Agency and Motive in Lynching and Genocide

Before subsiding in the 1960s, lynching at the hands of white people in the United States would claim the lives of several thousand African Americans.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, July 19, 1935

I became interested in this subject in the 1990s while writing my dissertation, a two-volume study of the race, class, and punishment in American history. After graduate school, I worked with the Tuskegee archives to produce a machine-readable file of the lynching records (which the archivist told me had never been done, which surprised me) and published two academic articles on the subject, one using the Tuskegee data. The first article, appearing in the pages of the Journal of Black Studies in May 2004, was a review essay upon which the present blog entry leans heavy (I am not going to quote myself, as these are my words). The second was an empirical study of lynching and execution in the United States, appearing in Crime, Law, & Social Change in 2006. In that article I challenged the notion that lynching was “self-help” in the underdeveloped southern United States.

My work on this in the opening decade of the twenty-first century was inspired by two publications on lynching that compel Americans to revisit this peculiar form of collective murder and ponder its significance for the sociological and moral understanding of racial violence. The first of these publications is a disturbing collection of lynching photographs by James Allen and associates, Without Sanctuary, published in 2000. The impact of this documentary is visceral. Perhaps more disturbing than the torn and burned bodies of the victims is the countenance on the perpetrators’ faces. Their collective visage is haunting. When I received my copy, in my final year of graduate school (in 2000), I retreated to the only room in my tiny apartment that had a lock on the door—the bathroom—for fear my young son would ask me what I was looking at. The book sickened me. I hid the book away and did not look at it for a long time.

The second publication, Philip Dray’s 2002 At the Hands of Persons Unknown, is a comprehensive accounting of the history of lynching in America. There are no pictures. Yet, the story Dray tells is no less unsettling: a tale of ordinary Americans perpetrating, in ritualized installments, the mass murder of other Americans because they were of a different race. The title of Dray’s book is taken from the typical coroner’s verdict concerning the cause of death in a lynching. This verdict is apt, according to Dray, because “no persons had committed a crime.” The crime was instead “an expression of the community’s will.”

To be sure, the decisions and deeds of individuals in collective action express common sentiment. Yet, the decision to participate in collective action—or collective inaction—is made by individuals. Individuals are responsible for the consequence of their actions. The juxtaposition of the images in Without Sanctuary and Dray’s choice of a book title raised basic albeit unacknowledged problems with the history of racial violence in America. Since the individuals in those frightful photographs are not “persons unknown,” I wondered, why have they remained unnamed for all these years? So I started writing my thoughts about the role of agency and responsibility in explanation. What you will read here are my conclusions about that matter.

* * *

While Without Sanctuary and Persons Unknown raise questions about motive and responsibility, most studies of lynching have pursued different questions, seeking explanation in the phenomenon’s statistical variation in conjunction with macrosocial patterns. These were the works I encountered while writing my dissertation chapter on this period. Researchers focus on demographics, for example the proportion of blacks relative to whites. The crucial pieces: Jay Corzine, James Creech, and Lin Corzine’s “Black Concentration and Lynching in the South: Testing Blalock’s Power-Threat Hypothesis” (Social Forces, 1983) and E. M. Beck, James L. Massey, and Stewart E. Tolnay’s “The Gallows, The Mob, The Vote: Lethal Sanctioning of Blacks in North Carolina and Georgia, 1882-1930,” (Law and Society Review, 1989). The logic of this line of argument is indebted to Hubert Blalock and Peter M. Blau, for example Blalock’s Towards a Theory of Minority Group Relations (1967), and Blau’s Inequality and Heterogeneity (1977).

