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Mississippi Still Burning

Marcia Alesan Dawkins
Columnist
Dr. Marcia Alesan Dawkins is a professor at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles, California.She is interested in public policy, diversity, education, and communication.She lectures, writes and consults on these and…
Marcia Alesan Dawkins

A scenario ripped from our nation’s troubled racial past made new headlines this week: the slaying of a man allegedly for the simple reason that he was black. But a little digging reveals that there’s more to this story than the label “hate crime” suggests.

This week CNN posted a video capturing the killing of James C. Anderson, 49, an African-American slain in June allegedly by a group of teenagers on a white-power mission. Two members of the group, 18-year-olds Deryl Dedmon Jr. and John Aaron Rice, now await trial. According to reports, Dedmon allegedly ordered Rice and six other teens to beat Anderson, who was then run over with Dedmon’s truck in a motel parking lot in Jackson, Miss., at about 5 a.m. on June 26. Anderson was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

When we look at it in context, Anderson’s death begins to appear more like the latest chapter in a long story of lynching in the American South. Numbers tell part of the story. Though African-Americans have never constituted more than 12 percent of the U.S. population, 73 percent of all lynching victims have been black; more than 95 percent of those were killed in former slave states. Lynchings also tend to occur in areas densely populated by African-Americans. And so it was in Anderson’s case, as his suspected killers allegedly went to the “black part of town” and selected him because he was the first black man they saw.

Sociology tells other parts of the story. From this perspective we can see that a history of violence remains the single best-known predictor of future violence, whether in individuals, families or societies. So in theory at least, Mississippi’s racially violent past could predispose its population to racial violence today. Couple that with a case of historical amnesia about lynching in the South generally and Mississippi specifically—and the fact that most lynchings of black men went unpunished—and we get an environment in which acts of racial violence can be committed without much fear of retribution.

Then there’s the economic factor. Many studies suggest that economic slumps, especially those affecting lesser-skilled and under-educated workers, increase rates of lynching and other types of racial violence. Also, rising rates of migration and immigration that create more job competition play a role. Mississippi currently attempts to regulate such competition with a measure that allows law enforcement officers to check a person’s immigration status during a traffic stop or while enforcing other laws. The measure also makes it a crime for immigrants to not carry immigration papers and allows law enforcement to arrest, “without warrant,” a person “reasonably believed” to be in the country without documents. State legislators plan to introduce anti-immigration laws that would demand that a person speak English in order to have a driver’s license and would make state documents available only in English.

Economics go hand in hand with perception. Racial violence such as lynching increases when people who have been privileged perceive an increase in resources for disadvantaged groups. Many right-wing extremists believe we’re living in “Black Run America” and that demographic shifts are redistributing wealth. It appears to matter little whether those perceptions are based in reality. According to last month’s Pew Research Center analysis of newly available government data from 2009, “The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households.”

In a day when we can sit before our TV sets or computer monitors and see the murder of an African-American such as Anderson, we are forced to confront a long record of preserving such grisly events in photos, postcards, descriptive news reports and even mementos (body parts remained popular with those seeking more tangible memories) and even advertising (as when a recording of one such event was used to market Thomas Edison’s “talking machine” at county fairs in 1896).

Now the effects of lynching are clearer to see: a reduced population of African-American men, an increase in broken African-American families and a shroud of silence from black communities. We can see all of these at play in the case of Anderson, whose family has chosen to remain silent. We can also hear lynching’s message to African-Americans and to all groups that are perceived as a threat to the status quo: Don’t expect more than the privileged are willing to give. Don’t offend “white power” with increased economic and political status, interracial fraternizing or romance or perceptions thereof. Don’t even take up space in public. Keep America “clean,” “pure” and racially and economically divided.

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