Some Things Have Not Changed, George Will

Writing for the Washington Post Writers Group, George Will, vividly describes a pogrom that occurred in Springfield, Illinois in 1908. On that date 89 blacks were lynched. The article describes how

Forty black homes were destroyed, as were 21 black and several Jewish businesses.

The writer does not mention that this type of occurrence was not rare, but another example of violence perpetrated against African Americans and Jewish Americans with a a purpose beyond what was immediately obvious. As is true of many (especially white) Americans, Mr. Will speaks of these events as something of the distant past and closes by saying:

So, remember Springfield. The siege of the jail, the rioting, the lynching and mutilating all occurred within walking distance of where, in 2007, Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy. Whatever you think of his apotheosis, it illustrates history’s essential promise, which is not serenity — that progress is inevitable — but possibility, which is enough: Things have not always been as they are.

The purpose for mentioning this pogrom in connection with Barack Obama is, I gather, to remind us that racism and its associated violence has ended. Well, James Byrd, Jr. was lynched in Jasper, Texas 10 (1998) years ago. According to the record, it was the first time in the history of the state that a white man had been convicted of killing a black man. A 1993 publication by Marquart, Ekland-Olson, and Sorenson examines how lynching was replaced with capital punishment. When one examines the disproportionate number of African Americans and Latino males in prison the logical conclusion is that very little has changed except the method of applying violence. An example is Angola Prison in Louisiana that operates likes a slave plantation. This practice is described in detail in an article posted on this site. Add to this that the NAACP put out the following statement on August 20, 2008 as an Action Alert message regarding the imprisonment of men of color:

These disparities are particularly true for African American men and boys, who are grossly overrepresented at every stage of the judicial process, from initial contacts with police to punishments. African Americans routinely receiving more jail time and harsher punishments; 42% of Americans currently on death row are African American. Nearly a million African Americans today are incarcerated in prisons and in jails, and unless there is a change, a black male born today has a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime.

While Barack Obama’s run for President signals an important historical event, some spoke of lynching when talking about his wife Michele Obama. As Media Matters noted, this happened on the February 21 broadcast of a nationally syndicated radio program.

Yes some things have changed, but the practice and the strong belief in intimidation and violence as a tool of racism still exist.

Patricia A. Bell is Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University.