Researchers also focuse on macroeconomic forces, such as fluctuations in cotton prices, to explain variation in lynching in the United States, for example, Susan Olzak’s “The Political Context of Competition: Lynching and Urban Racial Violence 1882-1914” (Social Forces, 1990) and her expansive The Dynamics of Ethnic Competition and Conflict (1992). Also notable: E. M. Beck and Stewart E. Tolnay’s “The Killing Fields of the Deep South: The Market for Cotton and the Lynching of Blacks, 1882-1930” (American Sociological Review, 1990) and the Corzines and Creech’s “The Tenant Labor Market and Lynching in the South: A Test of Split Labor Market Theory” (Sociological Inquiry, 1988). An early treatment is found in Arthur Raper’s The Tragedy of Lynching (1933). Finally, Lincoln Quillian’s “Group Threat ands Regional Change in Attitudes toward African-Americans,” published in the American Journal of Sociology (1996), provides a compelling theoretical explanation, the approach for which he developed earlier in his “Prejudice as a Response to Perceived Group Threat: Population, Competition, and Anti-Immigrant and Racial Prejudice in Europe,” published in the  American Sociological Review in 1995.

Beck and Tolnay’s outstanding 1995 book A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynching, 1882-1930 (and several articles) is exemplary of the positivistic approach. In their work, the authors show that periods of material prosperity ceteris paribus tended to reduce the frequency of lynching, whereas economic depression functioned to increase lynching. They theorize that this was because economic pressures reduced the number of available jobs and increased competition for work. Whereas the white planter class had an interest in exploiting cheap black labor, the existence of a free black labor force threatened white labor—white planters hiring blacks over whites led to whites employing violent tactics to close the labor market to blacks. Lynching was one mechanism used by white labor to intimidate black labor. Found the foundation of this argument see Joel Williamson’s The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (1984).

The positivistic approach is attractive because linear formulation of causal relations and the assumption of an abstract rational actor are suitable for hypothesis testing using aggregated statistics. Indeed, the findings of such studies are impressive. When demand for cotton declined in the early 1890s, lynching did indeed peak. After the 1890s, when cotton prices rose, there was the predicted decline in lynching. (For caution see John Reed, Gail E. Doss, and Jeanne S. Hulbert’s “Too Good to be False: An Essay in the Folklore of Social Science” in Sociological Inquiry, 1987.) After WWI, when the cotton economy declined dramatically, another wave of racial violence occurred (the re-birth of the Ku Klux Klan is associated with this calamity). Population pressures exacerbated the problem. Rapid population growth in the South produced a surplus of laborers, increasing (at least the perception of) job competition between races and pushing racial tensions to greater heights. Out-migration of blacks is associated with the decline of lynching in the 1930s. Beck and Tolnay theorize that this relieved the perceived need to use lynching as a tool to exclude blacks from the white labor market. 

Festival specifies elements of lengthier historical studies on changes in punishment during this period (such as Edward L. Ayers’ Vengeance and Justice, published in 1984). The book shows why there are more killings in one region compared to another and why there were more killings in one year compared to another. However, explaining variation is not the same thing as identifying generative forces. Beck and Tolnay theorize that lynching occurs in the conjuncture of several forces: racist ideology, competition over scarce resources (such as jobs), a permissive government, and various catalysts, such as labor market instability and a high profile crime. For Beck and Tolnay, racism gives ordinary people permission to commit murder.

This approach helps explain why those whites who were, because of the split-labor arrangements of a caste society, far more likely to be in direct competition with members of the lynch mob and their supporters did not lynch each other. But several question remain unanswered. Does racial ideology only provide a technique of neutralizing legal and moral prohibitions against torture and murder? Or might racism also be a positive motive to lynch? Is lynching only about intimating blacks to force them to leave communities and markets? Why did those persons who desired to murder blacks select lynching as the means of closing the labor market (if that’s what they were indeed doing)? And what explains the murder of women and children? With whom were they in competition? Or is lynching also or even more about the affirmation of whiteness?

