[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Image via Wikipedia"][/caption]
Yet another effigy of President Obama was found hanging in a public space. This time the "symbolic lynching" occurred in Jimmy Carter's hometown of Plains, GA. This is certainly not the first time that acts of symbolic violence have been committed against President Obama and it surely won't be the last.
The truth is that the symbolic weight of lynching is too great in American society to not rear its ugly head on a regular basis whenever white privilege feels threatened. The other truth is that many white Americans will pretend that such acts have nothing to do with them, but are instead isolated in pockets of ignorance and racism in the rural South. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Obama Effigy Hung in Georgia Town - The Early Show - CBS News.
In Making Whiteness, historian Grace Hale argues that lynching arose after the Civil War as a nationally circulated spectacle through the new technologies of photography and the telegraph. Because the lynching of Black men could be represented- through press accounts and even postcards- throughout the country, lynching came to serve as a way of maintaining the racial order at a time when Black Americans were suddenly "free" and also moving to the North in great numbers.
At the sites of the lynchings, whites would gather around in large numbers, bring picnics and the children, to see black men tortured, killed, burned, and then often cut into little pieces as souvenirs. W.E.B. Dubois, the great American sociologist, wrote that on his way to try and stop a lynching in Georgia he realized he was too late when he saw the man's fingers on display at a country store.
These horrific bodily acts could then become circulated as symbols: photographs of the burned, hanging bodies or press accounts of the gory details. This violence made it clear that white control of Black bodies did not require the legality of slavery.
When similar acts are committed against the first Black President of the United States, a similar form of white privilege is being exerted. Whites can pretend lynchings are "history," but most Black Americans realize that lynchings are always possible.
It is no surprise then that on October 22nd of 2009, President Obama signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. The act was in honor of two men who were lynched in the recent past: one for being Black, the other for being gay (Matthew Shepard). George W. Bush refused to sign the act into law because he saw no need to have the symbolic weight of hate crime law because he had the racial privilege that allowed him not to see the symbolic weight of lynchings.
But when James Byrd, Jr. was chained to a truck on June 7, 1998 by three white men and dragged along a road until his head mercifully was disconnected from his body and his body was left in front of the black cemetary in Jasper, Texas, a spectacle lynching had occurred and the symbolic weight was felt throughout the country.
The lynching was circulated through press accounts. Whites and Blacks understood that once again white power had been exerted over an individual Black body but also over the more symbolic body politic. It became a "joke" among many whites, giddy with their own racial power. Just a couple of months after Mr. Byrd's death, white firefighters in Queens put on a skit at a parade called "Black to the Future, 2098" where they reenacted the lynching in Blackface while the nearly all white residents laughed alongside them.
But symbolic violence isn't funny. It's dangerous. It's powerful. And it must be taken seriously. Lynching President Obama's likeness is an act of violence against all Black Americans and ultimately against all Americans who imagine a future not dominated by the violence of slavery and the structural and symbolic racism that have been left in its wake.