Don’t Blackout History: Lynching Beyond the Binary of Black and White

As an Asian American, I’m used to the whitewashing of history, but there”s also another thing few people talk about: Sometimes, history is re-written with large sections blacked out. What’s left might be true, but it isn’t the whole story. That’s the case when two black men were found hanged in Southern California this month.

The cry came quick and early that these were lynchings. One person asserted that black men do not commit suicide by hanging. This was soon proven untrue. But in the subsequent discussion, there were more untruths unloaded.

As a second-generation Californian, reading the supposed history of lynchings comes as something of a disappointment. Posing lynching as a problem that specifically targeted blacks in the United States distorts history into a binary of black and white. It limits itself to an East Coast version of history.

The Recent Hanging Deaths in California

The 24-year-old Robert Fuller was found at after 3 a.m. on a Wednesday (10 June 2020) in the city of Palmdale. Palmdale is under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department. One woman said, “No black man would hang himself in public like that.”

The 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch was found at about 7 a.m. on 31 May 2020 hanging from a tree near a homeless encampment in Victorville where he had been living. That case is under the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. The preliminary findings were suicide which were later confirmed with video recorded from nearby surveillance cameras. Harsch’s  family was also initially sure it was not a suicide.

The statement by the NAACP on lynchings used by FoxLA is misleading. According to Fox, “Nearly 5,000 lynchings occurred in the United States between 1882 and 1968, according to the NAACP. More than 70% of those lynched were black.” Yet it is not clear, how many of these lynchings took place in California.

What Is Lynching?

According to Merriam-Webster, “Lynch” is: “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission.” (e.g. The accused killer was lynched by an angry mob.) A “Lynch mob” is ” a crowd of people who kill or try to kill (someone) illegally as a punishment.”

The Cambridge Dictionary defines lynching as “the act of killing someone without a legal trial, usually by hanging.” A “lynch mob” is “a group of people who want to attack someone who they think has committed a serious crime.”

Britannica defines “lynching” as “a form of violence in which a mob, under the pretext of administering justice without trial, executes a presumed offender, often after inflicting torture and corporal mutilation.”

The NAACP website uses figures from between 1882-1968. According to the website,

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.

As one might predict:

Most of the lynchings that took place happened in the South.  A big reason for this was the end of the Civil War.  Once black were given their freedom, many people felt that the freed blacks were getting away with too much freedom and felt they needed to be controlled.  Mississippi had the highest lynchings from 1882-1968 with 581.  Georgia was second with 531, and Texas was third with 493.  79% of lynching happened in the South.

The US Civil War ended in 1865, so there seems to be 17 years missing.  Then we get some misleading data:

Of the lynching that did not take place in the South, mainly in the West, were normally lynchings of whites, not blacks.  Most of the lynching in the West came from the lynching of either murders or cattle thief’s.  There really was no political link to the lynching of blacks in the South, and whites in the West.

There is also some comforting data:

Not all states did lynch people.  Some states did not lynch a white or a black person.  Alaska, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut were these few states that had no lynchings between 1882-1968.

Although some states did have lynchings, some of them did not lynch any blacks.  Arizona, Idaho, Maine, Nevada, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin were some states that did not lynch any blacks to record.

However, these facts might not be true. There is a report of two lynchings in Alaska according to “Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947.” Another book, “Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918″ by the NAACP” lists four white men lynched in Alaska.

There were other states that had lynchings, but did not supposedly do them for racial reasons:

Quite a few states did in fact lynch more white people than black.  In the West these greater number of white lynchings was due to political reasons not racial reasons.  California, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming lynched more whites than blacks.

The website isn’t clear where the data is drawn from. Matching the numbers, it would seem that the data is drawn from the Tuskegee Institute, which counted using a binary system: One was either black or white.

According to “The lynching of persons of Mexican origin or descent in the United States, 1848 to 1928” in the Winter 2003 “Journal of Social History,”  “the list of ‘white’ victims actually included Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, Italians, and Mexicans.”