These and other questions indicate gaps in our understanding of lynching that can only be filled by exploring the cognition of southern whites, by pursuing evidence of motive and making a determination of responsibility. Motive, the reason in back of action, is part of the causal process when we grant human agency. Motives need not be clear to the person who carries out the action. One may claim that he participated in a lynching to avenge a crime perpetrated by the executed. The claim is not false. But it does not tell us why a black man was lynched. Responsibility means that a person is able to answer for an action taken (his conduct) or a failure to act (his obligation). It conveys a moral and legal accountability. To say somebody or something is responsible for a criminal action is saying that someone or something caused a crime to occur. Questions of motive and responsibility do not lie outside the ambit of objective social science. The fig leaf of neutrality should not apply. Putting the matter more simply: how will we know the cause of lynching if we do not explore the mind of the white supremacist? 

* * *

Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book about mass murder published in the twilight of history’s bloodiest century, stands in contrast to three paths of scholarships in the field of Holocaust studies. Along the first path, what some call the “intentionalist” school, scholars theorize that the cause of the Second World War was an elite racist dream imposed upon a sensible and civilized but hapless German citizenry. For this view, see Karl Dietrich Bracher, The German Dictatorship (1968) and Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews (1975). Genocide was a means to make the fatherland Judenrein (“Jew-free”). Proponents of this view reference statements and writings of prominent Nazis that presage the elimination, in one way or another, of the European Jewry. Ordinary Germans, duped by charismatic leaders and deft propaganda, were ignorant of the extermination program.

Auschwitz, Poland, c. 1940

Scholars on the second path explain the Shoah as the outcome of impersonal macroeconomic forces. With the world in the throes of global recession, the German state and bourgeoisie, driven by capitalist imperative and having come late to the imperialist plunder of the world, used fascism and territorial expansion (Lebensraum or “living space”) to rebuild the national economy. (For a contrary view see Eberhart Jackal’s 1972 Hitler’s Weltanschauung: A Blueprint for Power.) Later, as an afterthought emerging from the contingencies of world war, an extermination policy developed. The policy of genocide was not premeditated but emergent. This interpretation corresponds to the so-called “functionalist” or “structuralist” school, which examines institutions rather than ideas and human agency. See, for example, Karl Schleunes’ The Twisted Road to Auschwitz (1970), Arno Mayer’s Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The “Final Solution” in History (1989), Christopher Browning’s The Path to Genocide (1995). (There is a range here, with Browning’s functionalism moderate compared to Mayer’s work.)

For those on the third path, represented most plainly by Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis, the insidious nature of the hyper-rational bureaucratic state lies behind genocide. See Arendt’s 1977 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, as well as her 1971 The Origins of Totalitarianism.) Mass murder in the twentieth century was a consequence of the dehumanizing effects of high modernity—rationality taken to its logical conclusion. At the social psychological level, Milgram confirmed Arendt’s assumptions in a series of experiments that showed how ordinary people obey authority even when the task is unpleasant. Eichmann was a bureaucrat following orders. He was one among many. Diffused personal responsibility gave each perpetrator a way to deflect guilt. The executioner who dropped Zyklon B into the showers blamed his commander. The commander blamed the executioner. (See John Conroy’s 2000 Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture.)

These three paths reduce to two basic accounts of the crime. In one, the Shoah was, as the intentionalist claim, men attempting to realize their goal of a racially sanitized world. In the other, as functionalists see it, genocide was the work of marionettes animated by the reflexes of an anonymous and impersonal puppet master. In neither of these explanations do ordinary Germans—if proponents acknowledge ordinary Germans at all—willingly perpetrate the worst mass murder in history. Moreover, scholars are resistant to the idea that National Socialism was a national project appealing to the average German citizen. This is especially true for those whose political sympathies are with the working class, such as the orthodox Marxist. See, for example, Tim Mason’s Nazism, Fascism, and the Working Class (1995). So sensitive were pro-worker thinkers that, according to Daniel Burston in The Legacy of Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer refused to publish Erich Fromm’s 1929 study of pro-fascist sympathies among German workers, The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study, for fear that it would smear the proletariat.

