A Peculiar Reluctance
A reflection on race, racism, and crime.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 178,583 black Americans died by homicide from 2001 through 2020. Across all races, the United States saw 363,045 homicides over the same period. Black Americans make up only 14 percent of the U.S. population yet suffered 49 percent of homicides, even after the much-noted urban crime drop of the 1990s. Contrary to media hysteria, interracial homicide is relatively rare—only about 14 percent of the total, and about 69 percent of that 14 percent is black-on-white. In 2020, black homicide increased 30 percent in the wake of unrest over the death of George Floyd during arrest by Minneapolis police, and police shootings of Jacob Blake and Breonna Taylor.
In A Peculiar Indifference: The Neglected Toll of Violence on Black America (2020) Elliot Currie, a professor of criminology, law, and society at the University of California, Irvine, adds startling perspective: Since 2000, the overall homicide rate for black Americans has averaged seven times that of white Americans; among men, the black-white disparity is more than nine to one. For young men fifteen to twenty-nine, that disparity is sixteen to one; a young black woman is four times likelier than a white woman to die of homicide; in Illinois, the homicide rate for young black men ages fifteen to twenty-nine averaged thirty-seven times the rate for white men the same age.
Progressives blame a long history of oppression, poverty, guns, an overly punitive legal system, police brutality, failure to fulfill the vision of the Great Society programs, and, of course, the malign effects of unquantifiable systemic or structural racism. There can be no agency. Conservatives blame uninvolved fathers, dysfunctional schools, an ideologically captured legal system, and an exploitative creative culture that valorizes and stylizes urban violence.
Whatever the causes, young black Americans are murdering and maiming each other at staggering rates. Given the level of carnage, we might worry less about stigma or about who is noticing these patterns of violence or that People Less Virtuous Than Us might be insufficiently uncomfortable over their role in perpetuating white supremacy, and instead focus on stopping the killing.
Professor Currie takes his book’s title from W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote in The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study that there had been “few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.” Hyperbolic as the statement is, given bloody, brutal history, white people surely were more indifferent to black suffering in 1899, when The Philadelphia Negro was published, than today, when “resignation” seems more common than “indifference.”
Mostly, however, the crisis of black-on-black violence has long been met with a peculiar reluctance born of good intentions, timidity, ideological blinkering, tribalism, and political cynicism—a reluctance to speak plainly and apply broad social pressure directly to the problem. Currie gets at the issue when he writes, “Many people are anxious at the prospect of talking directly about these sensitive issues, afraid that even to bring them up will play into long-standing stereotypes about black people and crime.”
I am an old white man unqualified to suggest policy, and disinclined to unctuous, mutually degrading language. I simply want the carnage to stop. Therefore, I will consider some of the past sins of my own people, Southern whites. I draw no moral equivalence. Rather, I hope to identify a few destructive human tendencies that transcend race and “lived experience.”
At about 2 p.m. on Sunday July 8, 1860, in the small town of Dallas, Texas, a fire started in a kindling box in front of W.W. Peak & Sons drugstore on the courthouse square. Within minutes, the flames, fanned by a southwesterly wind, spread to adjacent buildings. Over the next three hours, the entire square burned. Only the brick courthouse at the center survived, although, portentously, the interior was incinerated by heat. Only a husk remained. There were no deaths.
In weeks prior, mysterious fires had destroyed barns, cabins, and outbuildings in Dallas County. Secession and civil war loomed. John Brown’s raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry the previous fall and the fiery rhetoric of Northern abolitionists stoked fears of a slave rebellion among the highly literate local population. In the Sulfur River breaks to the northeast, tensions brewed between Unionist and pro-secession smallholders and would soon turn murderous. North Texas newspapers urged vigilance against seditionists determined to lead slaves in insurrection.
Before the remains of the town had cooled, Charles Pryor, a slaveholder and editor of the Dallas Herald, wrote that abolitionists had fomented a “deep-laid scheme of villainy” to terrorize North Texas. After interrogating dozens of slaves, Dallas’s vigilance committee charged three alleged ringleaders. On July 23, after a closed-door meeting, city leaders sentenced the accused men to death and every other adult slave in the county to disciplinary beating. The next afternoon, the three were hanged on the bank of the Trinity River.
