The US has a long record of violence against Black Americans, especially in the form of public lynchings. Paying close attention to this history, and how these actions are often seen as justified, can explain how today’s political violence against Muslims, Mexicans, and refugees continues to be normalized in this society.
This week, I read a compilation of investigative journalist Ida B. Wells’ writings entitled, On Lynchings, which discusses anti-Black extra-judicial violence and murder in the United States in the post-Reconstruction period.
These lynchings were justified by the oft-repeated claim that the perpetrator, usually a Black man, had committed rape against a white woman. Wells notes that lynchers rarely produced evidence of these rapes and it was typically widely known that the lynchings were committed for other reasons—including (but not limited to) white economic insecurity, racial animus, and hatred toward newly free Black people.
Wells knew lynchings were not truly predicated upon the rape of white women. She discusses in her pamphlets “Southern Horrors” and “A Red Record” an incident where three of her friends, Black men who ran a successful grocery store, were lynched for defending their property against an angry white mob of police officers and a competing store owner.
In response to their deaths, Wells wrote an angry editorial asserting that, “No one in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that negro men rape white women.” Wells goes on in her pamphlets to list a long record of lynchings across the United States, including witness reports. Justifications for these lynchings ranged from insolence, to murder, to covert (and consensual) liaisons across racial boundaries.
White Americans committed lynchings to reassert the racial order, to terrify and draw lines around what African Americans could do and who they could be in the United States. Whether a crime had been committed in fact or fiction, a trial through the white owned criminal justice system would not suffice. Lynching was seen as the necessary recourse to regain domination over Black people and a public re-establishment of white supremacy was due for the white slighted party, however insignificant the slight.
This historical record made me consider: what public lies are justifying today’s political violence against religious and racial minorities, the poor, and so many other “others”?
Donald Trump has been telling public lies about Mexicans, Muslims, and refugees for years. He has painted them all as dangerous and unfit for citizenship, unworthy of presence amongst the American people. He has said that they are “taking American jobs,” that they are “rapists and criminals,” that they are “terrorists.”
We know these are lies, not only because of our experiences with actual Mexicans and Muslims, but because the numbers tell us the truth:
These truths, however, do not stand up to the white fear that elected Donald Trump to the presidency.
The need to regain something lost, the need to “Make America Great Again” suggests that white American Trump voters feel that they have been diminished in social and economic status and that this status needs to be reclaimed. These feelings needed a target, whether that be an increasingly diverse America, a Black president, or Muslim and Syrian refugees.
This past November, white voters elected Donald Trump who told them they could resolve these fears not by looking inward but by lashing out—by constructing a wall around the southern border and threatening to deport undocumented people; by banning innocents who contribute to our society and culture and who may be fleeing persecution elsewhere.
Of course, President Obama made controversial moves to protect American citizenship and security. However, what is specifically different about Trump’s executive actions against Mexicans, Muslims, and refugees is their very public nature, the spectacle which serves to ease the fears of his base and signal to them that the United States belongs to only them and no one else.
Lynching and wall-building and bans on Muslims are all, of course, different. This is not to say that one type of oppression is equal to or more debasing or violent than another. Rather, I seek to point out the similar purpose in these acts: to soothe fears and publicly reconstitute citizenship for white Americans first and foremost—everyone else, and the truth, be damned.
How are we to face these public lies? Wells provides instructions. In her writings, she gives rich context and evidence concerning the true nature and barbaric violence of lynching, noting gaps in the white press and providing unedited facts and statistics. Wells encouraged readers to speak truth to power:
“What can you do, reader, to prevent lynching, to thwart anarchy and promote law and order throughout our land? First, you can help disseminate the facts contained in this book by bringing them to the knowledge of everyone with whom you come in contact, to the end that public sentiment may be revolutionized. Let the facts speak for themselves, with you as a medium.”
As writers, scholars, activists, organizers and everyday people, we can learn from Wells and seek truth in the face of Trump’s violent lies, “alternative facts,” and his desperate and exclusive claims on American citizenship.
We have to do it so that Wells’ historic legacy may continue through each of us.
Photo Credits: eachoneteachone.uk.org