Death by Suicide in the Era of Black Lives Matter: The Beginning of a Moral Panic?

I have published papers on lynching, so this subject is close to me. I also know how to work from a societal reaction perspective where regular events become defined differently based on the greater context in which they appear. Ideology and worldview can dramatically change the meaning of events. 

I want to put in a word of caution concerning what I see as an emerging moral panic, which is perhaps understandable, but no less troubling. The risk is that public pressure could compel authorities to define things differently than they know them to be thus making the imagined appear real. Such acts of reifications will likely function to perpetuate a false narrative. 

The memes circling around social media about five black men found hanging from trees has all the marks of a moral panic. Such memes conjure images of lynchings and, in the present context, are sure to heighten racial suspicions and animosities.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee told Fox 26 Houston that she “believes there could be more to the story after an eerie pattern of recent suicides where black men were found hanging from trees.” What pattern? Calls to suicide hotlines skyrocketed during COVID-19. The hanging occurred in different cities. There’s security footage. No foul play is suspected. “People are on edge,” Jackson continued “They are nervous. This is a troubling, a challenging time for us. It is shocking in our community, and no death in that form should go uninvestigated. No death should go uninvestigated.

This is reckless rhetoric on Lee’s part. She is the one ramping up fear. First, the number is erroneous. Three black men, two found to have hanged themselves and another under investigation (no foul play suspected) is not five black men. Second, investigators see far more suicides than they see murders. How many more? Three times more. Investigators can tell the difference. Based on all the evidence we have at this point, the memes are inflammatory and irresponsible.

“We’re talking about multiple people hanging from trees across America in the middle of a race war that’s going,” said resident Anthony Scott, according to the station. “With everything that’s been transpiring, with all of the hangings that have been taking place within the last two weeks, why wouldn’t you automatically assume foul play?” Because there is no reason, too?

Suicide is common—even using the method of suicide we see in these cases. I’m not sure whether people know this, but more than 130 individuals kill themselves every day in America. Stop and reflect on that. In 2018, more than 48 thousand people killed themselves. In contrast, there were around 16 thousand homicides in 2018. Suicide by hanging is not unusual. In fact, hanging is the preferred method of suicide after firearms. Where people hang themselves depends. Some hang themselves in closets. Some in basements. Others from trees. Hanging oneself from a tree is rarer than other locations, but it happens. Whites are also found having hanged themselves from trees, too. 

We are going through a period sociologist Émile Durkheim would describe as anomic, a period where rapid change upsets the normative structure. This leads to a profound confusion in which some individuals find death preferable to living. In fact, suicides have been rising over the last two decades.

The myth of a racist America shapes perception. We see this in the fact that a large proportion of Americans believe police officers murder black men as a higher rate than they murder white men. This isn’t true, but because of the myth, a false perception perpetuates itself on the basis of selected and misperceived facts. The false perception is even causing people to call for dismantling law enforcement, which will make their communities even more dangerous. It causes them to focus on the bigger threats to black lives. Indeed, suicide is a threat to black lives.

Finally, as a conceptual and historical manner, lynchings are public events. (See Explanation and Responsibility: Agency and Motive in Lynching and Genocide, Journal of Black Studies; Race and Lethal Forms of Social ControlCrime, Law, & Social Change; see the blog entry Agency and Motive in Lynching and Genocide.) Victims of lynchings can be of any race. Lynchings are not reducible to hangings. In lynchings, the victim or victims die surrounded by a mob. In the case of racist lynchings, the victims are typically beaten, tortured, and then killed, with body parts taken as souvenirs. If the victims in these cases were victims of lynching, there would likely be a lot of evidence for it.

I recognize the psychological need to deny that a loved one did not commit suicide. Suicide still comes with a stigma. It especially tempting to suspect foul play the victim showed no suicidal tendencies. But the truth is that a lot people who kill themselves do not show suicidal tendencies. Suicide is sometimes expected. Other times, it comes as a complete surprise. It may be that one or more of these was a racially-motivated killing. These do happen. But the moral panic is unwarranted.

Update (June 18, 2020):

More signs of moral panic grow. According to several news agencies, authorities in Oakland, California, are going forward with a hate crime investigation despite the fact that several alleged “nooses” found in a park turned out to be foot swings, according to the black man who says he put them there. Mayor Libby Schaaf said Wednesday that the intentions “don’t matter” in light of the current racial climate.

Nooses' in Oakland park were exercise aids, man says
Exercise swings in a park in Oakland, California, bizarrely mistaken for “nooses.”

“We have to start with the assumption that these are hate crimes,” the mayor said during a press conference. “The intentions do not matter, because the harm is real. They will matter with regard to whether or not this is, in fact, charged as a hate crime, but they do not matter about whether or not we should tolerate symbols of hate and violence and torture in our public spaces.”

No, Mayor Schaaf, intentions do matter. They were for exercising. There is no harm—unless somebody hurts themselves using them while working out. If the mayor interpret everything that looks sort of noose-like as a racist system I would suggest psychological counseling. Because that is crazy.

But the comment, “We have to start with the assumption that these are hate crimes,” is emblematic of a moral panic. Makeshift hoops for exercising, plainly not hate crimes, are seen as hate crimes because mass hysteria causes people to see things not for what they are but for what they expect—or want—them to be.

Update (June 24, 2020):

Bubba Wallace, the only black driver racing full-time in NASCAR, was told that he the target of a hate crime when a noose was found hanging in his garage. There was a massive public display of support by other drivers and fans ahead of the Geico 500. “I’m enraged by the act of someone placing a noose in the garage stall of my race team,” Richard Petty said in a statement. “There is absolutely no place in our sport or our society for racism. This filthy act serves as a reminder of how far we still have to go to eradicate racial prejudice and it galvanizes my resolve to use the resources of Richard Petty Motorsports to create change.”

FBI: NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace not target of hate crime, "noose ...

Today, the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama and the FBI said in a joint statement that the noose had been in Wallace’s garage stall since the October race at Talladega in 2019. It was a garage stall rope handle. (Remember Jussie Smollett? See Hate Crimes, Hoaxes, and Identity Politics.)

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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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