Editor’s Note: Koritha Mitchell is a literary historian, cultural critic and author of the award-winning book “Living with Lynching.” As associate professor of English at Ohio State University, she specializes in African American literature and racial violence in US history and contemporary culture. Follow her @ProfKori. The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Mississippi Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who faces former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy in a run-off election on November 27, is facing public outcry after jokingly invoking “hanging” while campaigning in a state where lynching was once a common occurrence. “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” Hyde-Smith is heard saying in a video posted to Twitter Sunday morning. She was referring to a cattle rancher who supported her. Hyde-Smith later issued a statement saying that she “used an exaggerated expression of regard [for a supporter], and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”
But her remark underscored a simple truth that many Americans prefer to ignore: Lynching and politics are inextricably linked. Lynching literally shaped the political landscape Americans have inherited; our politics today are in part defined by the belief that white people should have the right to hold themselves and each other to incredibly low standards – that they shouldn’t have to be decent toward people who aren’t white.
When white people have not actively worked to create a society fueled by fair play and equal opportunity, they have often ignored the political repression that mobs bent on extra-judicial “justice” achieved – and the benefits, like power and economic success, they themselves have reaped as a result. Only a person whose ancestors or family members bore no risk of being lynched themselves would dismiss as “ridiculous” objections to making hanging into a public political joke in Mississippi.
Hyde-Smith’s remarks and her defensiveness are indicative of the flawed but common arguments made by some white Americans that they bear no responsibility for structural racism and – as argued even recently by the President – that pointing out instances of racism is itself “racist.” We need the majority of white people to stop being content with the fact that there’s no literal blood on their hands. We need them to hold themselves to a higher standard.
Many Americans underestimate lynching’s political role because they focus on “strange fruit,” the image of black bodies dangling from trees during the Jim Crow era, and think of those who left those bodies as bygone extremists. However, there was a social and political purpose for producing visual evidence of black people’s vulnerability: to make them accept their “proper,” subordinate place in society. “Strange fruit” was also evidence of white people’s freedom – to exercise power, to be citizens, to kill. Even those who did not take their freedom to that extreme were assured of it. If all they did was insult a black person or exclude them from opportunity, they could by comparison see themselves as liberal and tolerant.
It is estimated that more than 4,400 African American men, women and children were lynched between 1877 and 1950, and these murders were designed to maintain the political hierarchy according to race. As investigative journalist Ida B. Wells found in the 1890s, “The mob spirit has grown with the increasing intelligence of the Afro-American.” I always say black success beckons the mob because white supremacist violence most often emerged to counter African American achievement. Mobs targeted black people who owned land that whites wanted to take; who were self-assured enough to defend themselves against assault or harassment, including sexual assault and harassment; or who sought political participation, including voting.
The nation’s African American lynch victims were often hanged, burned, or shot, but this brutality did not require hatred so much as it relied on the masses of white people holding themselves to low standards. As long as they weren’t doing the bloody work themselves, these atrocities simply confirmed that they were “good” people who had little in common with those who would join mobs. As long as the blood wasn’t on their hands (or they weren’t in the “front row”), they were not part of the problem – and could pretend that their safe access to education and voting, for example, had nothing to do with violence.
Many Americans also underestimate the political role of lynching because it was attached to the idea that black men are rapists obsessed with white women, but this is where Hyde-Smith’s comments offer clarity again. When criticized for joking about a “public hanging,” she insisted that the only relevant context for understanding the quip was her “high regard” for the person whose invitation she accepted.
She’s right. She was simply announcing her political allegiances. Hyde-Smith reiterated at a press conference Monday that she stands by her statement and Gov. Phil Bryant defended her, saying, “I know this woman and I know her heart.”
But her heart isn’t the point; lynching’s role in shaping Mississippi politics is. The black rapist myth was so powerful there that the idea that 14-year-old Emmett Till might have whistled at a white woman got him killed. Its resonance can still be felt in the fact that Donald Trump could launch his presidential campaign by calling some Mexican immigrants “rapists.” Its relevance can also be seen in the ease with which a white woman in Brooklyn (who has since apologized) sexualized a 9-year-old who accidentally bumped her behind with his backpack.
For Hyde-Smith to gesture toward lynching was therefore especially freighted because white women often lent their femininity and purported need for protection to the cause of justifying other people’s political disfranchisement. Without question, the threat of lynching was a major tool for what we now call voter suppression, so insisting that mobs formed because black men were rapists who targeted white women made white women important political pawns. Then and now, some white women like the proxy power that comes with being aligned with the powerful.
Mike Espy, Hyde-Smith’s African American opponent, lamented on CNN’s “New Day” that her comments are “harmful because they tend to reinforce the stereotypes that have held back our state for so long and that have cost us jobs and harmed our economy.” As a candidate for statewide office, he is right to be concerned that his state will remain economically depressed, but unfortunately, many will tolerate such consequences. When white people hold themselves and each other to low standards, elites benefit and some white people suffer. But, because people of color bear the brunt, and because even white Americans who are harmed identify more with powerful whites than with black and brown citizens, many see no reason to work for change.
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Because racial violence has so profoundly shaped the entire American political landscape, all of us have to consider what Mississippi’s past and present reveals about the country more broadly. We must confront this as an issue of decent behavior. White people must begin to redefine what makes them “good” and “decent.” They must ask, “What actions have I taken that align with my claim that this is a country of equal opportunity?” Only then can we begin to re-shape American politics.