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Herman Cain: What High-Tech Lynching?

Despite the typically explosive alchemy of race and sexuality, the details of the charges against presidential candidate Cain seem to have elicited little more than a shrug.

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Perhaps Cain’s candidacy has delivered the post-racial America that Barack Obama’s election was supposed to achieve in 2008, uniting black and white men in defense against “scurrilous” charges. But here’s another explanation: perhaps lynching was never about the protection of white women’s virtue, and so can be easily shed as an impetus for dislike of a black candidate. In 1895, pioneering journalist Ida Wells published  A Red Record, in which she documented more than 1,100 lynchings from 1882 to 1894. Hers was the first attempt to challenge the mythology of lynching with empirical evidence. She discovered that fewer than a third of lynching victims had been charged with sex crimes, falsely or otherwise, and that most “were lynched for any other reason which could be manufactured by a mob wishing to indulge in a lynching bee.” Wells’s writing and activism demonstrated that sexual violence was never more than a convenient cover story for mob violence whose main purpose was to coerce, control and terrorize black citizens. Wells reasoned of white lynch mobs, “To justify their own barbarism they assume a chivalry which they do not possess.”

By Wells’s account lynching was never about the noble impulse to protect vulnerable women from aggressive black men. It was about ensuring a rigid social order where subordinate groups knew their place and did not seek to challenge existing structures of power. The rape/lynching myth denied white women any sexual agency of their own, and ensured that they remained the symbolic and actual property of white men who could and would use their bodies as the terrain for enacting violence. The myth silenced the experiences of black women who were victimized by white male rapists, and it terrorized and brutalized black men. Lynching was an encompassing act of social control.

Therefore, when we look for “symbolic lynching” in the twenty-first century, we should not fall into reifying the myth that it is primarily motivated by interracial sexual aggression. Instead we should look for acts of symbolic violence against any person or group that seeks to upturn the social system and challenge the assumptions of how power is distributed. In this sense, I am not at all surprised to discover there is no lynch mob out to get Herman Cain.