“How could this have happened…We have pictures…How many more blacks have to be killed for there to be justice?” These were uttered after the lynching of Claude Neal. It is eerily reminiscent of the comments that are being said about the lack of a grand jury indictment for the death of Eric Garner. But unlike lynchings that were officially reported by the Coroner as ‘death by the hands of unknown,’ we know who the murderer is, but the result is nonetheless the same. There is much to be gleaned from what happened then and what is happening now. But before we get into that, we need to figure out how we got here in the first place.
Even though racial violence has been a continuous theme throughout American history, in order to excavate its endemic nature, it is important to periodize them. Frederick Douglass was one of the first to systematize the continuity and change of racial violence. In an 1894 letter entitled, “Why is the Negro lynched?,” Frederick Douglass notes the different ways of periodizing racial violence:
there were three distinct periods of persecutions of Negroes in the South, and three distinct sets of excuses for their persecution. They have come along precisely in the order they were most needed. Each was made to fit its special place. First, you remember, as I have said, it was insurrection. When that wore out, Negro supremacy became the excuse. When that was worn out, then came the charge of assault upon defence-less women. ..this new charge has come at the call of new conditions…It is a crime that places him outside of the pale of the law.
He notes that even though racial violence is persistent across time, each era situates racial violence differently.
Whereas Douglass notes the changes, he provides no explanation as to why it changes over time. Scholars such as Loic Wacquant and Michelle Alexander have extended Douglass’ analysis by juxtaposing it in regards to political economy. As the economy changes, so does the racial order. During slavery and Jim Crow, we needed to exploit the labor of blacks. But after de-industrialization, Wacquant and Alexander notice the de-proletarianization of the black working class that no longer makes them susceptible to the kinds of exploitation seen during previous eras and introduces a new element: blacks as extraneous. As Alexander states, “the new system of does not seek primarily to benefit unfairly from black labor, as earlier caste systems have, but instead views African Americans as largely irrelevant and unnecessary to the newly structured economy – an economy that is no longer driven by unskilled labor.” And with that change came the need to sequester African-Americans into prisons where they could languish outside of the body politic. For that to occur, blackness was criminalized and the state replaced lynch mobs as the central actor in administering, maintaining and regulating racial violence.
The economic paradigm in which Wacquant and Alexander have situated their analysis is predicated on a neoliberal model that emerged in the 1980s. But ever since the 2007 recession, there has been a subtle, but important shift. As the sub-prime mortgage crisis slowly unraveled, not only did many people lose their homes but there was also a subsequent crisis of state budgets. What had been a surplus soon became a deficit. Consequently, public spending became an issue and prisons were now increasingly being deemed ‘overcrowded.’ And whereas there was and is profit to be made from the prison industrial complex, other avenues emerged as ways to extract profit from a population otherwise seen as extraneous. Sarah Stillman calls it the alternatives-to-incarceration industry. In a June 2014 article in the New Yorker entitled, “Get Out of Jail, Inc.” Stillman chronicles how “in the past few years, politicians from both major parties have begun to turn against mass incarceration” and investors have subsequently “turned their attention to extra-carceral institutions, such as private halfway houses, electronic monitoring, civil commitment centers for sex offenders, and for-profit residential treatment facilities.” In so doing, the financial burden of probation has shifted directly onto probationers. Instead of locking people up, the new model is to keep them out of jail in a state of dire penury. Setting aside for the moment the exorbitant fees, this new industry raises a question of what does it mean to keep out what was meant to be extraneous? What happens when a population is too expendable to keep in the ghettoes but too expensive to keep locked up?
This brings us back to lynchings. What was considered expendable and thus in need of sequestering has to somehow be re-integrated into a polity that still considers them expendable. In other words, the solution following the lynching era was to criminalize blackness in the hopes of extricating them from the body politic because their labor was no longer needed. But that is no longer tenable and we have to go back to the way things were…..to an extent. We cannot completely go back to the way things were completely because the state has become too strong to feign powerless after years of being so powerful. There is a limit as to how far back we can go into the future.
In many ways, the state has replaced what used to be the province of lynch mobs. The similarities are striking. Take for example the murder of Emmett Till and Michael Brown. Both were murdered somewhat outside the parameters of normal operating procedure in that both deaths were not systematized in a way that is commensurate with the formalized procedure of the death penalty. The public discourse surrounding Michael Brown is also reminiscent of the kinds of discourses that were had during lynchings. Unlike the previous era where blackness was criminalized, we have reverted back to the lynching era that was not as centered on criminality as it was on a transgression of norms. For example, the controversy surrounding Michael Brown revolved around whether or not he smoked marijuana or not, if he was a bully or not, etc… This is eerily reminiscent of the controversy swirling around the lynching of Emmett Till. Emmett Till was a 14 year-old black teenager who was lynched for reportedly flirting with a white girl. Considered stocky and muscular, Till had the audacity of whistling. It is a remixed version of what it means to be ‘uppity.’
The two main differences between the two are that during the era of lynchings, the debate was localized in nature while now it is more national and although both involved issues of norm transgression, the current public discourse is more ensconced within the language of legality and law enforcement while the discourse around lynchings were mired in the language of popular sovereignty. This makes sense if only because the state is now directly involved whereas they were only indirectly involved during the era of lynching. Whereas during the era of lynching when it could somewhat be described as strictly a southern phenomenon, this new era of racial violence has only confirmed what George Wallace said, which is that “The Whole United States is Southern.”
As horrid as everything I laid out is, I have yet to get to my main point. Whereas the extralegal nature of lynchings problematized the indirect role of the state, these current manifestations of racial murder further problematized the direct role of the state. Before there was a question of what is the relationship between state and society, now it is just about the state and its relationship to itself. There is no other referent. The state is both the provocateur and mediator; it is literally the defense and the prosecutor. Lynchings were a tragedy that was democratic in form and the response was for more law enforcement, stronger courts and more governmental involvement. Unlike in lynchings, where the question of state action was constantly an issue of debate, there is no doubt what state action constitutes here. The state, from the police department, to the judicial system and even the president is all backing the proceduralization of the murder of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The state has absolved itself of any wrongdoing. If we can’t look to the state, then aren’t we back to the problem we had with lynchings? We looked to the state to save us from lynch mobs and when the state is the one doing the killing, what are we left with?
I think this helps explains why there is such a prevalent sense of helplessness and depression. When the best analysts end their tomes with hugging their kids, I know I am not alone. The quintessential act of resignation is to meet the very public nature of these incidents with a very private embrace. By no means is this meant to condemn; I raise this as simply noting how vacuous the politics is now. There is a deep sense that the United States is a deeply racist society. The understood hope and remedy was for a liberal state, with the rule of law, checks and balances, and party politics that would hopefully reign in the racist excesses of majoritarian democracy. But now that the very machinations of liberalism has come to not only administer the killing, but also exonerate the killer and admonish those that are angry about the killing, I am left with a critique that has no basis from which to stand.
Daniel Kato is a term assistant professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University.
 Frederick Douglass, “Why is the Negro Lynched?,” in Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume IV, edited by Philip Foner, (International Publishers, 1955), p. 501-503
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, The New Press, 2012) p. 219