I haven’t yet written about the recent string of noose incidents. I don’t have a good excuse for that.
Today, though, the Times has an article about those instances which have taken place in NY, and I’m using it as a reason to get up of my ass and open my mouth. Over the past few weeks, seven nooses have been found, left for blacks to find as obvious attempts at intimidation and threats of violence.
Three noose episodes took place on Long Island in three days. On Wednesday, two were found at a sanitation garage in the Town of Hempstead — one of them looped around the neck of a stuffed animal with its face blackened. On Thursday, a noose was discovered hanging in a Nassau County highway department yard in Baldwin. On Friday, a worker at the Green Acres shopping mall in Valley Stream found one slung over a door at a construction site.
Public officials said they were outraged, determined to catch the culprits — and stumped.
“It would diminish the seriousness of these events to call any of them copycat situations,” said Kate Murray, the supervisor of the Town of Hempstead, a sprawling township of 750,000 residents, about 15 percent of them black, where all of last week’s incidents occurred. “But I’m not a sociologist. I am surprised by it.”
. . . “I don’t know what the pattern is, if there is one,” said Thomas R. Suozzi, the county executive of Nassau County, which includes Hempstead. “Are people more hateful than they have been? I just don’t know.”
I think that the last question is a legitimate one worth considering. Are white people becoming more racist? You could be forgiven for thinking so, lately. Though institutional racism has always been there and supported by whites, it lately seems like loud, overt racism is somehow becoming more acceptable. There’s the recent string of celebrities (Paris Hilton, Michael Richards) using the N-word. There’s the overtly racist response to the Jena 6, and there are all of the blackface parties being held as a “joke” by young whites.
Though I don’t have an explanation for it, I don’t think that more white people are suddenly more racist. For the most part, I’m not really sure how unacceptable racism has been in America against groups other than African Americans. A look at our discussions over immigration tell us that prejudice against Latino/as is considered mostly okay, our discussions over terrorism tell us that prejudice against Muslims, and really people of any other ethnicity that might bear some faint resemblance in skin color to Arabs, is just fine, everyone likes to try to forget that Native Americans even exist, and when has prejudice against Asians really been taken seriously? Racism against blacks has been the main issue for whites. No, I don’t think that racism is getting worse. I think that racism has always been there, and yes, it has been this bad. I do think that somehow the white community has gotten a cue that this overt racism against blacks is acceptable again.
I can’t explain why. Yes, I do think that Jena has played a huge role. How could it not have? Nooses aren’t just suddenly popping up everywhere out of coincidence. Jena has forced many white people who try to never think about, let alone talk about, issues of race to actually do so. And in case you haven’t been paying attention, it hasn’t exactly gone well. I’m not sure that “copycat” is the right word to describe the instances, but they all seem to be committed by different individuals. And they certainly are all related. And while with each one the outrage grows, so does the level of desensitization and acceptance. It’s getting to the point where whites are saying “oh, gee, another noose?” Firstly, those words should never have to be spoken. Secondly, the apathy with which their spoken is telling.
“In the context of today, the noose means, ‘There is still a racial hierarchy in this country, and you better not overstep your bounds,’” said Carmen Van Kerckhove, the founder of a New York consulting firm, New Demographic, that specializes in workplace problems, including racial tension.
. . . Willie Warren, an equipment operator at the Nassau County Public Works yard here, was among three workers in the garage on Thursday when an employee ran in to tell them he had found a noose hanging from a fence outside. Mr. Warren, 41, who has been with the department for 20 years, filed a racial discrimination suit in 2004, producing tape recordings of a supervisor referring to him with racial epithets. He won the case, got a promotion, still works for one of the supervisors named in his suit, and considers himself unflappable on the job.
The noose shook him. “It’s hard to explain, but it made me upset the whole day,” Mr. Warren said. One white co-worker was as upset as he was, he said. Another said, “What’s the big deal? It’s only a noose.”
