American descendants of African slaves have borne a heavy cross upon their backs in past generations—but a similar burden proved far more deadly for certain European groups that would provide stiff competition in today’s Victim Sweepstakes. Does this sort of contest profit anyone?
I had put together most of the material for this little essay before hearing that Oprah Winfrey had loudly declared white racism alive and well in Switzerland (because some poor non-Anglophone sales girl hadn’t shown her a $38,000 handbag fast enough). Well… all the better. I had indeed already heard that Oprah had loudly equated Trayvon Martin’s being shot while beating someone’s brains out to the brutal gang-murder of Emmitt Till in Mississippi of the Fifties. That was part of what started me down this path. Tomorrow, Oprah will probably have blared to the world yet further evidence of bloodthirsty—and now global—white racism. I just can’t keep pace with her.
Let us begin with the gruesome facts of racially motivated lynchings in U.S. history. The following figures are probably in the right ballpark. They correspond so closely to the statistics published on Wikipedia and other sites that one must assume all the writers to be drawing upon the same sources. Yet the many nuances of tone in the piece below appear to be angling for an outpour of PC sympathy that has little to do with harsh historical realities:
From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of these people that were lynched 3,446 were black. The blacks lynched accounted for 72.7% of the people lynched. These numbers seem large, but it is known that not all of the lynchings were ever recorded. Out of the 4,743 people lynched only 1,297 white people were lynched. That is only 27.3%. Many of the whites lynched were lynched for helping the black or being anti lynching and even for domestic crimes.(1)
“These numbers seem large”? Compared to what? I really don’t know what ratio of lynched people per capita per annum in a setting combining frontier elements with the anarchy following military invasion and economic collapse might be considered normal. I’m afraid, though, that one lynching per day doesn’t shock me, given the circumstances. “Only 1,297 white people were lynched”? Is the author, then (who turns out to have been a college student, God bless him), expecting parity in the figures? Or representation proportional to the number of whites in the general populace? “Many of the whites were lynched for helping the black”? Again, what percentage constitutes “many” here? Was the number of Ox Bow Incidents, then—rustlers and horse thieves strung up from the nearest tree—negligible? I assume that whites who were fitted with a hemp necktie after a frontier “trial” didn’t qualify as lynchees… but I doubt that many of their “jury of peers” would have passed a sobriety test.
Here’s my point. The U.S. has a history of appalling racism which, at times, erupted into appalling brutality. However, 1) the brutality of these times, while highlighted in the lynch mob, was not exclusive to that horrid custom: feuds were often settled by “bushwhacking”, and men often died in jail. 2) Most race-related lynchings were concentrated in certain pockets of time and place, where they indeed created a frightful atmosphere—but the terror was not spread with universal application throughout the South or throughout the post-Appomattox years.
Now please weigh these observations with a couple of others. 1) There are cultural/ethnic groups of “white people” (whatever those two words mean) who were butchered with the same appalling brutality by other Europeans during these years; and 2) the butchery amassed far, far greater numbers of victims than the American plague of lynchings. To develop these points, I intend to ignore the near-extermination of many Native American tribes, the Jewish Holocaust of the Forties, the travail of the Poles, and other heartrending experiences not involving the history of today’s mainstream “white” Americans. I will stay Celtic.
The Scots highlanders were the Indians of Britain, one might well say. Pre-literate and tribal, they resisted the ways of their sophisticated neighbors to the south with a determination that one only finds in a clash of irreconcilable cultures. After the decisive English military victory at Culloden, hundreds of women and children (there is no accurate tally) were at once put to the sword. Thousands more starved to death during the ensuing years of the Highland Clearances. Adjusting what records we have with reasonable estimates, perhaps a quarter of a million families (not individuals—families) were chased out of their huts and off their crofts before our Civil War. Trying to estimate the number of fatalities involved in this systematic program of ethnic cleansing would be throwing darts blindfolded… but the total probably exceeded 4,743.
The Clearances were distantly related to a more general movement called the Enclosure, whose first seismic rumbles were deplored by authors as early as Thomas More. Wealthy landowners were finding the medieval system of tenantry increasingly costly and ineffective. With the growth of cities, they identified their maximum profit as selling their timber and dedicating their fields to grazing of beef cattle rather than leasing to peasant cultivators. The small farmer merely got in the way: he was to be eradicated as tidily as possible. In the case of the Highland Clearances, he enjoyed most of the anguish but none of the consideration of being a slave: i.e., an investment that must be managed to show a return. He had no more political rights, and scarcely more legal rights, than a black slave in the South; and as for being free from having his family auctioned away, this privilege sometimes translated into the practical “advantage” of being able to watch all his children starve.
How often did fatal results actually occur? Often enough to fill mass graves, during the Irish Potato Famine (which was largely a program of “persuasion” to remove these peasants, too, from the land). Between 1845 and 1852, about a million Irish men, women, and children died in consequence of malnutrition and its effects. These figures are once again extremely hard to pinpoint, not only because so many deaths went unrecorded, but also because deaths caused indirectly by the Famine are seldom considered. The latter tally could run the figure into the vicinity of a million and a half if it includes the immense loss of life due to diseases like cholera as the starving émigrés were crammed onto ships bound for the New World. Slave ships were relatively comfortable, in comparison. A slave was worth nothing dead: hence those who had invested in him carefully allotted him enough space in the lower decks to stretch his limbs. In contrast, the human cargo of Irish had already paid its fare before the ship slipped her moorings (or, to be exact, its fare had been paid: landowners often gave their uprooted tenants the price of a ticket if they would only leave). There was no incentive to give this human baggage enough room to breathe, and much incentive to cram it in tighter.
