We should be past this in 2021. Yet here we are.
Providing a commentary on the state of the country and a continuing need to work toward racial justice, Oregon is considering legislation that would criminalize the display of a noose. The fact that such legislation has not previously been passed; that it is deemed necessary now; and that it is being debated all reflect a lack of progress for this country.
In Washington, RCW 9A.36.080 says that it can be deemed a hate crime if somebody “places a noose on the property of a victim who is or whom the actor perceives to be of a racial or ethnic minority group.”
That was added to the state’s hate-crime statute in 2019. In the past 15 years, several other states have criminalized the display of a noose — including Louisiana, Virginia, California, New York, Maryland and Connecticut.
Harkening back to when extrajudicial lynchings were commonly used to murder, oppress and intimidate minorities, a noose remains a powerful symbol of white supremacists and domestic terrorism.
The Alabama-based Tuskegee Institute has documented more than 4,700 lynchings between 1882 and 1968 in the United States, about three-quarters of them of African American victims and about three-quarters of them in the South.
Most disturbing, the practice was celebrated. The website AmericanLynchingData.com shows a 1916 newspaper from Texas with the lead headline blaring “FIFTEEN THOUSAND SAW NEGRO BURN”; and pictures of mutilated bodies hanging from trees often would accompany the reports. There is no shortage of photos showing lynchings attended by the whole town, as if it were a community picnic.
The visceral reaction to modern depictions of a noose is understandable. It also is understood by those who would hang a noose from their tree or leave one in a neighbor’s driveway.
The intent is intimidation; as the Equal Justice Initiative explained in a 2017 report: “Lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized Black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials.”
In 2020, the U.S. House passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act (named for a teen who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955) by a 410-4 vote, with support from all Washington representatives. The measure, which would make lynching a federal crime, was blocked in the Senate by Rand Paul, R-Ky., but has been reintroduced this year.
The legislative effort arrives amid reports that incidents of hate crimes and hate crime murders have increased in recent years, and that white supremacy is “on the rise and spreading geographically,” according to the U.S. State Department. White supremacists, according to federal officials, were prominent in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to halt the democratic process.
Americans can find false comfort in the idea that lynchings are no longer common — and therefore progress has been made. We should not be fooled. While the act of lynching may have been suppressed, the specter remains — with nooses used as a not-so-subtle suggestion to minorities that whites are in charge and will resort to violence to preserve their societal dominance.
Most white Americans are appalled by such suggestions, and the fact that white supremacists have been emboldened in recent years calls for people of all races to stand up for this nation’s ideals. That includes making clear that the display of a noose is not to be tolerated.