The ordinary German is the focus in Goldhagen’s Willing Executioners. He roots the Holocaust in the culture of anti-Semitism. The majority of Germans shared a hatred for Jews and other non-Germans. Race hatred and race pride motivated the gassings and the shootings. Nazis neither duped nor coerced Germans into mass murder. Embracing their ethnic identity, they were “willing executioners.” Explanations that do not consider motive are theoretically inadequate, according to Goldhagen. To be sure, ascension of the Nazis and macroeconomic instability created the conjunctural moment wherein latent eliminationist anti-Semitism could manifest. Moreover, the rational-bureaucratic state of modernity provided the infrastructure for the mass production of death, as Zygmunt Bauman famously pointed out in the pages of The British Journal of Sociology. However, opportunity and means do not by themselves explain murder. Any complete explanation for the Holocaust must come to terms with the thoughts and actions of ordinary Germans. What is unique in Goldhagen’s approach is the way in which individual responsibility becomes grounds not only for establishing guilt, but also for explaining behavior.

Treating perpetrators as essentially empty vessels and underplaying their wrongdoing is not merely the result of overly objectivistic approaches to the subject of genocide. Holocaust scholars appear to have a hard time acknowledging racism in German culture and the role racists played in genocide. Some scholars, such as Arendt, even dismiss the centrality of anti-Semitism. In Arendt’s view, apolitical bureaucrats perpetrated the Holocaust. The motives of perpetrators, as well as the identity of their victims, yield little useful knowledge from this standpoint. Collective violence is a reflex of the modern state. Evil is banal. We must therefore turn our attention to the hyper-rational ordering of the German state. Other accounts admit anti-Semitism but fail to give it significant causal weight in mass murder (Mayer’s work, for instance). (In this respect, the corpus of lynching studies differs markedly from Holocaust studies.)

Goldhagen sees in conventional explanations a common feature. “They either ignore, deny, or radically minimize the importance of Nazi and perhaps the perpetrators’ ideology, moral values, and conception of the victims, for engendering the perpetrators’ willingness to kill,” he writes. “They do not conceive of the actors as human agents, as people with wills, but as beings moved solely by external forces or by transhistorical and invariant psychological propensities, such as the slavish following of narrow ‘self-interest’.”

Traditional explanations, first, fail to reckon sufficiently “the extraordinary nature of the deed: the mass killing of people.” In his survey of the literature, Goldhagen finds that when slaughters and gassings are recorded, they are rarely analyzed. Without coming to terms with the “the phenomenological horror of the genocidal killings,” the mind of the perpetrators cannot be fully understood and thus a complete explanation for the Holocaust is not possible. Second, “none of the conventional explanations deems the identity of the victims to have mattered.” Goldhagen emphasizes that the identity of the victims—how Germans perceived identity—is a causal factor in genocide. Indeed, he regards the view that the perpetrators were neutral regarding Jews as a “psychological impossibility.” These failings indicate questions in need of answering: Why do ordinary individuals perpetrate mass murder? How do ordinary individuals go about killing others? The question central to the problem Goldhagen confronts is this: Why are some individuals selected to be victims and others not?

Given how the Nazis dehumanized their victims, it is ironic that the perpetrators are in conventional explanations themselves dehumanized. Their dehumanization lies along different planes of course: Jews (and others) were dehumanized by the perpetrators denying that they were human beings worthy of sympathy; on the other plane the perpetrators are dehumanized by excusing their responsibility for perpetrating crimes that reach into the deepest recesses of moral degradation.

The immediate reaction of many in the academic community to Willing Executioners illustrates widespread reluctance to implicate ordinary Germans or German national culture in genocide. Reviewers of Goldhagen’s book quickly mobilized to find the link between “the specific national German tradition” and genocide “not tenable,” and to exculpate Germans of murder, as the matter was put by George Kren in The American Historical Review. Kristen Monroe, the author of The Heart of Altruism, a book about German rescuers of Jews, is exemplary of this approach. In American Political Science she admonishes Goldhagen for producing a “blanket indictment of the German people.” She especially condemns Goldhagen’s ignorance of those Germans who risked their lives to save Jews. Monroe contends that neither the perpetrators nor the rescuers “constitute the most representative sample of the German people.”

