October 30, 2007 6:00 PM |Printable versionIn its American heyday, which ended around 1930, nooses inspired grave fear. The noose meant lynching, and notthe "high tech" kind US supreme court justice Clarence Thomas continues in self-delusion to lament.Lynching functioned as a"ritual of blood",the sociologist Orlando Patterson has argued, communally directed bywhites mainly against black men in response to the South's forced transition from a slave society. Billie Holidaygave voice to this terror through the haunting songStrange Fruit:"Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on theleaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplartrees." Those words are made concrete in lynching postcards that proudly display suspended corpses at the centreof local spectacles. The noose was no idle threat and certainly no joke. So what to make of the recent outbreak of noose incidents, the knotted ropes without the bodies?Nooses were hung from a purported whites-only tree at a high schoolin Jena, Louisianaafter a black student askedwhether he could sit under the tree. The principal had replied that students could sit where they wanted.Predictably, the letter of the law did not serve black students well. The decisively white school board, the whitedistrict attorney, and an all-white jury could not have been expected to treat bullying violence by white studentsand retaliatory schoolyard violence by black students in an evenhanded manner. AtColumbia Universityin NewYork, a noose was hung from the office door of an African-American professor, sparking a protest rally and swiftcondemnation from the campus community. Her response to the noose: "It felt very personal and very degrading."
The Jena and Columbia incidents are only the most publicized. Nooses have lately made appearances inMaryland,Pittsburgh,North CarolinaandLong Island,in a police station locker room. The US justice department claims to beinvestigating - the incidents might violate federal and state laws - though no arrests have been made anywhere.This same justice department found no evidence of unfair prosecution of the six black teenagers in Jena originallycharged with attempted second-degree murder.None of these nooses was brutally put to use. Lynchings - of James Byrd Jr in 1998 and Michael Donald in 1981 -stand out in contemporary America because they are rare. Perhaps this helps explain why some observersunderestimate the significance of the noose today. Lawyer and social criticWendy Kaminerbelieves that "hanginga noose is expressive conduct" and, "hateful or not," on a par with "swastikas and burning crosses." Kaminertransforms the noose into a hobbyhorse, namely, opposition to hate crime statutes that she supposes leave "all of us ... less free." Such first amendment righteousness lacks sympathy and imagination.The noose, at least a functional one, is not simply among various symbols of hate when left incongruously anddeliberately in the presence of African-Americans. We are well aware the device was a common means forcommitting terroristic, racially-motivated murders. Here's a scenario. Outside your home, at your workplace or in apublic space, you find what appears to be a gun hung next to a hateful scrawling directed at people of your kind.Surely you could understand - even if you were broadly skeptical about hate crime statutes - that this act mightwell be intimidating or threatening along the lines of assault, whether the target was you in particular orunspecified members of your group.No doubt, the noose also is a symbol. These incidents represent a deep, lingering antipathy that more than a fewAmericans have for blacks. Nooses can replace the epithet "nigger" as an expression of racial contempt andprivilege. "Nigger" doesn't fly any longer. Its use by non-blacks mostly succeeds in conveying plain racism orignorance amid an officially multiracial public that rejects such use. By contrast, the noose often gets explained asa prank - insensitive yet inconclusively indicative of a racist attitude or environment. The joke presumably workslike this: You can't lynch black folks these days, but you probably can get away with aggressively tweaking theirtender sensibilities. Not amused? Oh well - lighten up, or appreciate the burdens of living in a free society.The current hostility toward African-Americans is more routinely evident in ongoing obsessions with affirmativeaction, IQ, rap music's "thug" culture and OJ Simpson, along with the increasingly mainstream strategy of shoutingdown black grievances by accusing blacks of playing the race card or indulging in victimology. We're now told thatother Americans don't care much about race and that radically disparate outcomes by race don't bear muchrelation to racial injustice. Against this background, the noose fad is hardly shocking. The country will revert soonenough to its less blatant anti-black sensibilities.
Amazes me how black people keep their composure given the crap they have to put up with - and let's face it,white society has had long enough to put things right. If anything, seems to me the plight of black people has beenput out of mind and out of sight in a post 9-11 world.[Offensive? Unsuitable?Report this comment.]