Hanging an effigy of our first black president openly evokes lynching, and not by accident. What does this say about where we are as a society?
My entire ass.
The right wing in this country has a weird relationship to racism at this historical moment. Since their ideology has long since collapsed down to “the opposite of whatever we think liberals want today, updated daily”, they have to be generally in favor of racism, or at least firmly opposed to anti-racist efforts. Anti-racist education and action are, after all, “liberal”, and they can’t have that.
Thus, racist symbolism becomes a tribal marker, a shibboleth, a way of demonstrating affiliation and where one’s ideological allegiance lies. It’s a way of distinguishing Us from Them, like teenagers defining cliques by which band’s T-shirts they wear. If there weren’t racial symbolism to Mr. Jones’ outrageous bullshit, there’d be no point in doing it. Of course it evokes the brutal history of murder and domestic terrorism that is symbolized by lynching. It’s supposed to. By evoking that, it’s telling people “We’re not like those other people, the ones who object to lynching and racism and homophobia, those bad Other people. We’re good folks, folks like you, who know that Obama is evil, gay folks are also evil, and lynching was not some big deal to complain about.”
This really is structurally identical to the deep rap vs. metal dichotomy that divided my junior high school. (It was 1990, we couldn’t help that.) By clothing and haircuts, we signified our allegiance to one of the two tribes, agreeing on the sole point that New Kids On The Block sucked. (For our younger readers, NKOTB was what we called Justin Bieber in 1990. Same thing.) This profound ideological gulf determined where you sat on the bus, who you ate lunch with, and which godawful radio station you said was better than the other godawful radio station. (Younger readers may Google “radio station” at their convenience. They were real things once.)
I know, it sounds like I’m making light of this appalling display of open racism. I’m actually not. We, as a species, love dividing ourselves into opposing tribes. In ancient Rome, it was which color chariot team you rooted for. In Britain, it’s which football club you support. And in American politics, it’s whether you’re one of those liberals who objects to open racism, or one of those conservatives who’s basically okay with it because it proves you’re not a liberal.
The tragedy is not that we have two stupid, childish tribes defining our national political discourse. That’s just how human beings work. The tragedy is that one of those tribes is totally okay with being pro-lynching, even if they have to say they’re not racist about it. That they have to make that claim is evidence that we have grown a little wiser as a people. That everyone knows that they’re lying is evidence that we have a long way yet to go. As long as being anti-racist is a tribal marker rather than a bedrock principle, we’ll continue to get lip service from one tribe about it, while their actions belie their words every day. We’ll continue to see displays like this, and we’ll continue, to our own horror, to get used to them.