The Pornography of Racist Violence:
December 26, 2000 11:40 PM   Subscribe

The Pornography of Racist Violence: NYT Columnist Margo Jefferson reviews "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America", and says the book is a "record of what we can call civil war crimes." She goes on to say:
"The images are also what the historian Leon F. Litwack calls, in his introduction, race pornography: they were often made into picture postcards that were mailed, with curt, gleeful or venomous messages to friends and foes with nary a peep from the United States postal authorities."
posted by likorish (35 comments total)
This page has a photo gallery of some of the images.
posted by gluechunk at 12:44 AM on December 27, 2000

Both my parents grew up in the Jim Crow south. They were teenagers when they finally received first class citizenship (at least on paper) in 1964.
This sort of stuff causes my heart to ache, my stomach to turn and summons a deep rage within me. I can't listen to the song 'strange fruit'-it ruins my day. I already knew about this, the echoes of the past are heard by every Black American. You don't have to dig very hard for it.
Some wonder why we can't get along now the playing field is 'even'. To that I say you should thank your lucky stars that the cities aren't aflame every night.
While I do believe things are getting better, all it takes is watching the news to remind me that humans can be amazingly fucked up to one another. While all Black America can afford right now is guarded optimism, let all those who believe in justice redouble our efforts.
posted by black8 at 3:05 AM on December 27, 2000

I know how I feel when I review these photos, but I've always wondered what so-called whites feel when they view them. Beyond the usual reaction of "oh, that's horrible, but can't we move on", I'm wondering if, on a visceral level, any "white folks" feel any sort of connection to the whites in the photos, or if this is a case where you can be "in it, but not of it".
posted by likorish at 6:02 AM on December 27, 2000

Since you asked.

BTW, I'm not a "so-called" white. I'm actually very, very white. Nearly translucent, thankyouverymuch.
posted by frykitty at 6:39 AM on December 27, 2000

I am white, and I grew up in Portland, Oregon.

When I first got out of college (1976) and started working as an engineer, about three months later they sent me on a business trip to New Orleans. There I was, a young, hip guy wearing a ponytail, and I checked into the hotel and the clerk was black. And he did treat me as a non-peer, as his superior -- until he found out I was from Oregon. It was like he'd taken one face off and put on another. He started talking to me as an equal (which was fine; the previous had made me nervous). We spent some time chatting. He'd been in the service, and some of the whites he'd served with were from Oregon, and they hadn't treated him the way he was used to being treated by whites; they'd treated him like an equal. He told me he wanted to move there. I talked to him a bit more and it was clear that he really didn't know anything about Oregon -- except that.

If you've seen the movie The Long Walk Home there's a scene where the Sissy Spacek character describes how when she was a kid she had been on a trip to someplace in the North (in the 1940's) with some other girls, and they had been swimming in a swimming pool when they suddenly realized that there were both blacks and whites swimming together -- it was integrated. And she makes a small joke about how fast all of them hopped out of the pool. The "place in the North" she mentioned was Salem, Oregon. Which is implausible -- what the heck would they be doing there? But the reason they chose it was precisely because at that time Oregon was simply not the same. It was implausible that girls from the South would be in Salem, but absolutely not implausible that there be integrated swimming pools in Salem. That's why they chose it when writing the script.

I'm not going to try to claim that there's no racism in Oregon, then or now. But it's never been anything like as severe or strong as in other parts of the country, and it has certainly never been a matter of law. I grew up there in the late 50's and in the 60's as a white and I was firmly taught that racism was wrong and that all people should be treated equally -- by my parents, by my church, and by my schools. There do exist neighborhoods which are primarily black (one is called "Albina") and also areas that are nearly exclusively white (Oswego) but there are very large parts of the city which are quite well integrated, and as time has gone on integration has simply gotten broader. And I don't recall a great deal of resistance to it. Certainly nothing like the kind of thing that was happening elsewhere. When they started school busing in Boston there were riots. When they started school busing in Portland it was a non-event. I remember when it happened, and the strength of my response (in 6th grade) was "Oh, that's interesting." Really that's all I felt.

Certain young white men from our church went to the south to help with the freedom movement in the 1960's, when I was a kid. They did it as an act of conscience; they did it to support the southern blacks; they did it because they knew that the movement would be more successful if it was integrated. And they did it because their religion told them they owed it to their fellow men, no matter what color they were.

So yes, Likorish, I can say that when I look at those acts by the racist whites, I feel no connection to them, no kinship at all. I condemn them but I feel no personal guilt about it, because I feel no relationship to them and I myself have never done anything like that, and I never will.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:53 AM on December 27, 2000

Just a small addendum: I have never heard of a racial lynching in Oregon. (I won't claim there's never been one; but I've never heard of one.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:59 AM on December 27, 2000

Oh. Hmm. Well, I guess we'd better hear from some white folks that aren't from Oregon, because apparently we've been tainted by a reasonable upbringing.