The article further states:

Our research reveals, however, that the danger of lynching for a Mexican resident in the United States was nearly as great, and in some instances greater, than the specter of mob violence for a black person in the American South. Because of the smaller size of the Spanish-speaking population, the total number of Mexican victims was much lower, but the chance of being murdered by a mob was comparable for both Mexicans and African Americans.

This comparative numbers and risk assessment should be an important points for evaluating the danger of lynching to ethnic Asians. While the Tuskegee Institute data begins in 1882, the journal article notes there is data from as far back as 1848.

Lynching in America: Misleading Data

In reaction to the hanging deaths of black men in the last few weeks, the online Smithsonian Magazine published an article which declared: “Nearly 2,000 Black Americans Were Lynched During Reconstruction: A New Report Brings the Number of Victims of Racial Terror Killings between 1865 and 1950 to almost 6,500.”  This is a different time span than the NAACP figures used by Fox. NAACP gives us a percentage of the lynchings that were black. Further assessment would have been to look at the percentages within the populations–what the numbers meant in terms of percentage of population.

The Smithsonian article cites the “Lynching in America” website. The “Lynching in America” article focuses first on Reconstruction and notes: “Terror lynchings fueled the mass migration of millions of black people from the South into urban ghettos in the North and West throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Lynching created a fearful environment where racial subordination and segregation was maintained with limited resistance for decades.”

Further it has a section about “Lynching Outside the South” which only covers 1877-1950.

The Midwest and the West were not as directly burdened by the legacy of antebellum racial slavery,” writes Michael J. Pfeifer. “North and West of Dixie, lynching also persisted into the middle decades of the twentieth century, surfacing after allegations of particularly heinous crimes and under the influence of events such as African American in-migration and the heightened racism of the Jim Crow era.

However, the West was burdened by other issues such as the hacienda system and the takeover of what had been Mexico. The article does include a section on “Lynchings of Mexican Nationals” in the South and Southwest from 1849 to 1928.

Lynching and racial violence in border states of the South and Southwest from 1849 to 1928 targeted Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans, who were shot en masse and lynched by mobs that often included Texas Rangers and other law enforcement officials.

By ending the study to 1928, it misses the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles in 1943. No one died but the riot was clearly racist. One eyewitness, writer Carey McWilliams, reported:

“On Monday evening, June seventh, thousands of Angelenos … turned out for a mass lynching. Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot-suiter they could find. Street cars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked out of their seats, pushed into the streets, and beaten with sadistic frenzy.”

Some of the most disturbing violence was clearly racist in nature: According to several reports, a black defense plant worker—still wearing his defense-plant identification badge—was yanked off a streetcar, after which one of his eyes was gouged out with a knife.

Local papers framed the racial attacks as a vigilante response to an immigrant crime wave, and police generally restricted their arrests to the Latinos who fought back. The riots didn’t die down until June 8, when U.S. military personnel were finally barred from leaving their barracks.

Some of the most disturbing violence was clearly racist in nature: According to several reports, a black defense plant worker—still wearing his defense-plant identification badge—was yanked off a streetcar, after which one of his eyes was gouged out with a knife.

Moreover by first looking at Reconstruction (1865-1877) and focusing solely on the Deep South and the North and then turning to outside the South at the end of the Reconstruction Era, the article skips over the Chinese Massacre of 1871. The violence against the Chinese in Los Angeles was from a mob of Anglo and Latinos. It has been described as the largest mass lynching in American history.

The back-and-forth switching of start and ending dates provides a distorted view of American history because it doesn’t provide relative or comparative information about other ethnicities from Restoration to World War II throughout.

Similarly, the Vox article “The Oppression Doesn’t End, It Adapts: America’s History of Lynching and Its Resonance Today” makes it seems as if lynching only affected black Americans and has no resonance in other communities. Nicholas Creary makes clear that a lynching is:

Number one, somebody had to have been killed. Number two, it had to have been committed by a group, to distinguish lynching from just straight-up murder. That recognizes that lynching is fundamentally a community action. There are a whole lot of people involved and there is coordination. That sort of gets us to the third criterion: it has to have been done ‘in the name of the race’ or ‘for justice’ or for something. So when we talk about lynching, somebody was killed, it was perpetrated by a group of people, and it was done in support of some kind of cause, more than likely associated with white supremacy.

