Social Media and Black Bodies as Entertainment

Although I refuse to watch the killing of George Floyd, I can’t escape it.

Posted May 31, 2020

Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Facebook, Twitter, the nightly news – it's everywhere. I don't need to see George Floyd die on camera. I know it's horrible. I know it's wrong. And I know I will feel sick and awful, watching a man's life drain away under the knee of a soulless police officer being guarded by his stone-faced compatriots, but I can’t escape it.

I have come to believe that social media today is not so different than a century ago, in an era when people shared pictures of murdered Black men and women as mementos and souvenirs. Today, in 2020, I can’t turn on my computer without seeing tortured black bodies being paraded across the screen as perverse entertainment for the masses. It’s not just about George Floyd, and if you don’t know what I am talking about, it is time for a history lesson.

What is lynching?

Lynching is the extrajudicial killing of an individual accused of a crime, usually a person of color by a mob of White people, often with the blessing and involvement of law enforcement. Historically, it was most commonly accomplished by a public hanging, although often it included burning, beating, or mutilation. Although its prevalence in the United States has greatly decreased in recent decades, it continues to be an ugly stain on the fabric of our nation. In 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened as the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslavement, lynching, racial segregation, Jim Crow, and innocent people of color branded with presumptions of guilt and police violence. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 6 million African Americans fled the South as refugees and exiles due to fear of racial terror lynchings. It should be noted that Black people weren’t the only targets: Mexicans and Native Americans were lynched in large numbers as well.

 Artist's rendition of the lynching of Josefa of Downieville / Huntington Library
Mexicans were also victims of lynching.
Source: Artist's rendition of the lynching of Josefa of Downieville / Huntington Library

Law Enforcement and Modern-Day Lynching

But the killing never stopped; it only changed form. Today we have become all too familiar with publicized instances of police brutality toward people of color. This occurrence represents a form of modern-day lynching, in which Black and Brown bodies are disproportionately targeted and murdered by police forces or other vigilantes who operate above the law (e.g., the neighborhood watch, in the case of Trayvon Martin). Police are emboldened by the lack of punishment for their crimes and may even be seen posing in front of the deceased. Recall the widely circulated photo of Michael Brown’s body, laying uncovered in the street in Ferguson, Missouri for four hours, after being shot by a police officer, seen idly standing near the body with never an effort made to provide medical care.

In the past, victims of lynchings faced public torture and death as a punishment for a purported crime. These killings were accompanied by a crowd of people who would spectate the death, sometimes accompanied by a family picnic. This was so common, that people have wondered if the word picnic originally came from the term “pick-a-nig,” as when a Black person was randomly "picked" and hanged for the entertainment of Whites.

Grisly Postcards as Social Media

In the lynching of Samuel Hose of Georgia in 1899, “2,000 people surrounded the small sapling to which he was fastened and watched the flames eat away his flesh” during the gruesome live burning of his body. But not only was family lynching considered entertainment, but lynchings were photographed, photos were mass-produced and crafted into thoughtful poetic postcards for friends and family. James Allen and other authors present a collection of such postcards in the display, “Without Sanctuary.” One early card of a Black man dangling from a rope reads, “I send you this beautiful photograph, this is one who died by the unwritten law yesterday” in scripted calligraphy.

By the turn of the century, the postcards became so widespread that the U.S. Postal Service tried to ban them in 1908 through the Comstock Act. The Act stated that it was illegal to mail photographs of obscene matter, including murder and assassination, but the circulation of the cards continued well into the 1930s. And postcards were not the only mementos of the murders. At least one outcome was even more horrific, as the victim’s very bones “were eagerly snatched by a crowd of people…carving it with knives and seeking souvenirs” (Wells, 1899). There is no way to describe it other than a demented celebration of White power.

The Psychology of Lynching

Our nation’s history in this area is disturbing. It is hard to picture a complete lack of empathy toward seeing a life taken, and as a healing professional I am bewildered by how humans can commemorate the grisly torture of another. In psychology, we recognize that people have a tendency to form ingroups and outgroups. They start to believe that outgroups are inherently different or alien, and that as the “dominant” group they are entitled to the rights and resources of the inferior group. Casting Black Americans as a foreign, dangerous, and subhuman race made an easy rationalization for lynching. In a zero-sum game, communities that believe that the gain of one group requires the loss of another were always looking for chances to boost the score. Whites who felt threatened by African Americans who were supposedly stealing their opportunities by having jobs or any nice things at all were fair game. In essence, it was probably considered noble work to eliminate that kind of threat.

It may be the easier option to simply forget these gruesome and shameful events occurred, but inducing historical amnesia is a type of violence that allows racism and tension to continue terrorizing society (Tucker, 2005). It is important that we integrate this information into our discussion about what is happening in America today and to connect it to current injustices. In a broader sense, it is necessary to document and recount past events to prevent history from repeating itself. Unfortunately, in the case of publicized racial violence, we are already stuck in the pause-rewind-replay loop.

The Mental Health Toll

In early America, the police force originated as “slave patrols,” serving White interests by seizing and abusing African American slaves who strayed from their plantations. Although the criminal justice system has greatly evolved since then, there are core historical remnants that cause significant disparity between treatment of Black and White Americans in modern practice. Today’s media is saturated with images of African Americans brutalized and killed by police. Experts have agreed that these images are oppressive and traumatizing to African Americans and contribute to the escalation of police-community hostilities (e.g., Bor et al., 2018). Moreover, depictions of police brutality against people of color encourage others to believe that it is normal and fair, and therefore the persecuted must deserve it. Although there is an important role for documentation of abuse to aid in the prosecution of perpetrators, something should be done to limit the publicization of racial violence. 

There is a troubling parallel between century-old lynching postcards and today’s depiction of unjustified Black death in public spaces. Despite clear evidence that these representations cause emotional harm and catalyze racism, the videos continue to circulate as clickbait which only benefits the monetary interests of news corporations. Police claim the lives of about 1,000 people per year, as recorded over the past four years in the U.S. Of those, Black people are not only three times more likely to be killed than White people, but also serve as the fodder most commonly depicted on the news and internet. Although White deaths still do occur, I have never seen a White person killed in the media. Have you? Video depictions of White death exist, but they are not widely circulated out of respect for the families and to preserve human dignity. Blacks in America are afforded no such dignity.

References

Bor, J., Venkataramani, A. S., Williams, D. R., & Tsai, A. (2018). Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of black Americans: a population-based, quasi-experimental study. The Lancet, 392, 10144, 302-310.  doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31130-9

Kim, L. (2012). A Law of Unintended Consequences: United States Postal Censorship of Lynching Photographs. Visual Resources, 28 (2), 171-193.

Tucker, L. (2005). Not Without Sanctuary: Teaching about Lynching. Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy, 16(2), 70-86.

Turner, K. B., Giacopassi, D., & Vandiver, M. (2006). Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 17(1), 181-195.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. (1899). Lynch law in Georgia: a six-weeks' record in the center of southern civilization, as faithfully chronicled by the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution: also the full report of Louis P. Le Vin, the Chicago detective sent to investigate the burning of Samuel Hose, the torture and hanging of Elijah Strickland, the colored preacher, and the lynching of nine men for alleged arson," pp. 7-10, 20 June 1899.  Retrieved from https://iowaculture.gov/history/education/educator-resources/primary-source-sets/reconstruction-and-its-impact/lynch-law

Williams, M. T., Printz, D., Ching, T., & Wetterneck, C. T. (2018). Assessing PTSD in ethnic and racial minorities: Trauma and racial trauma. Directions in Psychiatry, 38(3), 179-196.