Thanks Steven--I'd really never thought about my perspective as a Portlander. I always figured we were about as screwed up as everyone else.
posted by frykitty at 8:04 AM on December 27, 2000

There was a wonderful NPR piece done awhile back on this book. (I've been trying to search for it but no search engine sucks the way the NPR search engine sucks.)

The images on the BET site are haunting and frightful. They should never be forgotten.

As for Oregon, it's easy to not be a racist here. There are very few minorities in comparison with other states. The education level seems quite high here. I am not confronted with issues of race or sex or class on a daily basis in Portland. It's easy.

It's harder in places where feelings of racial inequality run high, where people are afraid of losing their jobs where the real money goes back to the Civil War. I spent six years in Mississippi. You can't not be affected by that atmosphere.
posted by amanda at 11:10 AM on December 27, 2000

Believe me, it's possible to be just as appalled and condemning even if you're from a racist area. I'm from southern Indiana, and from the way some people in my hometown behaved, you would think that the south part of Indiana was on the bottom side of the Mason-Dixon line.

When I was in high school, a popular white jock kid got into an argument with a black kid over whether the black kid should be dating the white kid's sister; the white kid threatened to "lynch" the other guy. Then he couldn't figure out why the black kid wanted to beat the crap out of him. Around the same time, some moronic white kids started carrying around Confederate flag stuff. When the few black students complained, the white kids made fun of them. "It's just a flag. Get over it." I was, and am, enraged at the rock-stupidity of those kids.

Finally the school banned the Confederate flag on school grounds-- along with turned-backwards baseball caps and plaid shirts, claiming all three were evidence of "gang activity". Dumb, obviously, but maybe a case of fighting fire with fire. The administration gave in on the plaid shirts when it became clear that, without them, most of the jocks had nothing to wear but Big Johnson t-shirts.

I'm glad I moved.
posted by wiremommy at 11:13 AM on December 27, 2000

I've spent all my life in Nevada and I know there are racist feelings here. A small example: When I moved from a small town to a larger one one of my uncles asked me "So is there a problem with the Blacks there like the Indians here?"

But I don't identify with that attitude or people that would condone such actions. I'm disgusted with people that would pose for a photo next to a hanging body, that would be proud to send such a postcard to their friends and family. The scariest thing is that this was happening not so very long ago, that this enlightenment and freedom that we are so proud of doesn't have such a long history. To me that means that we are not very far away from it, that it could return, even in a different form.

I worry about my biases, I worry about the fact that I notice skin color and that stereotypes come to mind. I wish they wouldn't. A man just came in here looking for a job who happened to be a different skin color than I, just going door to door looking for work. We're not hiring, and I told him so, but I don't want him to think I told him that because of race.

posted by mutagen at 11:15 AM on December 27, 2000

Finally got the search engine to give me some good results. Here's the story from NPR --

I feel like there was a much longer version, perhaps on Fresh Air but I can't find it just yet.
posted by amanda at 11:22 AM on December 27, 2000

Sometimes I hate the internet. I did (finally) locate the Real Audio files for this piece from Fresh Air. I remember it being incredibly heart-rending so... be aware.



Respond here if you listen to these. I'd like to hear comments.
posted by amanda at 11:42 AM on December 27, 2000

Amanda, none of that changes the important fact of the matter: I as a white from Oregon have no more in common with the people who committed these tragic murders than Likorish does. Trying to group me with them merely because I have the same color skin as they do is wrong. Us whites ain't all the same...
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:59 AM on December 27, 2000

What the heck are you on about, Steven? Projecting?
posted by amanda at 12:12 PM on December 27, 2000

"What is racism? Racism is often described as a problem of prejudice. Prejudice is certainly one result of racism, and it fuels further acts of violence towards people of color. However my assumption is that racism is the institutionalization of social injustice based on skin color, other physical characteristics, and cultural and religious difference. White racism is the uneven and unfair distribution of power, privilege, land and material goods favoring white people. Although we can and should all become more tolerant and understanding of each other, only justice will eliminate racism." -- Paul Kivel (full article)

It is one thing to be a white person who was not raised to be prejudiced against people of color; it is another thing altogether -- and arguably altogether impossible -- to be a white person who is not tainted by internalized racial superiority and unfairly privileged by injustice. What all whites have in common is that we reap the rewards of the racism celebrated in these horrific photographs.

I don't think the official Without Sanctuary site has been posted in this thread yet. "Please be aware before entering the site that much of the material is very disturbing."
posted by sudama at 12:30 PM on December 27, 2000

What I'm being told here is that no matter what I believe, no matter how I act, no matter what I do, that I'm automatically a racist simply because my skin is white.