Monroe’s comparison effectively treats those Germans who were neither perpetrators nor rescuers as non-agents and not responsible for what happened. Suppose we were to draw a representative sample of Germans and find that most were not among the rescuers. Even if they were not perpetrators, does not their inaction make them complicit in genocide, especially since the overwhelming evidence indicates that Germans knew their neighbors and relatives were murdering Jews? This points to another difference between the bodies of Holocaust and lynching scholarships namely, unlike Monroe, Beck and Tolnay recognize the responsibility of “non-actors” in the mass murder of blacks.

The claim of Monroe’s polemic is false; Goldhagen recognizes that not every German desired to swim with the currents of their day. However, he stresses, this is no reason to deny that the perpetrators and their supporters were German. He writes: “The perpetrators were Germans as much as the soldiers in Vietnam were Americans, even if not all people in either country supported their nation’s efforts.” The premise of Monroe’s work, however, is compelling. Arguments from identity are troubling. At the same time, not all identities are the same; their differences make it more or less difficult to assign responsibility to them.

For categories such as race and sex, it’s not possible to hold everybody who is, for example, white and male, responsible for the actions of a concrete individual who lies at that intersection. There is no substance to these categories that provide motive for action. A white man can be ideologically and morally anything. Ethnicity is a plausible target in the sense that it comes with norms, traditions, and values that may make individuals who belong to them more likely than individuals from other ethnic groups to either perpetrate heinous acts or fail to oppose them when they can. Ethnicity is at least a source of motive. On the other hand, nationality in the civic sense is difficult to process in the same way. Many of my parents’ generation marched against the Vietnam War. In what way could they be held responsible for the actions of their government in Southeast Asia? Many of them did, of course, support the Democratic Party. But this gets us into another area: ideology. Political and religious ideologies are the most obvious sources of motives for action. For example, the extent to which individuals are devoted to the ideas and practices of Islam is predictive of actions that are harmful to people. What is more, Islam as a ruling ideology creates social and cultural structures that are systematically oppressive to some members of those societies.

* * *

Dray’s narratives in Persons Unknown suggest what Goldhagen asks us to do in Willing Executioners, namely grasp the shared consciousness that guides ordinary people to perpetrate extraordinary crimes. It is through the murderous events recounted in detail and the description of the larger culture of white supremacy in Dray’s book that we gain a better understanding of what motivated the perpetrator’s actions. The reluctance of those in positions of power to stem the tide of murder and their inaction facilitating the perpetuation of those atrocities is highlighted, supporting a claim central to Beck and Tolnay’s theory in Festival.

This matter of malign neglect by authorities must not be overlooked. In a detailed criticism of Edward Ayers’ 1985 Vengeance and Justice, a book wherein the argument is made that lynching was not a political act, Drew Faust writes, “Underlying the entire lynching phenomenon was a tacit political decision not to use the power of the state to halt these outrages.” The cooperation of whites from politicians and law enforcement at the state level to through the subaltern ranks of ordinary white southerners reveals the importance of grasping the collective consciousness of the South. Without Sanctuary forces us to consider such matters with its onslaught of photographic proof of murder. We look into the perpetrators’ faces and see their smiles, their complacency, dissociative countenance, and bloodlust. We witness them operating publicly, posing for pictures, without fear of punishment. We know that they know they have permission to murder. 

