Strange Fruit: Death and Democracy in the United States

In this brief essay, I explore some aspects of the terrifying moral and political climate reigning the United States these days. While I mourn, I also think. And any attempt at critical thinking mustn’t be taken lightly these days. .. I start off with a song, as I so often do, when I think about political / social events and movements. U.S. musicians War and Pierce give voice to the moment before us. Have a listen before continuing to read, if you’re still interested!


I want to talk about the ways in which lynching is being transformed from its mob vigilantism of the early to mid-twentieth century to the mass murder that it has become today. Lynching is pretty much defined as a non-state act for political/economic purposes– including the intimidation of a particular group. The United States has had an awful lot of experience with this practice which was especially in vogue in the post-slavery era when Afro-descended peoples were transitioning as a social group from slavery to free wage labour and the Klu Klux Klan was flourishing.

Reconstructing slave labour into free wage labour entailed the use of legal means to determine the parameters of black political participation and economic success.

But lynching as an extra-legal measure had both the immediate goal of murder and assassination of actual individuals, and the broader ideological goal of sowing terror to keep the black civil rights movement down. It was the modern day incarnation of the plantation overseer, multiplied in terrifying fashion like Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, due to the exhortations of white pride aimed at working class and lower middle class white communities.

An excellent description of the ways in which newly arrived Polish immigrants, for example, to the U.S, were called to participate in lynching to celebrate their new “white” — as opposed to Polish and European–identity in acts of belonging to the United States, was fostered by the burgeoning of non- English immigrant presses in the early twentieth century can be found in Robert M. Zecker,Let Each Reader Judge”: Lynching, Race and Immigrant Newspapers”, (Fall 2009) 29: 1 Journal of American Ethnic History 31. Thus the proof of belonging to white America is to be a lyncher or in modern parlance, a “patriot” as the state harnesses such tendencies for its own ends.

The “performance” of whiteness as some call it, has had many an encore. Whiteness reconfigures itself as universal on multiple fronts all the time since the spread of colonial power in racialized terms. The resonance of white supremacy in a time filled with economic decline, climate crisis, mass human displacement, reconfigured trade and financial alliances, and a global hatred of women, is not that surprising for students of history. But it’s no farce– it is always a tragedy.

Differences Upon a Superficial Observation: Lynching Then and Now

Historically, lynching was defined by the presence of a white mob and took place on a smaller scale where individuals or small groups of individuals were murdered by white vigilantes often solely for the pleasure of murder and intimidation. But today’s lynchings do not follow the time honoured practices of early twentieth century racial violence. Today, the rise of technologies such as the internet, the use of electronic voting as modernizing progress, and increasing gun power through the sale of automatic weapons– all part of the militarization of our global polity– have birthed a new American killer. Profilers like to call them the “lone wolves”. Or, as the U.S. president calls them, “very fine people”.

The myth of the “lone wolf” is exposed by the scaffolding of legislative, political, media and social media support and glorification of white power. Try to read the comments on any news item dealing with anti- black, indigenous, muslim or mexican racism right now. You might be sick to your stomach!

Charlottesville was a turning point for white supremacist organizing. Strengthened by the support of 45, as Donald Trump is sometimes known, emboldened young white men and those already indoctrinated in U.S. killing ideologies through time spent in the U.S. military, are learning that the killing can bring them “fame” and notoriety as well as turning them into roles models for those who frequent the internet.

While I cannot agree with everything that Johnathan Meizl says in this following article, I find his discussion of white masculinity and gun control policies in the U.S. to be very thought-provoking :

The Similarities

In common with past traditions of demonization of targeted groups, the tropes of rapist and criminal are associated with men of colour and black men particularly. Thus white women’s virtue is centred as a beneficiary of white men’s race violence. Emmet Till’s case is perhaps one of the most disturbing in this all-too common scenario because of his young age- 14 years old.

The predictable economic refrain like a particularly malevolent Greek chorus, consists of : jobs being “taken”, blaming those who are outside the scope of a universalist white notion of labour fully rooted in the Anglo-European experience. This tired but tested and true trope– which blames those who are super-exploited due to racial, ethnic, gender, or religious differences from the hegemonic– for the exploitation themselves. This translates to sentiments such as “immigrants or blacks work for less money and thus must be punished by the “legitimate” working class rather than  those who employ them.

Immigrants are portrayed as “invaders” who must be crushed. Employers who scent bigger profits and cheaper labour driven underground due to immigration status– who are unable to organize or access any minimal labour rights afforded in a state’s legislation, these employers are just doing what capitalist logic dictates so they bear little scrutiny or accountability in illegal hiring practices.

The Role of The State: Law Enforcement as Lynching

What is the impact of the ICE raids? Terror, instability, family separation, more money for militarized law enforcement and immigration enforcement. The battening down of the hatches. The national imaginary of the beleaguered White U.S. assailed on all sides by the undeserving, those who “happen to be” non-whites of various heritages. A clear message is being sent out by the world’s largest military and economic empire. Amnesty International has taken it to heart, at least:

Since the ICE raids in Mississippi happened on the first day of school in the state, children returned from school to find their parents had been disappeared by ICE agents. Here is CNN’s take:

Three years before her recent death, renowned author and Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison grappled with the rise of white supremacy in an essay written at Trump’s election in 2016, warning us of the inevitable consequences of his rise to power.

In Florida, a state with a sizeable black population, we can find a current example of the close links between law enforcement and white nationalism.

For What It’s Worth

My take on lynching then includes such actions by the state as well as non-state actors. This is because the lines between the state and non-state actors have increasingly become blurred. Law enforcement and Corrections officers as well as Border Patrol officers have been identified as belonging to white supremacist and “patriot” groups in fairly visible numbers. Social media, our great instigator and witness, offers testimony to that:

Recently, VICE news covered this article:

Today, the fear of the state is supplemented by fear of armed vigilantes who

  1. seek to force the state and society into accepting their political will by shifting practice and discourse into the very material arena of lives lost and eternally transformed by gun violence.
  2. support the state’s goal of multi-tiered “citizenship” based on social and economic power and “social capital”.
  3. and sow terror willfully to strengthen a and b above.

In this way the climate of white supremacy sparked by the electoral support for Donald Trump in 2016 has ushered in an era of open attacks on Afro-descended, Mexican, and Muslim communities, where previously–such attacks were seen to be partially arms length from the state itself– now the state is involved on policing, demoralizing, and criminalizing people of colour in the U.S. on numerous fronts—immigration, child welfare and safety, differential and discriminatory treatment in the equal provisions of goods and services including public services such as policing and private policing, employment, shopping, etc. 

This strategy strengthens the military surveillance apparatus for all while deploying it toward some in particular, reinforcing and underlining their “outsider” status.

While it is hard to associate this horrific terror with art of any kind,  I echo the sentiments of Bertolt Brecht, when he said

 In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

(Epigraph from Motto, Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, Eyre Methuen, 1976)

And because there has always been singing about the dark times, I leave you with this iconic collaboration between two outsiders to the U.S polity —although both were citizens— a communist jew and a black female jazz artist in the Cold War 1950s…

Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit

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