These years were by no means a kind of Dust Bowl period in Ireland, by the way. Harvests were indeed quite bountiful—but the Potato Blight decimated the staple of the poor man’s diet. Tenants grew potatoes to feed themselves; other produce was dedicated to paying their rent. Many therefore found themselves in the intolerable position of watching the food they had harvested leave in wagons and barges for cities, where it brought a handsome profit from rising prices.(2) Lamented one ballad in English (rather hyperbolically, but not much mistaken as to cause), “To glut the rage of English Mammon / We mourn a yearly million slain.”(3)
The ripple effect of the ensuing diaspora was immense—and death spread in the ripples. The onboard diseases of ships overloaded with malnourished waifs were lethal enough during the Atlantic crossing. Even a long quarantine after reaching harbor, however, was sometimes insufficient to keep certain contagions from escaping into the mainland population. One source offers this astonishing sequence of numbers to demonstrate the domino-effect of a single year’s exported misery to a single port. In 1847, over 9,000 Irishmen perished during the passage to Quebec and in the quarantine that met the survivors. Once ashore, about 4,000 of the supposedly healthy immigrants and the natives they infected soon died in Montreal, and about another 4,000 in Western Canada later on—this according to official documents, whose figures, here as elsewhere, often grossly under-reported actual deaths.(4)
One might protest that these wretches fell victim to nineteenth-century hygiene rather than to patent racism. That response would overlook several causative factors, especially in the case of the Highland Scots; but we might also meet it head-on with the observation, “Yes—and many lynchings were an ignorant reflex to dismal economic circumstances whose frustration crystallized around a visibly distinct group.” Inhumanity never takes a holiday in human history, and revenge upon a scapegoat race or tribe is one of its favorite pretexts. I alluded last week to the stunning proportion of pacifists who died in British prisons during the First World War. I had in mind a passage I had just read about the Welsh experience of the war years, specifically. Read the testimony of one young Conscientious Objector who barely survived his treatment. Had his reception by the authorities nothing whatever to do with his Welsh ethnicity, or with his working-class background?
I was beaten… for resisting authority on the first day for about ten minutes out of every quarter-hour steadily by two or three officers, and thrown all over the floor until my body was a mass of pains; and after they finished with me, I was put in cuffs for hours and left without a bit of food the whole day. I got the same treatment the next day, except for their pointing guns at me and pushing me around so as to get me to march; and after they had set me to making sandbags, or to some other labor, or to drilling, despite having shoveled mud and stones in addition to the beatings and kickings, I was put a second time in cuffs and also a straitjacket, as it’s called—and to tell the truth, that, too, was pure pain…(5)
The author of this little history then observes that “of the 1,500 pacifists who were incarcerated, 71 died as a result of the treatment they received in jail.”(6) Now, there’s a vast difference between a hundred and five thousand; but the figure for lynchings covers a period of eighty-six years, whereas these figures refer to the activity of a few months, once conscription began in 1916. I don’t see how one reign of terror can be ruled more hellacious than the other.
I began assembling these thoughts as soon as I observed the response among certain vocal black leaders to the Zimmerman case’s verdict. At about the same time, I was finishing up C. Vann Woodward’s classic, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. I have the utmost admiration for Professor Woodward… but I actually remember the late-Sixties riots in places like L.A., Newark, and Detroit, and passages such as the following (added to the final edition of his magnum opus) give me pause:
Northern blacks began to ask what their problems had to do with freedom rides, sit-ins, and lunch-counter integrations—or, for that matter, with the ideal of racial integration and assimilation in general. While they had been stirred by the march on Washington, thrilled by the heroism of Birmingham brothers, and moved by the drama of the Selma March, they could not see how such tactics were adaptable to the scene at Newark, Detroit, Chicago, or Harlem. Granted the effectiveness of such crusading strategies for limited goals, even granting that they finally toppled the formidable but hollow legal defenses of Jim Crow—what now? Now on the very eve of those triumphs the triumphs themselves suddenly appeared quaint and anachronistic.(7)
Is this really what brawny young men were thinking as they smashed in casement windows and carted off televisions? If you had stopped one of these looters and asked him his motives, would he have answered, “Dr. King’s triumphs seem suddenly quaint and anachronistic”?
Human beings are often little more than apes in clothes. I’m sorry if my ancestors brutalized your ancestors, Oprah; but my further ancestors were brutalized at least as badly as yours—and, if you could delve far enough into your African heritage, you would find a few slave-owners and child-murderers in your own family tree. We all descend from slaves, and we all descend from vandals and cutthroats. God sees all, and God will exact the full debt from those who hacked fleeing women or starved out little children or whipped slaves or beat young Ithel Davies without an ounce of remorse, then or later. You and your fellow race-crusaders are not the wrath of God.
Enough of this. Enough.
1) This passage was borrowed from what appears to be an academic website: www.chestnuttarchive.org/classroom/lynchingstat.html. A heading reads, “This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on [Charles] Chestnutt.”
2) Niall Ó Ciosán, “Dia, Bia, agus Sasana: An Mistéalach agus Íomhá an Ghorta” Gnéithe den Ghorta, ed. Cathal Póirtéir (Baile Átha Cliath: Coiscéim, 1995), 159-160. My translation from the Irish.
3) Ibid., 162. My translation.
4) Pádraig Breandán Ó Laighin, “Samhradh an Bhróin: Grosse-Île, 1847,” in Gnéithe den Ghorta (op. cit.), 217. My translation from the Irish.
5) Ifor ap Glyn, Lleisiau’r Rhyfel Mawr (Conwy: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2008), 77-78. My Welsh is inferior to my Irish, but I believe I have translated this critical passage with no significant errors.
6) Ibid., 78. My translation.
7) My copy of Strange Career is an e-book. This citation appears in chapter 6, section 1.