Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Yglesias's Lynching Statistics

Yglesias had a post up yesterday on a really strange attempt by the conservative magazine American Spectator to try to discredit Shirley Sherrod by arguing that her relative, Bobby Hall, was not lynched because he was not hung (he was beaten to death). Yglesias goes through the history of lynching, and some of the reports on the incident, and demonstrates quite clearly that lynching doesn't necessarily mean "hanging", it simply means mob justice before a trial can take place. It often implies hanging, but the act is not required. Why the American Spectator would try to take a stand on this is a worthwhile question for any subscribers to that publication to ask. But I was also intrigued by the graphic that Yglesias included from the Truman administration's "To Secure These Rights" report:

One thing that caught my eye was how many of the early lynchings were of whites. For the first ten years, about half the incidents involved whites, and then very quickly the vast majority were lynchings of blacks. What happened here? One of the books I rescued from the Urban Institute's library before it closed up was the 1966 follow up report on civil rights titled "To Fulfill These Rights", but this report didn't even mention lynching (which I suppose is in and of itself a sign of some progress). I also consulted DuBois's 1915 article on lynching and he doesn't mention the phenomenon of white lynching. I have three theories for what's going on here. If anyone has any way of arbitrating between the theories or has any additional theories I'd be interested in hearing about it:

1. The end of Reconstruction marked the beginning of the Jim Crow era. The late 1870s and early 1880s were a time of institution building at the state and local level; new institutions emerged to control blacks now that the old laws and customs of chattel slavery and the protective cover of the Union Army were both gone. In 1875 or so, while the United States was not a pleasant place for blacks, it was not yet the Jim Crow world that would emerge. I know specifically of former Confederate officer William Mahone, who (at least initially) made political inclusion of blacks a priority in Virginia. But as the institutions of Jim Crow began to emerge this sort of position became untenable for whites, and men like Mahone very quickly began to relent. So - perhaps white lynchings in the 1880s, which quickly dropped off afterwards, were a form of institutional enforcement. Whites were lynched early on for the same reason that blacks were: they weren't sufficiently deferential to white privilege. Perhaps a few tried to defend blacks during lynchings and suffered the same fate. As the institution matured, whites "learned their place" as it were, and didn't make any attempts to challenge a system that, after all, provided them with privileges. It seems like a reasonable explanation.

2. Lynchings became racialized. There are a lot of things in our society that are thought of as "black things" or "white things". Crime and punishment is no different. The South has always been a violent place, and its not particularly surprising that mob justice was meted out to whites as well as blacks. But when lynching became a specific tool of Jim Crow, it became a "black punishment". Part of keeping the disparity between whites and blacks intact was to make sure that whites weren't subjected to "black punishments". Violent outbursts are racially categorized - you don't hear that much about black duels and you don't hear that much about white lynchings. You can see this trend in servitude and slavery itself in the very early South. Bound servitude was initially a fate of both whites and blacks. But very quickly chattel slavery was distinguished as an institution for blacks alone. In a sense this explanation, like the first one, is very much an "institutional emergence" explanation.

3. Bad statistics. You can't work with data of varying quality every day and not keep in mind that the statistics might just be bad. It's quite plausible that total lynchings were much higher in the 1880s than is reported here, but that white lynchings were reported and counted more often than black lynchings. As the years went on and this was recognized as a real problem, counts of black lynchings became more accurate. If this is the case, then the substantial number of early white lynchings may be a mirage - they may have formed just as small a percentage of the total as they did in later years.


  1. The graph does not include the large number of hispanics who were lynched. Indeed, hispanics were lynched at higher rates per capita than African-Americans for significant chunks of U.S. history.

    On the lynching of African-Americans and statistics: we have to keep in mind that this was not the only way that African-Americans (and their white supporters) were terrorized in the Reconstruction and Redeemer South. The Colfax Massacre and the attacks on Twitchell and his allies were not isolated events.

  2. BTW, the amongst the numbers of whites would have been included a fair number for Irish immigrants - particularly in Louisiana and California.

    Asian immigrants throughout the West Coast were also the subject of this sort of community violence.

  3. That lynching was not the only form of oppression is certainly appreciated.

    It seems like we have to add another theory:

    4. Undesired whites were lynched for precisely the same reasons blacks were - to maintain native white privilege.

    One still has to explain, though, why white lynchings tapered off. After all, European immigration picked up again in the 1890-1920 period when the white-black parity in lynchings vanishes in the time series. If explanation #4 is a part of the story (and I think you're right - it probably is), the original #2 explanation probably is very helpful for explaining why the white lynchings were nevertheless dropping off just as the white immigrant boom really began.

  4. Possibly because in the late 19th century Irish, etc. immigrants were able to more easily protect themselves via political machines, patronage, etc.

    Lynchings of whites might also have been tied to "labor violence," which reached a crest of sorts with the Pullman strike of the 1890s (there was a lot of resistance to this strike at the time because it was felt by many outside the labor movement that it could lead to another Civil War - the press at the time is full of such thoughts - and state and local governments went on something of a binge buying weaponry to foil any attempt to overthrow them).

  5. Might it have to do with the "closing of the frontier" and the decline of western lynchings -- often of whites -- as a kind of frontier justice?

    You can also imagine substantial southern lynchings of white "scalawags" and "carpetbaggers" as part of the process of creating Jim Crow, something that would be pointless later.

  6. That's a very good point, Matt.

    I think your second idea, on scalawags and carpetbaggers, is part of what I'm trying to say with my point #1. White lynchings were a tool of institution-building.

  7. FYI: The "frontier justice" aspect of this was also heavily racially/ethnically tinged ... though the modern literature/media about the West doesn't touch on that much at all (in the 19th century the literature/stage/etc. at the time did).

  8. Speaking of conservatives ...



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