I don't accept that. If it's wrong to judge "people of color" based solely or primarily on their skin, then it's wrong to judge me on that basis too. Judge me by how I act, not by how I look. Judge me based on what I do, not on what others who look a little bit like me do.

And judge me by my acts, not by what you suspect are my thoughts, for you can never know my thoughts unless I express them as acts. If I act virtuously, what more can be asked of me?

If the only role available to me in the civil justice movement is "villain" and if the only thing I'm permitted to do is to feel guilty and spend my time apologizing, then I won't participate in that movement.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:18 PM on December 27, 2000

I understand your strong feelings about this, Steven, but I don't think you personally are being persecuted here. Being called a racist hurts. However, it is important to acknowledge your priveledge. Know it. Be aware.

Have you ever read Native Son? There may be much better screeds to read about racism but this is one that I just came to recently. It opened my eyes in new and unexpected and uncomfortable ways. It's a mind-blower and I recommend it.

Live the honest life. Fight the good fight. That's what it's all about.
posted by amanda at 2:33 PM on December 27, 2000

Frykitty, I used the term "so-called white" for personal/political reasons. I don't like the word -- and for what it's worth, I don't like the word "black" either.
posted by likorish at 2:44 PM on December 27, 2000

Folks, I'd like to post a general apology. I have to take several very powerful prescriptions and they interact in unknown and sometimes unpleasant ways. Today they're making me extremely bitchy, and because of that I'm not going to post again until I feel better.

Please forgive me for blowing up; I hadn't realized yet what was happening to me when I made my last post in this thread. Ordinarily I'm much more even tempered.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:09 PM on December 27, 2000

Thank you, sudama, for getting the point. I realize it must be a stretch to some folks, but I can very easily look at those photographs and think "The people who were brutally slaughtered could have been my relatives. Those people could have been me -- after all, lynchings still happen in this day and age."

What I find really interesting is that "white" people can very handily claim the good parts of their history (e.g., those who participated in "Freedom Summer" or any other human rights movements), but find it all to easy to divorce themselves from the violent, dehumanizing, disgusting parts of it. What those photographs depict is a part of American history, and regardless of what "race" you are, it's part of your legacy as an American. I'm sorry Steven. I can't let you -- or anyone else who doesn't see the parallel -- off that easily.
posted by likorish at 4:12 PM on December 27, 2000

This is part of the history of my country (Australia) as well. As recently as the 1930's whites were known to go off a hunt down black Australian Aboriginies for sport.

These stories are only now being told but the truth is still a liitle too uncomfortable for nice white folks to want to hear.
posted by lagado at 5:11 PM on December 27, 2000

likorish--the reasons you mention are the very reasons why I find the images so viscerally upsetting. Those were my relatives, and I know it. It makes my stomach turn to think about it.

You want some liberal white guilt? My maiden name is fucking Crawford.

BTW--I was just joshing on the "so-called" white thing. I wasn't offended. I hope I haven't offended anyone with my language. Oops, except for that there f-word.
posted by frykitty at 5:36 PM on December 27, 2000

What does my relation, near or distant, to these people have to do with anything?

In my case, we share a skin color and a nationality. But I am an individual. I agree that I am shaped by the actions of others, but why can't I be seen simply as a human being that exists only through my own actions?

Honestly, I don't quite understand what is meant by "legacy," likorish, or what your point is, exactly.

(Just to be clear, I'm just curious, I'm not trying to be argumentative.)
posted by whatnotever at 5:49 PM on December 27, 2000

My family became wealthy on the backs of other human beings. If they'd managed to keep that wealth, then I would certainly be living off that legacy. Luckily, they didn't, because that would give me some hard choices.

On the other hand, it isn't just about my family. All white people in the U.S. have benefitted from this collective past. Is it my fault individually? Of course not. Nonetheless, I know that today is made of history.
posted by frykitty at 5:56 PM on December 27, 2000

Journal E has 81 photos from Without Sanctuary on-line.
posted by rorschach at 5:59 PM on December 27, 2000

whatnotever, re-read sudama's reply. That's what I mean by "legacy".
posted by likorish at 6:43 PM on December 27, 2000

This photo shows that African Americans weren't the only victims of this sort of racist violence. It makes me ask the question, at what part does a person of European origin become "white" in this society?
posted by likorish at 6:51 PM on December 27, 2000

Likorish, please send me email; I'd like to take certain aspects of this discussion private.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:24 PM on December 27, 2000

White racism is the uneven and unfair distribution of power, privilege, land and material goods favoring white people.
What all whites have in common is that we reap the rewards of the racism celebrated in these horrific photographs. (Both from Sudama)

I think it's important to recognize that "white racism" is an institution. Although all whites reap the rewards of the institution, not all whites are racist. There are people of all races actively try to reject or reform the institutions of inequality that exist. Saying that white racism exists and is a damn near universal feature of the American landscape is not an inditement of individual white people.