The Vox article does cite the Reconstruction Era and yet because of an East Coast and Anglo-centric bias, the time period passes as if the western states did not exist. But the Reconstruction Era is about the United States as a whole from 1865 to 1877.

The interpretation of the hanging of Robert Fuller in Southern California is seen through the culture of the South and the states that had legal authority and were Confederate. But California is not part of the South. California outlawed slavery while still part of Mexico and did not, unlike Texas, reinstate it.  Yes, California did have racist laws, but it was not part of the Jim Crow traditions.

In the history of the West and according to K. Gonzales-Day in California, the majority of lynchings “were perpetrated against Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans.” Latinos were lynched in California more than persons of any other ethnicity or race. His book, “Lynching in the West” covers California from 1850-1935, includes the pre-Civil War, the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The biggest lynching in California was the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles–that’s six years after the end of the American Civil War. On 24 October 1871, a mob attacked and killed 17-20 Chinese residents in Calle de los Negros in Los Angeles (now Chinatown). In San Francisco, in 1877 ethnic violence erupted and poured through Chinatown leaving four dead and plenty of property damaged but this isn’t included in the Tuskegee figures because the count starts in 1882. The San Francisco death toll is already double the number of African Americans lynched in the state of California from 1882-1968.

Anti-Asian violence didn’t end there and wasn’t confined to California. A few years later (2 September 1885) 28 Chinese miners were killed, 15 were injured and 78 Chinese homes were destroyed in Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming.  The Tuskegee Institute figures list 30 white people and 5 black people lynched in Wyoming from 1882 to 1968.

During the Tacoma riot of 1885, the Tacoma method was born–Chinese residents were forced to leave and board a train for Portland. Four months of riotings in Seattle  drove out 200 Chinese civilians 6-9 February 1886. Then President Grover Cleveland “declared martial law and sent in federal troops to restore order.”

In Oregon in 1887, the Hells Canyon Massacre 34 Chinese gold miners were murdered in what is now Chinese Massacre Cove. The Tuskegee Institute records only 20 white people lynched in Oregon between 1882 and 1968 and 1 black person.

Even though Hawaii became a state in 1959, it is not listed on the Tuskegee Institute list. (North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona became states after 1882, but are on the list.) The NAACP does not list Hawaii either. Yet on 29 October 1889, Katsu Goto was found hanging from a telephone pole. More infamous is the Massie trial concerning the alleged rape of a white woman in 1932 which ended in a hung jury, but the one of the men accused, Hawaiian Joseph Kahahwai, was murdered .  The jury convicted four white people–three men and one woman, in his shooting death. They  were all given a 10-year sentence, which the Territorial Governor Lawrence M. Judd commuted to one hour in his office. Surely that had a chilling effect.

According to the 2007 “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans,” during the mid-to-late 1880s,  Arroyo Grande, Marysville, Merced, Nicolaus, Pasadena, Redding, Red Bluff, Riverside, Truckee and Tulare drove their Chinese populations out. In 1907, the Pacific Coast was rocked by race riots fomented by anti-Asian sentiment (San Francisco, CA, Bellingham, WA and Vancouver).

From these facts we understand that race riots in Los Angeles and the West Coast didn’t start with Watts (11-16 August 1965)

In “Lynching in America,” the conclusion is  “lynching—and other forms of racial terrorism—inflicted deep traumatic and psychological wounds on survivors, witnesses, family members, and the entire African American community.” If that is so, then shouldn’t it have likewise affected the Latino and Asian American populations?

The authors of “Lynching in America” feel that:

Public acknowledgment and commemoration of mass violence is essential not only for victims and survivors, but also for perpetrators and bystanders who suffer from trauma and damage related to their participation in systematic violence and dehumanization.

If further states:

Lynching in America was a form of terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that our nation must address more directly and concretely than we have to date. The trauma and anguish that lynching and racial violence created in this country continues to haunt us and to contaminate race relations and our criminal justice system in too many places across this country. Important work can and must be done to speak truthfully about this difficult history so that recovery and reconciliation can be achieved. We can address our painful past by acknowledging it and embracing monuments, memorials, and markers that are designed to facilitate important conversations. Education must be accompanied by acts of reconciliation, which are needed to create communities where devastating acts of racial bigotry and legacies of racial injustice can be overcome.

