The Historical Connection Between Lynchings and Police Killings

by Isabel Wilkerson for The Guardian

Not terribly long ago in a country that many people misremember, if they knew it at all, a black person was killed in public every four days for often the most mundane of infractions, or rather accusation of infractions – for taking a hog, making boastful remarks, for stealing 75 cents. For the most banal of missteps, the penalty could be an hours-long spectacle of torture and lynching. No trial, no jury, no judge, no appeal. Now, well into a new century, as a family in Ferguson, Missouri, buries yet another American teenager killed at the hands of authorities, the rate of police killings of black Americans is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century.

About twice a week, or every three or four days, an African American has been killed by a white police officer in the seven years ending in 2012,according to studies of the latest data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That number is incomplete and likely an undercount, as only a fraction of local police jurisdictions even report such deaths – and those reported are the ones deemed somehow “justifiable”. That means that despite the attention given the deaths of teenagers Trayvon Martin (killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman) and Jordan Davis (killed by a white man for playing his music too loud), their cases would not have been included in that already grim statistic – not only because they were not killed by police but because the state of Florida, for example, is not included in the limited data compiled by the FBI.

Even though white Americans outnumber black Americans fivefold, black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed when they encounter the police in the US, and black teenagers are far likelier to be killed by police than white teenagers.

The haunting symmetry of a death every three or four days links us to an uglier time that many would prefer not to think about, but which reminds us that the devaluation of black life in America is as old as the nation itself and has yet to be confronted. Beyond the numbers, it is the banality of injustice, the now predictable playing out of 21st Century convention – the swift killing, the shaming of the victim rather than inquiry into the shooter, the kitchen-table protest signs, twitter handles and spontaneous symbols of grievance, whether hoodies or Skittles or hands in the air, the spectacle of death by skin color. All of it connects the numbing evil of a public hanging in 1918 to the numbing evil of a sidewalk killing uploaded on YouTube in the summer of 2014.

Lynchings were, of course, distinct from today’s police killings. They were ritualistic displays of public violence before sometimes thousands of people, including children. They were intended to reinforce the arbitrary rules of a race-based caste system, primarily in the American south. One white father in Texas took his toddler to a lynching in Waco in 1916 for that express purpose. He propped the boy up on his shoulders as 18-year-old Jesse Washington was burned alive. “My son can’t learn too young,” the man said.

But there are parallels between the violence of the past and what happens today. Images and stereotypes built into American culture have fed prevailing assumptions of black inferiority and wantonness since before the time of Jim Crow. Many of those stereotypes persist to this day and have mutated with the times. Last century’s beast and savage have become this century’s gangbanger and thug, embedding a pre-written script for subconscious bias that primes many to accept what they were programmed to believe about black Americans, whether they are aware of it or not.

It is the ordinariness of the supposed infractions and the very human nature of the behavior of some of the victims that may be most heart-wrenching about both lynchings of the past and the public killings of today. In both cases, it has never taken very much for an African-American to lose one’s life, whether taking a hog during the time of formal Jim Crow or jaywalking three Saturdays ago in Ferguson. Or, in a stunning case in Brooklyn, New York, 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury Jr., unarmed and with no criminal record, was killed in 2004 as he walked up a stairwell. The officer who shot him said that he had been startled. A grand jury refused to indict.

Continue reading at The Guardian

Photo Credit: JB Forbes / St Louis Post-Dispatch via AP; Wikimedia Commons

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