Beyond the violence of the lynching, the most unsettling aspect of the account is that the men who ordered the murder were not psychopaths. Were they born in the 1980s instead of 1810-20, their personalities and sensibilities would almost certainly fit the statistical profile of people of similar station today, regardless of race.
Likely, Dallas’s vigilance committee, made up of members of its professional class, prominent merchants and farmers, and other business people, worried more about the excitable, potentially violent elements in the community than any “deep-laid scheme of villainy.” They had a situation on their hands. These educated men, whatever their positions on slavery, could look at the evidence: A town square built of wood; a 109-degree day; fires used for blacksmithing, cooking, and steam generation; prevalence of cigar smoking among men; the highly unstable phosphorus matches in common use; confessions extracted by torture. Indeed, two prominent jurists respected for their fairness and generosity threw up their hands after their objections were ignored.
The fire and the accused symbolized the fears and resentments of people barely removed from the western frontier and on the verge of war, who knew of and resented what had been said and written about their culture in the free states. The innocence or guilt of the accused mattered little to them. Something had to be done. A message had to be sent, both as a warning and as vindication. “You see? These men have confessed. This is why these people cannot be let loose among us. You outsiders cannot understand and have no business passing judgement. We will handle matters in our own way.”
In their climate of thought, white Texans in 1860 could not imagine that their actions would embarrass and disgust their descendants. They could not conceive of millions of immigrants arriving over the next sixty years—of influential people another century on who would publicly lament that descendants of Antebellum Southerners take any pride whatsoever in their heritage.
The most formidable minds in the South produced sophisticated arguments for slavery while Northern abolitionists, in simple, fundamentalist language, invoked transcendent authority in calling for bloody death and fiery destruction. In The Legacy of the Civil War, Robert Penn Warren wrote, “[Before] 1861, the only function then left open to intellect in the South was apologetics for the closed society, not criticism of it … The philosophy of the Southern apologist did, however, offer space in its finely wrought interstices for the bravado, arrogance, paranoid suspiciousness, and the reckless or ignorant disregard for consequences that marked the Southern ‘fire-eater.’”
My research for a novel I wrote around the above-mentioned events in Dallas led me to Without Sanctuary, a book of horrific photographs of victims of Southern lynch mobs from the 1890s through the 1930s. I had misgivings about looking through the images, but I felt a duty to absorb as far as possible the horror I planned to write about. I thought I knew what I was getting into—I had seen old lynching photos here and there—but there is no preparing for the images and descriptions of burnings, hangings, dismemberment, castration, mutilation, torture, page after page, from light poles, tree limbs, bridges, some with crowds looking on. All but a few of the victims were black. Anyone but a sociopath will struggle with these images long after even one viewing.
Without Sanctuary opens with a short foreword by civil rights hero and Georgia congressman John Lewis, who recalls that as a boy growing up in rural Alabama, he could hardly believe his elders’ stories of nightriders and racial terror. “What is it in the human psyche that would drive a person to commit such violence against their fellow citizens?” He closes with a call to prevent “anything like this from ever happening again.”
Historian Leon Litwack follows with “Hell Hounds,” an essay that places the photographs in context. He mentions accounts of spectators fighting over “souvenirs”—fingers, ears, pieces of internal organs. Newspapers of the day either defended the lynch mobs outright or justified the lawlessness as necessary for public safety. Professor Litwack writes that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two or three black Southerners were hanged, burned at the stake or quietly murdered every week. “Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs. As many if not more blacks were victims of legal lynchings (speedy trials and executions), private white violence…murdered by a variety of means in isolated rural sections…” The latter claim is no less plausible for being unprovable.