This attitude is not only frightening, it’s also frighteningly common. The fact is, most white people don’t get it. Many don’t even realize that hanging a noose is a concrete threat of violence. It’s extreme ignorance and extreme stupidity, it boggles the mind, but it’s true. There’s a “sticks and stones” mentality from all of those who have never had to think about race, or how they will be discriminated against today, or whether they face institutionalized violence because of their skin color.
Because as one professor points out, this is about institutions:
Rachel E. Sullivan, an assistant professor of sociology at Long Island University’s C. W. Post College, said most people do not understand what lynchings were. “They think it was a few guys coming in the night, in their hooded sheets, taking you away,” she said.
She teaches a course on African-American history, including the killings of thousands by lynching in the United States between the end of the Civil War and the end of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“But in reality these were whole, big community events,” she said. “Children and families would come to watch. Hundreds of people attended. They would watch a man being burned and mutilated before he was hung. They would pose for pictures with the body.
“If people had a grasp of what really happened at these things,” Professor Sullivan continued, “they would understand the power of the symbol of a noose.”
I don’t know if it’s true that white people don’t know this. I mean, I was certainly taught this in schools. Maybe everyone else wasn’t. Or maybe they just never paid attention enough to remember. Maybe it’s easier to dismiss if you lie about it.
But the fact that this view is held so widely needs to be acknowledged. The most striking case of this that I’ve seen comes from a post by Magniloquence about an NPR segment that she caught on the radio:
I’ve started listening to NPR in the morning, in between songs and snippets of useful information (like, say, the traffic reports) on other stations. And lo and behold, one day I hear the following: “Ignore the Nooses.”
Yes, that’s right. From the little summary at their webpage:
All Things Considered, October 16, 2007 · In light of the resurgence of nooses appearing in places like Jena, La., and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, here’s a modest proposal: The next time somebody plants a noose, let’s just ignore it. Perhaps paying less attention to these acts will take away their racist power.
I heard that, verbatim, and then several minutes of different people commending the logic and telling us to man up and stop being so sensitive. Stop giving the bullies what they want.
This kind of groupthink from white people, though I am white, never ceases to amaze me. I’m sure that it’s really easy to “ignore” violence when you are not the one facing the threat.
For those of you who still don’t get it, think about when men don’t “get” why women/feminists get so riled up about a little old rape threat. Because it’s not like they’re actually going to rape you. They’re just trying to get a rise! Whereas we know that there a chance of the threat actually being followed through on, and we also know that rape is not a game.
Lynching is not a game, either. Nooses aren’t funny or trivial. They’re not only as bad as racial slurs, but actually a lot worse. Ignoring threats of violence is never an appropriate response.
I will admit that I have been guilty of this “ignore it and it will go away” line of thinking. One example is my reaction to Ann Coulter. I think that we’ve given her far too much attention for far too many years. I think that not only are all of the media outlets who keep giving her a microphone responsible for the hatred that she spews and that they need to stop giving her the microphone, but that covering what she says has stopped serving a point. I think that continuing to talk about her gives her exactly what she wants and will only delay her crawling back into the dark hole from which she came.
Maybe I’m wrong about that. I don’t know. Since she talks an awful lot of shit about white women, too, I think that I have a bit more perspective on the issue. But I could still be wrong. I could also be right. Maybe there is in fact a difference. Coulter, though she can be perceived as encouraging violence, is not actually committing a crime. Hanging nooses, thankfully, is. We’ve also tried everything else we could with Coulter. We’ve denounced her and exposed her and she’s as popular as ever.
The problem is that we haven’t tried something different with racism. We’ve been going about this “let’s not talk about it and it will go away” mentality for a long time. We’ve been doing the “black people are making a big deal out of nothing” thing for a long time. When, exactly, have we tried talking about it honestly — not in a “is racism good or bad?” sort of way, but a “why are we racist and what can we do?” sort of way — on a wide-scale? I’m struggling to remember a time.
So maybe I’m wrong about Ann Coulter. Maybe I’m not. But I do know that NPR is wrong about the noose, as is everyone else who holds the “ho-hum” point of view. They’re more than just some kind of sick and twisted fad. They’re a part of a trend. And yeah, if we don’t deal with it and talk about it, I am quite terrified of where it’s going to take us next.