On Tuesday, the New York Times published a story on lynchings and neglected to identify who did all of this racial terrorizing of blacks—American white people. The odd thing is, I read the piece and missed this inconsistency, probably because I'm clear on the perpetrators, but the omitted identifiers illuminate a larger problem with the way Americans address race and history.
Over at Vox, Jenee Desmond Harris writes this:
The mainstream media has become comfortable — especially during Black History Month — talking about the various ways black people have been oppressed throughout America's history. But if we don't become more comfortable being explicit about the racial identity of the people doing the oppressing, we're failing to tell the whole story.
The Times piece mentions the word "white" three times to describe what the black hanged victims were accused of: either brushing past or harming a white woman or girl. However in the first paragraph, when writer Campbell Robertson describes a violent lynching in 1910 where "a group of men" dragged a black man several blocks before stringing him up from an archway in Texas, there's no mention of the group's race. Nor in the next graph where the lynching of W.R. Taylor in 1889 is carried out by a race-less "mob" or where 25-year-old George Gay was hanged and shot hundreds of times just over thirty years later.
Neglecting to use the word "white" in these descriptions assumes the reader already knows the culprit's identity and is a bit like politely averting the real monster—because it's too close to home and not uttered in polite society. It's like when black people discuss disparity between white people and black people, and they whisper the word "white." I rarely do—because if I'm saying a true statement about the history of the country where I am a native, why do I need to whisper?
America was built on slavery and when that was forced out, only after war and bloodshed, the white supremacy structure figured out other ways to keep African Americans "in their place." From the early stages of the prison industrial complex with peonage, political and financial neutering with Grandfather clauses and straight up widespread murder through practices like lynchings from 1877 and 1950, it's like Bryan Stevenson, the man behind the lynching project to erect markers across the country where lynchings occurred, says:
"Lynching and the terror era shaped the geography, politics, economics and social characteristics of being black in America during the 20th century," Mr. Stevenson said, arguing that many participants in the great migration from the South should be thought of as refugees fleeing terrorism rather than people simply seeking work.
Don't forget the highly publicized funeral of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched in Money, Mississippi, was held in 1955—within the lifetime of my parents, not just my grandparents. It's not so far off this awful, bloody history in which black people were hung from trees, or whatever was high and strong enough, and their corpses burned, while white people looked on like it was a television show.
American history isn't pretty. In some parts it is mean and gnarly down to its roots, but it is ours. Glossing over the culprits behind homegrown terrorism because it is uncomfortable to admit that the white people reading the New York Times probably have an ancestor or five who participated in such violence won't save any of us.
*I mistakenly wrote 40,000 black names in the title, the NYT reported 4,000.
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