During Jim Crow, White kids witnessed their Black peers being lynched. Today, as the DOJ sanctions the murders of Black people, they're doomed to repeat—and reenact—that history.
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While Trump and his basket of deplorable defenders were busy condemning ESPN sports journalist Jemele Hill for speaking truths about his racism, an 8-year-old Biracial child barely survived a lynching at the hands of other kids. And as is usually the case, White America has voiced more outrage over Hill—which got more media attention than the child’s near-lynching—by naming white supremacy than the violence and daily manifestations of white supremacy.
According to the victim and his older sister, several White teenagers tormented the boy with racial epithets and threw rocks and sticks at him as he played in a neighborhood yard in Claremont, New Hampshire. The boy’s mother told TheRoot.com that the perpetrators took a rope from a tire swing and put it around their necks before telling her son that it was his turn. Her son “got up on the table and put the rope around his neck, and another kid came from behind and pushed him off the picnic table. And they walked away and left him there, hanging.”
The boy’s sister screamed for help as she watched him grab at his neck and kick his feet. The White teens did not return to help him. Fortunately, the boy dropped to the ground and survived the attack. He was taken to the hospital for treatment and his mother subsequently posted a photo of his injury on Facebook, which quickly went viral.
On September 7, more than a week after the attack, Claremont Police chief Mark Chase called the attack an “accident” and said of the White teens, “These people need to be protected,” concluding that “mistakes they make as a young child should not have to follow them for the rest of their life.”
Chief Chase showed more concern for the attackers, focusing his attention on their privacy and their emotional wellbeing instead of their violent and racist actions. But what about the child who was nearly murdered? Nothing. This should come as no surprise: This embodies the nature of white supremacy, which is deeply woven into the fabric of a nation cleaving so hard to its whiteness and going to great lengths to deny racism, to protect white innocence, and otherwise exonerate the perpetrators of racist violence.
Because, as Chief Chase well knows, as well as you and I do, this was no “accident.” The White teenagers taunted the child with racist slurs. They lured him into their “game” by demonstrating how to wear the noose around their necks, and then kicked him off the table. Their only intent could have been to lynch him.
This is what white supremacy looks like: saying that a clearly premeditated hate crime is a “mistake,” or an “accident,” and rushing to defend the attackers and their “presumed innocence” despite all evidence to the contrary. By quickly downplaying the seriousness of the attack, Chief Chase painted the teens as the young children, and ignoring both the youth and humanity of the 8-year-old victim.
This young boy will bear not only the physical scars but psychological scars of this racist act for the rest of his life. The notion of protecting his attackers is enraging—as is the authorities’ attempt to use the perpetrators’ age to attempt to minimize the damage they inflicted, and the violent racist traditions they sought to perpetuate.
We’ve seen this before, too many times. Recall April 2016 when three White students in a private school in Waco, Texas, wrapped a rope around a 12-year-old Black girl’s neck and dragged her to the ground during a school trip, leaving with her with severe rope burns. The girl’s mother said, “It looked like somebody ripped my daughter’s neck off and stitched in back together.”
Prior to the incident, the girl told her mother that her mostly White classmates would not talk to her and physically bullied her by kicking and shoving her. While playing next to a swing she felt the rope around her neck and she was “violently jerked to the ground.” In an interview with the Dallas Morning News she said, “When it got around my neck, no one helped me, so I had to pull it off by myself.”
And you know what? Her school authorities reacted just as the Claremont police did, claiming that the racist attack wasn’t a deliberate act, that her injuries were not that severe, and said the incident was not racially motivated.
What’s worse: They didn’t even bother to tell her parents about the incident! The owner of the property where the incident took place said that the girl’s injuries were a case of “terrible, bad luck.” A lawyer for the school said that the attorneys representing the victim “were exploiting the hot-button issues of race and bullying.” He said what had happened to the girl was “purely an accident.”
Whiteness affords White people, particularly White children, innocence no matter the circumstances. Just as anti-Black racism renders African-Americans as perpetually guilty, never as victims, white supremacy protects and exonerates whiteness even for those caught with ropes in their hands and slurs on their tongues.
There is a long history of White children “play-lynching” that harks back to the Jim Crow era. Some white children practiced on black dolls by burning them or pulling their hair and limbs from their bodies. “I would play I was hanging him,” one white child said in a letter to a Minneapolis newspaper. “I have seen very small white children hang their black dolls. It is not the child’s fault; he is simply an apt pupil,” one anonymous Black domestic worker from Alabama observed. Those White kids were simply repeating the behaviors they observed in their environments.
In her book, Raising Racists: The Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South, Kristina DuRocher notes that White children would attend lynchings to lend support and approval for those older boys and men engaging in white supremacist violence. “Their cheers offered the White men a visible sign of support, similar to applauding for a favorite team.” She describes an 1899 lynching in Maysville, Kentucky, where the cheers of women were accompanied by “the piping tones of children sounding high above the roar.”