Litwack further notes that lynching had long served as a means of extralegal justice in the Far West and Midwest, and that most of those victims had been white, but that from 1890 onward the practice became almost exclusive to the South, with black Americans as victims. (Tuskegee University estimates that between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 black and 1,297 white people were lynched in the United States.) There were dissenters. Litwack quotes the mayor of Statesboro, Georgia: “If our grand juries won’t indict these lynchers, if our petit juries won’t convict, and if our soldiers won’t shoot, what are we coming to?” Litwack further notes, “Townspeople closed ranks to protect their own kind…eyewitnesses refused to testify…”
Hilton Als, a staff writer for the New Yorker, follows Litwack’s essay with several pages of stylish narcissism in which he refers to the “flashbulb smiles” of white lynchers. I see not flashbulb smiles but self-conscious defiance of people who, like the Dallas mob decades before, cannot imagine a radically different order under which their great-grandchildren might view these photographs with revulsion and incomprehension. Robert Penn Warren also described this toxic insularity in The Legacy of the Civil War: “In defeat, the Solid South was born – not only the witless automation of fidelity to the Democratic Party, but the mystique of prideful difference, identity, and defensiveness … in the moment of death, the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.”
The likelihood that some of the victims were guilty of serious crimes detracts nothing from the photographs. The lynched were denied their rights as citizens. Law enforcement and criminal justice in the long-settled South faced none of the exigencies common to frontier people dealing with dangerous criminals. Yet the violent order persisted, in part, because most people who opposed it simply looked the other way rather than face entrenched local power backed by vindictive rabble.
Initially, the meaning of the title Without Sanctuary seemed obvious: In the Jim Crow South, the rule of law provided black Americans no sanctuary against racial terror. As I forced myself through the book, a second, subtler meaning came to me: The photographs stand as an indictment against which white Americans, especially those with roots in the South, can find no sanctuary. This history must be faced out in the open, not in perpetual guilt, which devolves into blood libel, but in honesty and with full understanding of lingering effects and the murderous irrationality into which ordinary people can descend when freed from consequences.
In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, historian Christopher Lasch attributes much of the civil rights movement’s success in the South in the early 1960s to the ability of Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers to “[expose] the moral claims of the white supremacist regime in the South to the most damaging scrutiny…” King accomplished this, according to Lasch, by addressing white oppressors “not only as fellow sinners but also as fellow Southerners…” and by reminding his followers not to allow their suffering to serve as an excuse for dysfunction. Furthermore, per Lasch, the black leadership was respectably middle class, a reality not lost on moderate white clergy who became “tortured souls” when faced with the demand that they live up to their professed ideas.
Nor could white Southerners escape the judgement of a nation appalled by images of fire hoses and dogs turned on protestors or images of black school children escorted through baying mobs of whites who could not imagine that a decade on no American student would get through middle school without an opportunity to consider those faces contorted by anger and hate. They were aggrieved and sure in their justification by what Warren called “The Great Alibi.” Again, from The Legacy of the Civil War:
By the Great Alibi, pellagra, hookworm, and illiteracy are all explained away… Laziness becomes the aesthetic sense, blood-lust rising from a matrix of boredom and resentful misery becomes a sense of honor and ignorance becomes divine revelation.
The race problem, according to the Great Alibi, is the doom defined by history—by New England slavers, New England and Middlewestern Abolitionists, cotton, climate, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Wall Street, the Jews.
For more than half a century after the end of Reconstruction, Southern apologists guarded and curated their region’s history with remarkable success rather than directly confront the malignancy of racial violence. Eventually, denial became impossible in light of evidence. Legislation backed by threat of force ended the most egregious forms. But true changes in the hearts of Southerners began with “tortured souls,” stigma, and relentless, merciless cultural pressure from which there was no sanctuary.
In August 2022, The Caucus of African American Leaders, based in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, announced the creation of the Emmett Till Alert System. Modeled after the nationwide Amber Alert, the new system will notify black leaders and clergy about possible hate crimes. The 1955 murder of fourteen-year-old Emmitt Till cut a deep wound in the American psyche, a gash now constantly freshened by news media and Hollywood. A hate crime alert system could not be better named. Meanwhile, some twenty-three miles north of the Caucus’s headquarters, Baltimore has suffered some 2,000 homicides over the past six years.
In a country publicly committed to remembering, confession, and embarrassing genuflection, black citizens in violent urban communities endure terror that a young John Lewis in rural Alabama could hardly have anticipated.