing fears about being replaced.
The white supremacists marching in Charlottesville in 2017 chanted, “You will not replace us,”and “Jews will not replace us.” The Texas man suspected in the EL Paso shooting posted a document online saying he was “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement.”
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh was recently criticized for saying Central America immigrants would “dilute and eventually eliminate or erase” what’s distinct about American culture.
And the white supremacists of the lynching era were actually starting to be replaced — at least briefly — on a political level.
A dizzying set of reforms, called Reconstruction, briefly transformed the South after the Civil War. Newly freed slaves gained the right to vote, own property, and get elected to offices once reserved for white men. Two African-Americans were elected to the Senate in the late 19th century, and over 600 served in state legislatures and as judges and sheriffs.
Random racial terror was one of the ways white supremacists seized power.
White supremacists often went after people who were political leaders in a community: ministers, union organizers and people with wealth and property who could inspire others to demand their civil and economic rights, according to a report from the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit group behind the recent opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is dedicated to the victims of lynching.
“Each lynching sent messages to blacks: Do not register to vote. Do not apply for a white man’s job, according to one essay on the Jim Crow era.
It was racial politics by other means — like today, Anderson says.
When elected leaders suppress votes, engage in partisan gerrymandering or decimate unions, they are doing what white supremacists did during the lynching era: trying to keep nonwhites in a subordinate position, Anderson says.
“Most of the lynchings were about black people who didn’t know ‘their place,’ ” Anderson says. “They didn’t get off the sidewalk when a white person was walking toward them. They looked directly at a white person instead of (at) their feet. They didn’t show the proper level of deference — ‘place’ was absolutely essential.”
Both use the same language to dehumanize their victims
Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine people in 2015 in a Charleston, South Carolina church, said he did it because blacks are prone to violence and white people were “being murdered daily in the streets.”
This is a common theme of white supremacy — reducing nonwhites to a subhuman level through language.
It’s why critics point out the dangers of commentators and politicians referring to an “invasion” by Central American immigrants. It’s why people criticized President Trump for calling some Mexican immigrants “rapists.” USA Today recently published a story examining the language Trump uses to describe immigrants — terms like “predator,” “killer,” and “animal” — at his rallies.
The white supremacists of the lynching era used similar language to describe blacks. But they also went after other victims: Latinos were lynched, as were Chinese laborers and Jews.
Black men were a fixation, though. They were described as brutes, animalistic, rapists. One writer described the typical black man as “a monstrous beast, crazed with lust.”
An estimated 4,700 people were murdered by lynching between 1882 and 1968, according to the NAACP.
They weren’t only hung. They were also shot, tortured, burned alive or beaten to death by mobs.
Random racial terror is what defined lynchings — not a noose.
The cruelty is still hard to comprehend. Lynch mobs mutilated bodies and collected body parts as souvenirs — all while taking pictures of the corpses and sending them as postcards to friends.
Stroupe, though, understands some of that hatred. He once absorbed some of it. He grew in a white family in segregated Arkansas during the lynching era. Today he is a civil rights activist who leads anti-racism workshops and previously led an interracial church that was recognized by Time magazine and the Christian Science Monitor for its work against racism.
But he remembers how he was taught when he was young to think of nonwhites.
“My earlier memory was that people of dark skin were not human beings like us,” he says. “I was inculcated with it. We felt like lynching was like killing a dog. I hate to say it that way. It wasn’t like we thought we were killing another human being. I never participated in it but I understood that black people had to be put and kept in their place because they couldn’t do life like we could.”
Both are encouraged by the same type of political leaders
He was a racist in the White House whose words empowered white supremacists and enraged civil rights leaders.
We’re talking, of course, about Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States.
Wilson helped revive the Ku Klux Klan by praising one of the most racist movies ever made, “The Birth of a Nation.” The film portrayed black lawmakers who came to power in the late 19th-century South as buffoonish, dim-witted men lusting after white women. The KKK was depicted as heroes.
“It’s like writing history with lightning,” he reportedly said of the film. “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
In celebrating the film Wilson endorsed its message “that black people were not able to have political power and needed white people to put them in their place,” Stroupe says. “Like the President we have now, he sort of encouraged white supremacy.”
Other politicians weren’t much better. The NAACP and other groups spent decades urging federal lawmakers to pass anti-lynching laws. Congress debated more than 200 anti-lynching bills in the first half of the 20th century without passing any. Opponents of the bills often described them as an infringement on states’ rights.
The Senate finally passed a law making lynching a federal crime — last year.
Politicians then and now “feigned helplessness” when asked to stop white-supremacist violence or changed the subject, Anderson says.
“You had this crazy kind of both-siderism,” she says. “So that when anti-lynching bills were coming through Congress, you would have Southern Democrats like James Byrnes out of South Carolina saying things like, ‘Yeah what about murders in New York City? What about the violence in the North?’ Stop me if this sounds familiar.”
Today many Republican leaders have been criticized by those who say they enable white supremacist violence by refusing to confront race-based domestic terrorism or condemn Trump for his racist statements.
These white politicians are as morally bankrupt as overt racists because they know better but do nothing, Stroupe says.
“It’s why Trump doesn’t do it now — that’s where the votes are,” he says. “Even if they didn’t believe in white supremacy, they weren’t going to lose votes over it.”
The kind of America people want?
It’s hard to imagine the random racial terror from the lynching era ever becoming routine again. But maybe it already has.
One former white nationalist told The Atlantic he is shocked to see the impact of racist thinking on American popular culture. And he said the worst is yet to come.
“I never thought we would have a social and political climate that really kind of brought it to the foreground,” Christian Picciolini told an interviewer. “Because it’s starting to seem less like a fringe ideology and more like a mainstream ideology.”
In the past two years white supremacists have killed Muslim students in a North Carolina apartment, Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue and a South Asian man in a Kansas bar. And, of course, there’s the recent shooting in El Paso. It’s getting hard to keep up.
Anderson believes such violence will keep happening if Trump is re-elected.
“If he gets in power again it sends the signal that this is the kind of America that people wanted,” she says.
If that kind of America sounds far-fetched, consider another tweet that showed up on the thread Anderson noticed. When a Latina woman was asked how her life changed after El Paso, she responded with two words: “Mississippi, Goddamn.”
That’s the name of a fiery protest song written during the lynching era by the black singer Nina Simone.
Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air
I can’t stand the pressure much longer…
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here.
I don’t belong there.
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.
Simone wrote that song in part to protest the murder of four black girls by white supremacists in a Birmingham, Alabama, church. She wrote it in 1964, near the end of the lynching era.
Yet for many Americans who hear those words today, here is an awful thought:
She could have written that song yesterday.