On March 30, 1900, the Richmond Daily Enquirer reported that a group of White boys from the East End section of the city hunted down a 12-year-old Black boy in the neighborhood and tried to lynch him. The paper said White folks “had been having trouble with the Negroes of that section” and so the White boys “became so enraged that on last Tuesday they decided to take the matter at once in hand and lynch the offenders.”
When they found the Black child, they pelted him with stones until he ran for his life. Luckily he found refuge in a White woman’s house where his attackers stood outside throwing rocks and promising that “they would get him if they had to die.” The police were called and the boys were fined and warned not to engage in this kind of violence. The Black Richmond Planet newspaper stated that those White boys had learned by example and added, “Yes, lynching is demoralizing to the young and old.”
On March 12, 1904, a Minneapolis Journal headline blared: “Youths Imitate Negro Lynching.” The paper reported on an incident in Springfield, Ohio, where two White boys, “taking their cue from their elders, caught a Negro lad at the Schiffer school, put a rope around his neck and dragged him along the street. The Colored boy was rescued before the rope had strangled him.”
White girls who accused Black males of sexually assaulting them were sometimes invited to help lynch their alleged attacker. After “positively identifying” their rapist, the girls would place the noose around his neck. In June 1904, in Memphis, Tennessee, the 14-year-old daughter of John Wilson helped lynch Starling Dunham. She tied the noose around his neck before he was placed on top of a black horse. She then led the horse away from Dunham until his body was left dangling from the tree as over 3,000 people watched.
In her book, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, civil rights attorney Sherillyn Ifill details a number of examples where White children were present at lynchings. In December 1931 in Salisbury, Maryland, a young boy was hoisted up to throw the rope over the bough of the tree which 35-year-old Matthew Williams was hung. A young girl from Princess Anne, Maryland, who tried to turn away from the burning body of George Armwood at his 1933 lynching was scolded by her mother and compelled to watch Armwood “being barbecued” along with 2,000 other witnesses.
Ifill also notes that lynching photographs often show young boys and children at the front row of these gruesome spectacles. They also participated by carrying tinder to build the fire. At the Maysville lynching, children were responsible for fetching dried grass and kindling wood to “keep the fire burning all afternoon.” At a 1917 Texas lynching, a 10-year-old boy was told to fetch water to lynchers as they castrated their Black victim. Children observed and cheered on the adult participants.
After Claude Neal was lynched in 1934, in Brewton, Alabama, children participated in the mutilation of his dead body. “As the car carrying the victim’s corpse approached, “little children, some of them mere tots, waited with sharpened sticks for the return of Neal’s body.” When his body was removed from the car “children drove their weapons deep into the flesh of the dead man.”
Other children “were just mute observers,” Ifill writes. “Compelled by family members, and following the mores of the adults in their community, White children were in the unique position of being both victims and participants in lynching. Suffice it to say that the presence of children ensured that the experience of lynching—the knowledge of the ritual, the memory of the brutality, the smell, the shared purpose of the crowd—was carried forward into subsequent generations.”
The erasure of the centrality of white supremacy to America’s history renders these more recent incidents as exceptions, as aberrations; rather than seeing them as part of a white American tradition. At best they are seen as isolated expressions of bully culture.
We’re feeling the toxic level of racial animosity running through blue-collar and middle-class White communities, some of it fueled by White supremacist propaganda. Just as we did in the past, we must be very careful to keep Black children from playing in majority-White settings in these communities due to the dangers that might be lurking there.
These recent attacks suggest that White supremacist propaganda is being spread more widely than we realize—through right-wing media and on the internet, where children of all ages can access it freely. Young Whites are being told—and shown—that it is open season on Black children in heavily White neighborhoods.
The too-familiar travesty of the authorities letting racist hate crimes go mislabeled and unchecked is part of White supremacist history—then and now. When the U.S. Department of Justice recently decided not to pursue federal charges against the officers who murdered Freddie Gray—and indeed every time there is a failure to prosecute murderous cops, and we watch as a young Black person is demonized and blamed for his or her own death—White kids get these horrible ideas that the murder of Black bodies is not only being permitted, but promoted, by the U.S. government.
We also have to get past the fantasy of innocence in White childhood. As one of my scholar friends helped me understand some time ago, White supremacy does not love children. Any children. Racism is designed to protect whiteness, not children. It is about the future of White supremacy, not about respect for children. White kids must be destroyed spiritually and psychologically. Those boys who tried to lynch that kid in New Hampshire have been destroyed, even if they don’t realize it.
The only group that is ever presumed truly innocent is those who invented it for their own benefit: White men. While most White kids’ lives are spared much of the brutality of violence in American culture—especially at the hands of police—they are protected so they can be warped into racists to protect White supremacy. The tragedy of this form of “protection” is that nobody truly wins.
It’s open season on Black lives, not only to police, government and the prison-industrial system, but in schools, and in majority-White communities. This latest near-tragedy in Claremont, New Hampshire, reminds us that Black children—whether or not they have a non-Black parent, are ultimately seen as fodder and fuel to keep White supremacy intact.
And there is no true innocence anywhere. The only true form of “color-blindness” is the failure to see or administer justice in these White-on-Black hate crimes.
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