Peter Dreier: Lynching Lessons

Peter Dreier, from Tikkun (6-17-05):

[Mr. Dreier, professor of politics and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program at Occidental College, is co-author of Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas, 2005) and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (University of California Press, 2005).]

On June 13, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for its failure to adopt federal anti-lynching legislation, first proposed 105 years ago at a time when lynchings were a frequent occurrence. In the first half of the 20th century, several hundred anti-lynching laws were filed in Congress, and three were passed by the House of Representatives, but the Senate -- controlled by Southern Democrats, who used the filibuster -- consistently refused to adopt the law. One of the most powerful was Richard Russell (D-Georgia), whose name now adorns the Senate office building where the resolution was crafted.

What is outrageous is that 20 Senators initially declined to cosponsor the resolution, drafted by Sen. Mary Landreiu (D-Louisiana). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) insisted on a voice vote, rather than a roll call vote, to avoid forcing members to put themselves on record. Even so, pressure from constituents pushed seven additional Senators to add their names as co-sponsors after the vote was taken.

Thirteen Republicans - including Trent Lott and Thad Cochran from Mississippi, the state with the most lynchings - continued to avoid joining the list of cosponsors. (The other holdouts include Lamar Alexander [TN], Robert Bennett and Orrin Hatch [Utah], John Cornyn [TX], Michael Crapo [Idaho], Michael Enzi and Craig Thomas [Wyoming], Chuck Grasley [Iowa], Judd Gregg and John Sununu [NH], and Richard Shelby [Alabama]). Even today, it seems, lynching remains controversial.

The Senate resolution is purely a symbolic act, but if it reminds us of the horrors of racial hatred and helps us address contemporary forms of bigotry, it will have served its purpose. What lessons should we learn from the sordid history of lynching in America?

Many news reports of the Senate' s action noted that there were 4,732 recorded lynchings between 1882 and 1951, although there were certainly many undocumented lynchings before and during that period. Most of the recorded lynchings occurred before 1930. The vast majority of lynchings took place in the South and the border states, although lynchings were not unknown in the North and Midwest, too. Three-fourths of the victims were black...

...Although it is simplistic to argue that if you give people a job, their hearts and minds will follow, it is certainly true that full employment at decent wages makes interracial co-operation much more likely. Otherwise, competition over economic crumbs will lead to resentments, bitterness, and racial tensions. In recent times, economic hard times are correlated with increases in the murder rate, racial violence, hate crimes, and opposition to immigration and remedies like affirmative action.

This is exactly what occurred during the 1990s. Aided by a tight labor market, the nation's poverty rate dropped from 15.1% in 1993 to 11.3% by 2000 -- the lowest rate since 1973. The poverty rate fell significantly in central cities and for black Americans. These trends also account for the decline in violent crime in America's cities during this period. . Because unemployment was low, employers hired people who they may not have hired when there was a "surplus" of workers. Workers with fewer skills and less education, particularly black men, got "pulled" into the labor market. Because whites were doing better, too, there was less competition for jobs and fewer incidents of racial hatred.

In contrast, when times are tough -- or when economic prosperity primarily benefits the wealthy, and the gap between the rich and everyone else widens - racial prejudice is more likely to trigger hate crimes and a political backlash against minorities and the poor.

The history of lynching should remind us that economic justice is a precondition for racial justice. Currently, the vast majority of Americans -- white, black, brown, yellow, and all shades in-between -- are not benefitting from the nation's recent economic upturn and will certainly suffer even more during the next inevitable downturn of the business cycle.

Is it just a coincidence that the Bush Administration - and almost all of the Senators who failed to cosponsor the apology for lynching - steadfastly opposes policies to promote full employment, raise the minimum wage, provide universal health care, and guarantee affordable housing for all?

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Hugh High - 6/18/2005

Peter Drier's juxtaposition of economic policy, with "lynching apologies" , demostrates an incredible ability to engage in boundless leaps of logic.

Let us hope he knows more about politics than he demonstrates and certainly more than he knows about economics -- otherwise, his students' education is likely to incredibly deficient.

I continue to be amazed at the lack of logic, and strange thoughts which seem to pervade academia, or at least cornes of it.

History News Network