Among the most striking pieces of evidence for racial hatred as the cause of lynching is the character of the perpetrators’ manner of killing. “The story of a lynching,” writes Litwack in Without Sanctuary, “is the story of slow, methodical, sadistic, often highly inventive forms of torture and mutilation.” Such cruelty shows us that racism represents more than a dehumanizing ideology that neutralized conscience. It was not enough for the perpetrators to simply execute their victim—the killers had to murder them in the most excessive and public way. Afterwards, instead of shame and guilt, the perpetrators expressed pride in their actions, taking trophies, fragments of the corpse, selling body parts as souvenirs, proudly displaying the photographs they had taken in local shop windows. There were postcards made of the pictures of lynched blacks, delivered by United States postal workers, captioned, “I was at the barbecue last night.” 

An outstanding feature of racial lynching in the U.S. South is that it follows slavery and the absence of controls on the white population. “The demise of slavery, ironically, meant the collapse of an institutional check on violence against Black people,” Manning Marable writes in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America. Freedom from some white people left blacks vulnerable to brutality by potentially all white people. This phenomenon was likewise observed in Europe. During the eastward expansion of German hegemony, “spontaneous” collective violence occurred when the Nazis disabled the local police. It seems as though what prevented various ethnic groupings from beating Jews to death in the streets and in their beds was the presence of local law enforcement securing the social order. When the Nazis invaded and destabilized the legal order, they unchained latent exterminationist anti-Semitism and incredible acts of brutality followed. Like the Holocaust, the brutality of lynching and its acceptance by the white community indicates racial hatred and racial interests as the primary causal forces in lynching. But it is in those spaces left uncontrolled by authorities that many of the atrocities of the Holocaust parallel the atrocities of the Lynch mob. It is here that we see the power of ethnicity and ideology—and not the commands of the Nazi state—in providing motive for action.

These facts highlight the problem with research that attempts to link lynching to abstract social forces: Quantifying racial violence serves to downplay or omit the motivational side of the racist character of the perpetrators’ actions, which may in turn disguise the cultural sources of collective murder. Such approaches reduce complex human actions to abstract rational actors animated by invisible market forces. The procedure evacuates an essential truth, namely that whites were guided to murder blacks not because cotton prices rose or fell, but because they shared the cultural values of white supremacy and anti-black racism. Whether they were suffering from a skinny paycheck, or benefiting from the depression in cotton prices in some fashion, they willingly, even eagerly, participated in murdering humans. And for those who consider the role of racism in lynching (Beck and Tolnay, for example), the role of racism must not be interpreted one-sidedly as an ideology that gives individuals permission to kill, that is as a technique of neutralization. Racism must also be reckoned as a cultural and moral force making people want to kill. 

A growing understanding among black intellectuals that white supremacy—affirmation of identity and hatred of blacks—in the late nineteenth century was the cause of lynching is illustrated in the first chapter of Persons Unknown. Dray relays an account of intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois’ walk to The Atlanta Constitution on April 24, 1899, to meet with editor Joel Chandler Harris (the author of Uncle Remus stories). Du Bois’ purpose in meeting with Harris was to discuss Du Bois’ study of lynching. Current events made this purpose all the more urgent. A black man named Sam Hose stood accused of murder and rape and the immediate indication was that his lynching was inevitable. The press stoked the fires of racial violence. Some papers even called for Hose’s lynching. Georgia governor Allen D. Candler, an outspoken advocate of lynching, practically endorsed the idea of murdering Hose when he characterized Hose’s deeds as “the most diabolical in the annals of crime.”

As Du Bois’ walked to the Constitution offices, he received news that Hose had been “barbecued” and that a grocery on the very street upon which he was walking had Hose’s knuckles for sale in the window. 

The lynching of Sam Hose, April 23, 1899

The lynching of Hose, like so many instances of lynching, had been a spectacular affair, involving slow dismemberment of the victim before burning him alive at the stake. News of Hose’s capture had traveled fast and people everywhere clamored to get to the town of Newman where the lynching was to take place. Atlanta and West Point Railroads offered a special excursion train there. After the train tickets sold out, citizens leapt onto the train, climbing into its windows and clinging to its exterior. The railroad quickly arranged for a second “special,” which filled in the same manner at the first. Thousands congregated in the small town of Newman. Many who were too late to see the actual lynching converged upon the makeshift scaffold, taking trophies—fingers, pieces of wood, fragments of the chains that had held Hose to the tree. The Constitution reported that people were walking around town carrying bones.