Lynching as presented by Vox, the Smithsonian and the Equal Justice Initiative’s Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, is a distortion of history. If it is true that racial inequality and racially motivated terrorism needs to be addressed directly and concretely, then the information about lynching must be accurate and go beyond the binary of black and white. If the trauma and anguish of lynching and racial violence continues to haunt us and contaminate race relations, then this must also be true for not only African Americans, but also Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans. The education that must accompany these acts of reconciliation must be inclusive and go beyond an East Coast and Anglo-centric bias. It must also go beyond a binary bias or even an African American bias.

Re-watching the 2017 documentary, “LA Burning: 25 Years Later,” I wondered if what happened at Florence and Normandie might be considered a lynching as defined by a mob action that is both torture and attempted murder.  Think of the case of Reginald Denny and the beating of Maria and Manuel Vaca as well as others like Takao Hirata. In a CNN article from last year (19 August 2019) “Why El Paso and Other Recent Attacks in the US Are Modern-Day Lynchings,” the shooting were a white man gunned down 22 people at an El Paso Walmart, specifically targeting people he thought looked Mexican is a lynching because victims of lynching “weren’t only hanged.” The article notes, “They were also shot, tortured, burned alive or beaten to death by mobs. Random racial terror is what defined lynchings — not a noose.” In “LA Burning: 25 Years Later,” some of the interviewees remember pulling out people from cars who were not black. South Central used to be about 80 percent black, but now is 61 percent Latino and 29 percent black (2014 census). So at the time of the LA Riots in 1992, African Americans were the majority in the South Central. Lynching according to the dictionary is not just a matter of white supremacy.

An interesting map (Map of White Supremacy’s Mob Violence) to check out is the Monroe and Florence Work Today on You have a choice on how you define a lynching and it divides up the victims into six categories: Chinese, Other, Latino, Black, Italian and Native American. The colors chosen to represent these groups are not optimal as Black and Latinx are too close in color to easily differentiate (at least on my computer monitor).  If you’re Asian, but not Chinese, then you’re Other which is the case for Hawaii.  This map, from what I can discern, corrects the problems seen in the three articles and allows a comparison by a range of years beginning in 1848 and ending in 2011 (but it doesn’t include the Massie Affair which may be a matter in how a lynching is defined). Bloomberg wrote about this map in 2017 in its CityLab section: “A Comprehensive Map of American Lynchings: The Practice Wasn’t Limited to the South, as this new visualization of racial violence in the Jim Crow era proves” (17 January 2017). So there is no actual good reason for how Vox, the Smithsonian, EJI and the NAACP represent lynching. The map makes clear that this is only a representation of white supremacy mob violence so violence by a mob in South Central Los Angeles that targeted whites, Latinos and Asians is not included..

In the three articles, we get numbers, but not in a manner that tells us relative information for other ethnic groups that were targeted during the same time period and by switching the time periods the information might be truthful, but the impression is one of a singular targeting of black people for this type of domestic terrorism and a binary problem that is black and white although as noted Latinos are included in some cases. This is not whitewashing, but a different type of racism. A black-centric view of history based on an East Coast and Anglo-centric bias that doesn’t work for parts of the country where the colonization was from Spain and the populations targeted were Latino, Native American and Asian.

Black Lives Matter, but the history of California and lynching does not fit the paradigm of the Deep South. The state is about 59 percent white (only 36.6 percent non-Latino white), 39 percent Latino of any race, 14.7 percent Asian and 5.51 percent African American. That’s much different from the national total of 13.4 percent African American and 5.9 percent Asian and 18.5 percent Latino. Let’s not blackout history of these Latinos, Native Americans and Asians in California or out because when the discussion about racism begins, these groups need a place at the table, particularly since Latinos represent a larger ethnic group than African Americans and one that is diverse enough to include blacks, Asians and Native Americans.

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