Ignore the Noose Makers

In an age when lynching is no longer accepted, what is the meaning of a noose? When a twisted rope, evocative of such a hideous history, hangs so far away from the horrors that defined it, is it still worth getting worked up about? Or when nooses appear on trees, on doors and in well-traveled public places, should we dismiss them as tasteless diversions? Cries for attention from sick, benighted souls? If only the questions were purely hypothetical. In the past few weeks, nooses have appeared in numerous places, spawning an orgy of coverage along with questions about their significance and potential harm.

The catalyst seems to be the brouhaha in Jena, La. Last year six black students there were accused of beating up a white student after three nooses were found hanging from a tree outside a school. The blacks were charged with attempted murder. Though the charges were subsequently reduced, outrage over the students' being charged with such a serious crime culminated in a demonstration last month that drew an estimated 10,000 protesters to the tiny town of 3,000.

Now, it appears, nooses have become the totem of choice for some troubled people. Earlier this month a black professor at Columbia University's Teachers College found a noose hanging from her office door. USA Today recently cataloged an array of such incidents: nooses at the University of Maryland, in a Long Island, N.Y., police locker room and in a bus-maintenance garage in Pittsburgh, to name a few. RACIAL CRISIS? OR JUST ROPE IN THE HANDS OF FOOLS? asked the headline atop a New York Times column.

I'd lay odds on the latter. This is an outbreak of copycat idiocy perpetrated by mean-spirited people who get a thrill out of seeing others riled up. And a lot of people have taken the bait. At Columbia, the noose spawned a rally in support of the targeted professor. In her State of the College address, president Susan H. Fuhrman said the perpetrator had "targeted all of us who believe in diversity."

It's unclear exactly what effect the noose was supposed to have. But it is clear that it stirred emotions out of proportion to its threat. The reason, of course, has to do with the history of the noose—or, to be more precise, the legacy of lynching.

Between 1882 and 1951, more than 5,000 people were lynched in the United States, according to statistics kept by the Tuskegee Institute. Not all were black. Roughly a fourth were white, Mexican or Asian. But lynchings of blacks were different from lynchings of whites. Many were "spectacle" lynchings, public rituals designed to make the point that "black bodies still belonged to white people," writes Cynthia Carr in "Our Town," which explores a 1930 lynching in Marion, Ind. Newspapers and public officials frequently egged on the lynch mobs, plying them with lurid (and often false) details. "Stories of sexual assault, insatiable black rapists, tender white virgins … were the bodice rippers of their day … The cumulative impression was of a world made precarious by Negroes," reports historian Philip Dray in "At the Hands of Persons Unknown."

Because of lynching's violent, racist and sexually charged history, the mere invocation of it can make people insanely angry—or, as Clarence Thomas demonstrated during his Senate confirmation hearings (when he referred to his treatment as a "high-tech lynching"), silence a roomful of normally loquacious politicians. Still, 2007 is different from 1907.

Hate crimes didn't even have a name then. It was reasonable to believe, especially in the South, that "uppity," or even just random blacks, could be lynched with impunity. In 1990, Congress mandated the attorney general to collect data on hate crimes, and the FBI pledged to work with local officials to prosecute such transgressions. More important, lynchings and other hate crimes—be they anti-Semitic, anti-gay or anti-black—no longer have broad public support.

People still engage in hateful behavior: the FBI recorded 7,163 bias incidents in 2005, the last year for which statistics are available, down slightly from the 7,947 recorded a decade earlier. The majority were racial incidents, mostly against blacks. Still, no one really believes a Columbia professor is about to be lynched.

A position paper by the American Psychological Association concluded that most hate crimes were the work of "otherwise law-abiding young people." Their actions were sometimes fueled by alcohol or drugs, "but the main determinant appears to be personal prejudice," which blinds aggressors "to the immorality of what they are doing." Extreme crimes "tend to be committed by people with a history of antisocial behavior."

Maybe it's time to stop getting so upset about these stupid gestures. Use them as occasions to educate—to revisit and extract lessons from history. And in cases where prosecutable crimes are committed, make the fools feel the full impact of the law. But to treat their acts as a serious expression of anything other than cruelty is to grant them an importance that they do not deserve.