All this transpired as Du Bois walked to the Constitution offices and the enormity of news he was receiving forced him to recognition of how unimportant were his efforts that day. Overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation, he turned around and walked back home.

Dray summarizes Du Bois’ conclusion: “Du Bois had been inclined to believe that blacks were mistreated by a minority of coarser whites, and that if the majority of decent white people could be made aware of the injustice of black life in America they would—out of compassion, a sense of justice, even patriotism—act to alleviate the problem. But the manner and spectacle of Hose’s death—the eleven days of hysterical, incendiary newspaper articles, the almost complete lack of responsible intervention from high officials, the crowds running pell-mell from houses of God so as not to miss seeing a human being turned into a heap of ashes, and ultimately, a set of knuckles on display in a grocery store—showed him that lynching was not some twisted aberration in Southern life, but a symptom of a much larger malady. Lynching was simply the most sensational manifestation of an animosity for black people that resided at a deeper level among whites than he had previously thought. It was ingrained in all of white society, its objective nothing less than the continued subordination of blacks at any cost.”

For whatever other reasons whites lynched blacks, it seems certain they did so to affirm their racial superiority. Civil war and reconstruction disrupted the racial order and made racial boundaries ambiguous. Mass murder was a weapon of redemption in a struggle to restore white power. Indeed, racial thinking of this sort is the necessary condition for the periodic waves of ethnic mass murder that have for centuries marked the capitalist world system. At times latent, kept simmering by the culture of white supremacy. At others times, especially during moments of political and economic crisis, fanned into a conflagration.

* * *

The failure of jurisdictions in the United States to prosecute whites who murdered blacks is a testament to the depth of racism in that country. What US citizen has ever been imprisoned or executed for lynching a black person? The 1997 execution of Henry Hayes in Alabama for the 1981 murder of Michael Donald was not for lynching. If and when the murderers of James Byrd of Texas in 1998 are executed, it will not be for lynching. These were “nigger hunts.” However, that Hayes was the first white man to be executed for killing a black man in Alabama since 1913 punctuates the point. The last time Texas executed a white person for killing a black person was in 1854. This was the only such instance.

Because these acts of lynching were murder—the illegal and intentional killing of human beings—persons who perpetrated them are criminally culpable. Failure of authorities to pursue the perpetrators of blacks, hundreds, if not thousands of which are still alive is tacit approval of the motive for lynching. In Germany, where a handful of the perpetrators of genocide were finally judged, many more escaped the stigma of prosecution largely thanks to the resistance of the German judiciary. In his 1998 American Historical Review article “Defining Enemies, Making Victims: Germans, Jews, and the Holocaust,” Omer Bartov shows that “denazification applied a narrow definition of perpetrators, thereby making for a highly inclusive definition of victimhood.” Postwar propagandists depicted “the war as a site of near universal victimhood.” Under the cover of peace and reconciliation, perpetrators and bystanders were either dismissed for their ignorance or turned into automata.

As in the Holocaust, there are likely people still alive who participated in lynching. Why has law enforcement failed to track down and hold members of the lynch mobs responsible for their crimes? Those white faces in Without Sanctuary belong to real flesh-and-blood people. The man in foreground standing beneath the body of R. C. Williams in photograph 88 is somebody’s father, brother, or uncle. That lynching occurred in 1938. Maybe none of Williams’ killers are alive. But they can be named. Might we find their faces in school yearbooks? What was their standing in the community? Did they brag about the time they castrated and murdered Mr. Williams? Do their children know that their parents and grandparents were murderers? The importance of the mystery of these faces becomes even more compelling after learning so many of the victims’ names in various accounts of lynching yet learning nothing about the names of the perpetrators. We know that a mob of whites lynched Sam Hose, but we don’t know the names of those who lynched him.

