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Black Lives Really Do Matter - The Social and Economic Costs of Lynching


To say "Black lives matter" is to take a political stance in today's America. Those who disparage this phrase choose to be unaware of the baggage that Black skin has had since the first Africans were kidnapped and dragged to our shores. However, "Black lives matter" is a phrase that aptly arises from one painful reality of American history--for generations, Black lives have not mattered, not in the least.

The most basic and obvious piece of evidence for this is found in over three centuries of Black enslavement. After all, what can matter less than a human being who is relegated to being considered a piece of property who can be bought and sold, and whipped within inches of his or her life?

Yet our history makes clear that the discounting and abuse of Black bodies didn't end with emancipation. As the recently opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama makes clear, the subjugation of African Americans continued with over seven decades in which over 4,000 men, women, and children were lynched in in over 800 counties.

Consider the legacy of lynching. While it is currently recognized as an unequivocal horror, back between the 1870s and 1950s, when most lynchings took place, this wasn't so. Lynchings were advertised and celebrated in southern newspapers. People treated these murders as community events. No perpetrator of lynching was ever held to justice. This was a state-sanctioned and culturally sanctioned strategy by which the majority kept power over the Black population.

One of the most famous lynching victims was Emmett Till, a 14-year old from Chicago who was accused of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. For this act, he was kidnapped, beaten, and shot in the head. There was a trial, but the perpetrators were acquitted.

What about some of the other four thousand lesser known victims? Here are just a few:

  • General Lee was lynched in Reevesville, SC, in 1904. His crime? Knocking on a white woman's door.

  • Jeff Brown was lynched in Cedarbluff, MI, in 1916. He had accidentally bumped into a white girl as he was trying to catch a train.

  • Sam Cates, lynched in 1917, had been "annoying white girls" in England, Arkansas.

  • Jesse Thornton, lynched in 1940, had failed to address a police officer as "mister," in Luverne, Alabama

Note that three of these examples involve supposed actions against white women or girls. This was the familiar trope that lynching perpetrators used to justify their actions, citing a fear of newly freed Black men terrorizing innocent white wives, daughters, and sisters. Yet as the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells pointed out over a century ago, these were trumped-up charges with no basis in fact.

So why bring this up today? Shouldn't we deal with current events, not century-old history? Well, as I've learned, there is no "past". The present is intertwined with and determined by historical events. Ignoring them means turning a blind eye to realities that affect our current existence.

The fact is, seven decades of white on black genocide have a profound impact today.

Think of the four thousand lives lost. Each one represents a family that dealt with loss and bereavement. Each one potentially represents children and other descendants who never came into existence. Think of an African-American close to you--a friend, a colleague. This person would not be here today if his or her family hadn't somehow escaped the violence, either by avoiding attention altogether or joining the Great Migration to the North.

Think of the lost opportunities. For seven decades, African Americans who weren't directly victimized by lynching had to make sure to lay low. In a different context, they could have made names for themselves professionally--as doctors, lawyers, bankers, pharmacists, or the like. But white society wouldn't countenance this, so it was better to be a quiet farmhand or sharecropper than an educated Black person, who might stand out and risk the lives of his or her family. How many thousands and thousands of people never had these chances, never could accumulate wealth? White parents could earn income, purchase houses, and pass on inheritances to their children. In this way, family prosperity ran through generations. This was hard to do for almost all Black families in the South.

To escape the genocide, countless southern Blacks migrated North and West, filling cities like New York, Newark, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Oakland, and Los Angeles. In these places, the new arrivals were forced to live in segregated areas, and this fact--combined with the lack of family wealth--added to the economic disadvantage these families faced. There was less money to reinvest in neighborhoods, and less money to pass on to future generations.

The story of race in America is complicated, and numerous factors have brought us to this current point in history. Yet history can often be simplified, and there is a straight line from slavery to lynching to social and economic disempowerment. The urban areas where the migrants first settled remain underinvested. Blame often falls on residents of these neighborhoods for not pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and on schools in these neighborhoods for not raising these students' test scores to match those of richer districts. And many of those who blame them, such as Jared Kushner, Sean Hannity, and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, get rich off of their investments in sub-standard housing--thus profiting off the fruits of slavery and lynching.

As racism morphs into different forms, from slavery, to lynching and Jim Crow, to mass incarceration and aggressive policing, those who declare "Black lives matter" are seeking to gain a more secure piece of the American inheritance, not to stand outside of it. In that sense, "Black lives matter" is the most patriotic slogan imaginable. If only those who continue to denigrate and profit off of Black lives had the same sense of patriotism and love for their fellow Americans.

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