In recent years, the U.S. government has demonstrated a commitment to passing largely meaningless symbolic legislation designed to sanitize the country’s history of racial wrongs. The recent introduction of bills in the House and Senate apologizing for lynchings continues this timorous tradition.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton apologized for the Tuskegee Experiment, the U.S. Public Health Service’s Nazi-like study of the effects of syphilis on nearly 400 African-American men.
In July 2008, House Resolution 194 apologized for slavery and “Jim Crow.” A year later, the U.S. Senate followed suit. However, the Senate version included a disclaimer denying the resolution “authorizes or supports reparations for slavery.”
To this, Illinois Sen. Roland Burris, the lone African-American in the U.S. Senate at the time, courageously replied, the “disclaimer in no way would eliminate future actions that may be brought before this body that may deal with reparations.”
Now a century after Missouri Republican Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer introduced the first antilynching bill, African-American members of Congress introduced legislation making lynching a federal crime. Backed by 35 of the 41 U.S. African-American representatives, in June, Bobby Rush, the Democratic congressperson from Illinois, proposed H.R. 6086. That same month, the three black U.S. senators, Democrats Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and Republican Tim Scott, offered the “Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018.”
H.R. 6086 and the “Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018” evidence the poverty of the black liberal imagination. Though symbolic, they correct the main weakness in Dyer’s and subsequent anti-lynching bills presented between the 1920s and 1940s. Those bills defined that heinous crime as “punishment” for “some actual or supposed public offense.” As an amendment to U.S. Code 249, hate crime legislation, these bills eliminate that limitation.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, given the lack of expertise in African-American history among politicians and their staffs, the “Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018” is riven with factual inaccuracies and problems of interpretation.
The Senate legislation alleges “lynching” supplanted slavery “as the ultimate expression of racism.” This statement overly focuses on overt violence to the detriment of more-subtle, less-episodic and more far-reaching forms of racial oppression. It also ignores the prevalence of race riots as a much broader and more devastating expression of racial terrorism.
First, slavery was a social system, a particular political economy. Lynching is a specific form of racial terrorism. Enslavement was followed by the plantation economy, tenancy, in which the majority of African-Americans were trapped in sharecropping, its most exploitative form. Apartheid or “segregation,” peonage, convict lease, race riots and lynchings were all repertories of repression endemic to that system of racial oppression.
Perhaps it’s splitting hairs, but race riots, not lynchings, were the most destructive form of post-emancipation anti-black racial violence. In addition to the murder of thousands of black individuals, whole African-American communities in cities such as Wilmington, N.C., “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., and Rosewood, Fla., were destroyed, and black survivors were driven from communities like Forsyth County, Ga., and Pierce City, Mo.
I also find it curious that the authors of the Senate bill reference Walter White rather than Ida Belle Wells Barnett, the founder of the anti-lynching movement. Perhaps, the answer for ignoring the black woman who launched the anti-lynching campaign and remains its most perceptive and militant advocate lies in their approaches.
White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, was a devotee of non-violent moral suasion, while Wells Barnett famously argued for “armed self-help,” in addition to agitation and litigation. Wells Barnett was confrontational, while White and the NAACP practiced a softer approach limited to fundraising, education and legislation. Wells sought to heighten the contradiction. This is precisely what the African-American elected officials should be doing. To make House Resolution 6086 and “the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018” relevant to today, and not just a symbolic bill addressing the past, they should propose specific remedies that address both the history of lynching and its contemporary legacy.
We need legislation that proposes the creation of a commission charged with identifying perpetrators of lynching. While we may not be able to recover the identities of a majority of lynchers, those whom we can identify deserve to be named and convicted posthumously.
Moreover, in cases in which it can be proved that state actors either supported or acquiesced to a lynching, that state should be liable for paying reparations to the victims’ descendants.
Surprisingly, neither bill includes an educational component. To begin addressing the historical amnesia that engulfs lynching and the history of racial terrorism, study of lynchings, race riots and other forms of racial violence should be mandated as subjects of instruction and evaluation in K-12 curricula.
That H.R. 6086 and “the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018” focus on an antiquated form of racial repression suggest that liberal black politicians are interested in symbolism. This legislation is designed to achieve consensus, approval from the House and Senate’s conservative majority. Thus, the two bills represent timid and meaningless acts that serve the U.S. apology narrative.
Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.