I think that inequality and unfairness diminish us all.

That said, there is no way that I, as a white person, could ever identify with the white people in those photos in any but the most nauseous sense. My most visceral connection is with the lynched men, simply because they are the only sign of true humanity I see.

I went through a post-modern relativist phase for a long time a while back, and I had myself convinced that evil does not exist. Photos like this fill me with despair, because they prove that evil is real. There is no other explanation that makes sense.

I know I share a connection to the whites, because of the legacy of power that I inherit. It has nothing to do with being from the south or from the north, from having ancestors that came to this continent before, during or after the war. It has nothing to do with my actions, my friends' actions, my family's actions now or ever. Instead it's something as genetically arbitrary as my skin color.

Don't get me wrong -- I don't hate being white, I don't feel guilty about it. But how can anybody not be sickened by the existence of these racist institutions? They limit all of us in our efforts to be fully human.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:05 PM on December 27, 2000

I'm black and I live in a town in Northern
California. I live next to a river. Two blocks
from me there's a bridge. About a month ago I
found out there had been several lynchings from
that bridge, more precisely from a bridge in
the same place. The victims were mexicans and
native americans. When I learned about the lynching
I felt disturbed because the murders occurred,
because they were within a few blocks of where I
have lived for ten years, and because I had not
known about them. I know that California is stolen
land, stolen first from the indians and then from
Mexico. I know that people were enslaved and killed
in the process. I can see a mission from where I live. Thankfully, it doesn't have a mass indian grave like
some of the missions. Learning about the lynchings was
the difference between knowing in some vague general
terms that violence was done and knowing that some
specific people were killed.

BTW, this is the second discussion involving race in metafilter that I've noticed. For the internet the
tone has been remarkably civil and even somewhat
posted by rdr at 11:03 PM on December 27, 2000

frykitty - just curious - what's the significance of the surname Crawford?
posted by wiremommy at 11:42 PM on December 27, 2000

wiremommy: before much of the Crawford clan came north, they were big slave-owners (and assholes, but that's another story). The most obvious evidence of this today is the prevalence of the surname Crawford in the African-American community. I've had several people actually assume I was black before they met me.

posted by frykitty at 2:49 AM on December 28, 2000

As a Mexican-Vietnamese, I have had the privilege to feel welcome in every group with which I have associated; most everybody that I get to know after a while ask me what my background is, and I have come to realize that one of the reasons that I can mix comfortably is because there is nothing in my appearance that can prejudice others.

That said, I have come to enjoy (far too easily) the benefits that are before me in society, and it wasn't until I began engaging in a long series of discussions about race and racial profiling with one of my best friends (who is black and gay) that I began to understand the sheer force of oppression felt by both of the groups of which he is a member.

Like croutonsupafreak, I don't have any guilt about the color of my skin, and I do not think that the point of the exhibit is to label people racists or to throw more guilt on the backs of those who have unwillingly benefited from past oppression. However, I cannot distance myself, either from the blacks who were lynched, or the "whites" who participated. They were all human, and like it or not, we all share the same rage, fear, and ability to turn our fellow sisters and brothers into "others" just like lynchers made their victims into "others". I believe that this is what we are called to recognize.

BTW, welcome to MeFi rdr. :)
posted by Avogadro at 6:02 AM on December 28, 2000

A bit of expansion of FryKitty's answer: while they were slaves, the African Americans didn't have surnames because they didn't really need them. After liberation, they did, and most of them simply took the surname of their former owners.

That's why you find most African Americans with surnames like "McCoy" or "Crawford" or "Wilson" or "Chambers"; names which sound ethnically European.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:32 AM on December 28, 2000

I wanted to try and draw a parallel that might make more sense for the white people here that are afraid they're being painted as racists.

If the situation were reversed in those pictures. If those pictures were of white men and women dangling from bridges with the smiling faces of another race gathered around and those other races were currently leading the shaping the country that you live in, would you feel a pang? Would you feel a little bit of that fear?

Also, as a woman living in America, every time I hear of a gang rape or domestic violence ending in death or stories like the central park group harassment... I'm reminded that the structure of our country is still stacked against me a bit. This doesn't mean that I blame my husband or expect the men in my life to apologize for the transgressions of others. I do like it though when they show that they are aware.

It's all about structure. Structcha cha-cha-chaaaa.
posted by amanda at 9:41 AM on December 28, 2000

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