The desire in the United States to distinguish between whites (well-meaning and naive) on the one hand, and racists (hateful and backward), on the other, is born of the desire to erase the history of anti-black prejudice from collective consciousness. The memory of an America is so deeply racist that it would sanction, even encourage, mob violence is more disturbing to most Americans than the actual killings themselves. The form of argument exemplified by Monroe’s criticism of Goldhagen, whatever her intentions, approaches those arguments that exonerate Southern whites of complicity in violence against blacks who, while not members of the Ku Klux Klan, did little or nothing to improve the conditions of African-Americans, let alone intervene in serial mass murder. Such apologia is transparent in the attempt to draw a distinction between white supremacy and southern heritage, seen for instance in the defense of the confederate flag. This distinction can be accomplished with no more legitimacy than attempts to separate the swastika from National Socialism.

More than this, the desire to differentiate Germans from Nazis during the Nazi period is effectively an attempt to remove from the history of ordinary Germany the subterranean values of anti-Semitism—the values that the Nazis unchained. This is one of the byproducts of insufficiently accounting for, or refusing to recognize culture and motive in collective violence. This problem is widespread in the Holocaust literature (much more so than in the lynching literature). Here, neglecting human agency and ideological conviction of ordinary people puts historical and social scientific explanations in the service of a political desire to reckon hundreds of thousands, if not millions of murderers among the Nazis’ victims. Such interpretations function to diminish and, in some accounts, absolve, responsibility for murder.

* * *

Tapping the collective cognition of a people is a historical-sociological endeavor—the unity of intentionalist and structuralist approaches. The expressions and actions of perpetrators, the identity of their victims, are ultimately the products of social-historical structure and process. Theory must root the collective will in the societal, cultural, and historical contexts in which people are socialized and live out their lives. It is here that human beings learn morality, with all its contradictions, and find themselves in situations that call for the expression of this or that value. We must recognize that people commit murder willingly, not because of “human nature,” but because of their socialization in the dominant ideologies and institution of this sociocultural milieu. Grounds for the decision to murder must be part of the explanation. At the same time, individuals must be held responsible for their decisions. Embedded in the same society are the values of love, non-violence and tolerance. Individuals can refuse to transgress these values.

Quantitative studies, such as Tolnay and Beck’s Festival of Violence, however empirically sound and relevant for their domain, are methodologically constrained in answering important historical, cultural, and phenomenological questions. We must turn to qualitative approaches. Yet, Persons Unknown, as important as it is, is a work of historical narrative. As such, it is undertheorized. Without Sanctuary, its significance unquestionable, is a documentary in need of analysis. Both are descriptions in words and pictures, not works of critical sociological analysis. As powerful as the facts they present are, facts do not speak for themselves. 

Willing Executioners is flawed in several other ways. The author neglects the other victims whose identity provoked Germans. He downplays the role non-Germans played in perpetrating genocide (for admittedly analytical reasons). He too readily dismisses condemnatory attitudes on the part of the perpetrators, something John Weiss avoids in Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany (1996), for instance, the disproportionate employment of Austrians employed in the agencies of death inferring that they were more enthusiastic about killing Jews than Germans. (Christopher Browning’s work is replete with instances of Germans attempting to diminish their responsibility.) 

Nevertheless, despite their weaknesses, Persons UnknownWithout Sanctuary, and Willing Executioners succeed in drawing our attention to shared cognition as a necessary element of collective behavior. They shift our attention away from explanation by impersonal structural forces towards the problem of sociological accounts of motive and social action. In grasping the motivational force behind murder, we turn to the larger social-historical forces that produce shared consciousness and collective conscience. Perhaps it need not be said that no single work can provide all the answers. Studies such as Beck and Tolnay’s Festival of Violence address important aspects of the phenomenon of lynching in the United States. Without Sanctuary and Persons Unknown move us to consider other aspects, especially those aspects of the southern mind that escape quantification.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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