16 November 2007

The Noose

At one time, a hangman's noose may have symbolized the majesty of the state for most people, since hanging was how most people were executed, in English-speaking countries at least, before the advent of the electric chair. In the United States, it has always had a separate meaning, because the noose was also the preferred instrument of extra-legal executions, i.e. lynchings. Deep into the 20th century, the noose acquired a more exclusive meaning as fewer people were lynched across the country, and nearly all of those who were were black. In 2006, the display of a noose in Jena LA is seen by many as an exculpatory provocation for the beating by blacks of a white youth. The case of the Jena Six has become a cause celebre in liberal circles because the assailants faced the disproportionate charge of attempted murder, whereas, had the racial roles been reversed, so the presumption goes, six white thugs would not have been so charged for pummeling a black youth. Now we have a movement afoot to have any display of a noose treated as a hate crime. This was reportedly taken to an absurd extreme during the recent Halloween season, when someone had to take down an effigy of a hanging scarecrow because someone else took it as a symbol of lynching. This article summarizes several recent cases, each of which you can appraise as you please.

It seems sometimes as if radical representatives of ethnic minorities think that the only real power they have is to forbid certain words or symbols. Whether it's the "N-word" or the Indian sports mascot, or now the noose, some sort of satisfaction comes from telling the majority, the people with the power, that on certain occasions they cannot have their way, cannot boast of their vaunted freedom. These cultural struggles are always assertions of power. The reasons for any such commandment fail to sustain scrutiny. The ban on the N-word is hypocritical as long as some groups can use it freely (of course, that's part of the appeal of forbidding it). Indian mascots can't be meant as insults because the teams would otherwise be insulting themselves (but of course it doesn't matter what anyone thinks except those with the power to forbid). The noose is a more subtle matter. In Jena, it seems fairly obvious that the noose was meant as an insult to blacks. In the case at Columbia University, where a noose was hung over a professor's office door, the professor's race does seem relevant. But if anyone means to insist that a noose is always and only a symbol of lynching, or that its display is always and only an attempt to intimidate blacks, we must disagree. History tells us the truth in this case. The terror of the noose as a symbol of cruel punishment or mob rule is shared by everyone, which is why we hang scarecrows in some places at Halloween time. Nor were all lynchings hangings; victims were often tied to trees of iron rails and riddled with bullets, and some were simply burned at the stake. Honesty demands that we resist any attempt to put the noose under any sort of cultural embargo, and that we investigate the circumstances of any display of nooses before we draw conclusions about people's intentions. Otherwise, a sort of intellectual lynching will have arguably taken place.


Anonymous said...

It's doubtful that a jury would have convicted the three white students who hung the nooses of a hate crime if charges had been brought against them. Federal investigators, FBI agents and local authorities are on the record as saying that they convinced that the three white students are telling the truth when they say they did not hang the nooses as a racist threat. According to the Jena Times, the three say they hung the nooses, which was painted in the school colors to poke fun at friends who are on the Jena High School rodeo team, a idea that they say they got from the lynching scene in the movie "Lonesome Dove." Most news media simply report that the three students hung the nooses as a prank, leaving the false impression that the students realized the nooses would be construed as a threatening racist symbol, but, nevertheless, thought this would be funny.

According to the Jena Times, state Welfare Supervisor Melinda Edwards, who was responsible for the three students' counseling, said "it might surprise everyone to learn that the three students did not have knowledge of black history in relation to that hanging of black citizens in the south during the civil rights movement."

“We discussed this in great detail with those students,” Edwards said, according to the Jena Times. “They honestly had no knowledge of the history concerning nooses and black citizens. This may seem hard to believe for some people, but this is exactly what everyone on the committee determined.”

Following the Jena Six beating incident, the Justice Department reopened its investigation into the noose-hanging incident and determined there was no link between the nooses and the beating. U.S. Attorney Donald Washington told CNN that, "A lot of things happened between the noose hanging and the fight occurring, and we have arrived at the conclusion that the fight itself had no connection." He added that none of the black students involved in the beating made “any mention of nooses, of trees, of the 'N' word or any other word of racial hate."

Witness statements have firmly established the motive behind the Jena Six attack on white student Justin Barker. The members of the Jena Six were angry at Barker because they heard he had been discussing a fight at a private party between one of their members and a 22-year-old white adult. The trouble started when a group of univited teenagers tried to carsh to invitation-only party and refused to go when the hosts asked them to leave. The white adult hit one of the party crashers, a member of the Jena Six. The white male was arrested and charged with battery. He pleaded guilty and was placed on parole because it was his first offense.

The fight at the private party was the catalyst for the Jena Six beating. It occured a week prior to the Jena Six attack while the noose-hanging incident took place three months earlier.

The mainstream press, as a rule, is carefull not to directly link the noose-hanging to the Jena Six beating. Instead, it writes that the "beating happened after three white students hung nooses." This is factually accurate, but leaves the false impression that the Jena Six were motivated by the noose-handing incident. Instead, the news media should be reporting that the Jena Six incident followed a fight at a private party between a black student who tried to crash the party and a white male, who was one of the hosts.

Samuel Wilson said...

I appreciate the attempt at clarification. My own study of the Jena case has been superficial at best, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone could present an alternative account that disputed at least some of the points raised here. I'm sad to say the purported historical ignorance of the Jena students wouldn't surprise me if true. That would be an ignorance of a different degree from the kind that sees the noose as an exclusively racist symbol, and it tells me that some kids are spending too much time at the rodeo.