When I pointed out that I was talking about violence across “tribes” — or affinity groups — and the way custom and law work in tandem, he responded like this:
So you recount Florida’s racist past in some detail and you expect to segue into some generic “tribes” conversation?
In this case “racist whites still commonly kill black people”. Real subtle with the whites lynching a black man for the illustration. Defines those “tribes” of yours quite well.
I find these responses fascinating — and annoying — because of the difference between what the commenter thinks I’m describing and what I think I’m describing.
The defining characteristic of the lynchings and other/racial tribal violence of the pre-Civil Rights era isn’t racism. It’s lawlessness. Lynch mobs weren’t primarily concerned with racism; they were primarily concerned with performing torture and murder. They were vicious criminals. Waving around flesh of innocent men for fun is something way on the other side of racism.
Florida’s society in the 20s wasn’t simply or even primarily racist; it was criminal. The white Protestant establishment was a mafia more brutal and corrupt — and far more pervasive — than anything Mario Puzo ever dreamed up. It systematically stole the labor of black Americans well after slavery ended; it systematically sought to restrict their movements between states; it systematically and violently stole their right to vote; and it systematically enforced illegal codes of conduct — against all races — with illegal corporal punishment and execution.
Moreover, it’s just a numerical fact that if you’re white with roots in the South — and even the North — that some grandparent or great grandparent likely either committed an awful crime, took part in a mob that enabled the awful crime, or had information about horrible crimes that they withheld from law enforcement, which probably didn’t want to hear it anyway. None of these crimes were punished. And they helped certain types of people build generational wealth that their heirs — including me — enjoy today. Almost without exception, we white people are the heirs of criminals, many of whom were also loving and kind and honest in most other portions of their lives. Such contradictions lie at the core of human experience.
These are not pleasant facts to consider. And there is little or nothing we can do to makes things right. But we should, at the very least, call this time what it was — our lawless, libertarian past. It’s an era — pre FDR — that so many of you Ron Paulians think of with nostalgia because of its lack of functioning government to restrict behavior. Trayvon Martin’s death — putting aside its real world horror — gives us a useful flashback to the reality of nostalgia for a different America. His blackness is only part of the reason.
After all, anyone who knows anything about my book knows that it’s called “Age of Barbarity,” not “Age of Racism”. If you’ve read any of it, you might also know that it opens with a brutally graphic depiction of the white-on-white castration of a Catholic priest in 1924. (I know this probably is not going to help me sell books.) And its climax centers on an election in 1928 in which one candidate asked the public if it approved of white women being stripped and beaten. That vote was very close; and I won’t tell you who won.
I picked the 1923 Gainesville sidewalk killing to illustrate my Trayvon piece because tribal conflict over public deference lay at its heart. It was very similar to the tribal conflict over public space that lay at the heart of Trayvon’s killing. I also picked it because the observed custom of the time — and therefore law — allowed white men to murder black men accused of serious crimes, just as it allowed white men to castrate troublesome Catholic priests and strip and whip and probably rape all types of women if they were thought to be drinkers or have too much sex. Racism was a subset of the tribal motivations.
These customs — sanctioned by law enforcement — made a mockery of law and made criminals out of respectable men and corpses out their often innocent victims. Custom and law absolved these men without so much as an inquiry as long as they acted against the right tribes in nominal protection of the “innocent” of their own tribe.
Consider this from the Gainesville Sun editor writing immediately after the Rosewood pogrom/massacre, set in motion by an unsubstantiated accusation of assault on a white woman:
Let it be understood now and forever — that he, whether white or black, who brutally assaults an innocent and helpless woman — shall die the death of a dog.
And here’s my great aunt, discussing just a few years ago the stories she heard about how the Reconstruction era KKK came into being:
“Most of the southern men were killed in the Civil War, and there were many, many households that were just women and children, and they were in danger.”
And now, consider this from Durrell Peaden, a former state senator and sponsor of stand-your-ground in 2005. He said this just the other day.
“The intent was to protect women and children. They’re using it to protect someone who ought to be in jail. The state attorney ought to do this job.”
Another heir to a noble tradition.
Laws, even laws against murder, have no meaning if they are not enforced. Stand-your-ground is redundant; it did not invent self-defense, which is very, very rarely clear cut. You can still defend yourself without it; you just have no expectation of impunity because of your feelings.
More importantly, stand-your-ground depends upon elected officials — or people appointed by elected officials — doing their jobs, often in defiance of their own tribes. Its vagueness and deference to feeling is a massive loophole that tears right through the middle of the 14th amendment and offers ample opportunity to establish new traditions of lawlessness. We see it in the continued freedom of George Zimmerman. The public pressure building against him and the Sanford Police Department only exists because of custom and luck. People happened to find about it; and people happened to find it outrageous because of now longstanding custom. Only 80 years ago, the public would not have found it outrageous. Law, to have meaning, cannot depend upon case-by-case public ratification.
By fighting off the Gainesville lynch mob in 1923, Sheriff Peter Hagan began to create the custom and expectation of law enforcement that today has brought down a richly deserved rain of hellfire upon the Sanford Police Department.
And my great grandfather J.V. Walton, who was a segregationist fond of the word “nigra,” helped him change those customs through his skill and bravery as a lawyer.
How can that be? J.V. was a racist, right?
Yes, by today’s standards. But he believed in law. He believed in the spirit of the 14th amendment, in equal protection of law. The 14th amendment did not outlaw racism. It did not require Asians and blacks and whites and Hispanics and anyone else to like or associate with each other. It did, however, unequivocally bar Asians and blacks and whites and Hispanics from killing or stealing from each other with impunity.
The criminal white establishment of the South — and much of the North — defied or ignored the 14th amendment for 100 years. Its descendants still hate the 14th amendment; they constantly want to change it. Hispanics, perhaps like George Zimmerman, are on the receiving end of this now. Anchor babies and all.
Stand-your-ground, whatever its intentions, is another assault on the 14th amendment. It’s step back toward a world run by criminals, who are incidentally racist, whatever that even means.