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Black deaths at the hands of law enforcement are linked to historical lynchings: U.S. counties where lynchings were more prevalent from 1877 to 1950 have more officer-involved killings

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Black deaths at the hands of law enforcement are linked to historical lynchings: U.S. counties where lynchings were more prevalent from 1877 to 1950 have more officer-involved killings

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“A lynching is much more than just a murder. A murder may occur in private. A lynching is a public spectacle; it demands an audience… A lynching is a majority’s way of telling a minority population that the law cannot protect it.” — Aatish Taseer, British journalist

George Floyd’s death was more than just a murder, it was a modern-day lynching.

The agonizing similarity in the death of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, is that current and former police officers participated in their lynching. From 1877 to 1950, nearly 4,000 individuals were the victims of lynchings. Some have speculated that as many as 75% of historical lynchings “were perpetrated with the direct or indirect assistance of law enforcement personnel.” Despite drawing attention from large crowds, many perpetrators of historical lynchings were never charged with a crime —a fact seen in many modern-day officer involved shootings.

While historical lynchings peaked more than a century ago, these racist acts can be linked to officer-involved shootings today.

Using county-level data on historical lynchings and present-day officer involved shootings, Figure A shows that historical lynchings are positively associated with officer-involved shootings for Blacks. That is, counties that experienced a higher number of historical lynchings have larger shares of officer-involved shootings of Blacks in the last five years.

Historical lynchings and officer-involved shootings involving blacks

Year Number of lynchings % of officer-involved shootings involving blacks
2020 0 17.88
2020 1 20.87
2020 2 22.92
2020 3 40.08
2020 4 20.74
2020 5 29.92
2020 6 34.40
2020 7 41.94
2020 8 24.72
2020 9 46.67
2020 10 49.07
2020 11 50.00
2020 12 33.33
2020 13 44.44
2020 14 64.64
2020 16 0.00
2020 17 51.25
2020 18 28.58
2020 25 50.00

 

ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

The data underlying the figure.

Notes: Estimates are based on lynching data from 1882–1930 and officer-involved shooting data from 2015–2020.

Source: Author’s analysis of Historical American Lynching Project data and officer-involved shooting data from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi.

Yet, Figure B shows the opposite relationship exists for whites: s the number of historical lynchings increase, the share modern officer-involved shootings of whites decreases.

Historical lynchings and officer-involved shootings involving whites

Year Number of lynchings % of officer-involved shootings involving whites
2020 0 66.40
2020 1 67.52
2020 2 59.01
2020 3 46.17
2020 4 63.80
2020 5 46.16
2020 6 48.25
2020 7 50.97
2020 8 50.28
2020 9 53.33
2020 10 44.91
2020 11 25.00
2020 12 60.00
2020 13 38.89
2020 14 35.36
2020 16 100.00
2020 17 39.58
2020 18 50.50
2020 25 35.71

 

ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

The data underlying the figure.

Notes: Estimates are based on lynching data from 1882–1930 and officer-involved shooting data from 2015–2020.

Source: Author’s analysis of Historical American Lynching Project data and officer-involved shooting data from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi.

To examine whether these relationships are statistically different, our analysis uses a statistical method that accounts for black population during the historical period.

Figure C shows that a statistically significant relationship exists between historical lynchings and the difference in the share of officer-involved shooting of blacks compared to whites. In fact, blacks who live in areas that had fewer historical lynchings (fewer than 12) makeup a lower share of officer-involved shootings compared to whites. Yet, blacks who live in areas that had high levels of historical lynchings (more than 12) makeup a larger share of officer-involved shootings compared to whites.

Historical lynchings and the difference in officer-involved shootings involving blacks vs. whites

Black deaths at the hands of law enforcement are linked to historical lynchings: U.S. counties where lynchings were more prevalent from 1877 to 1950 have more officer-involved killings 2

Notes: Estimates are based on lynching data from 1882–1930 and officer-involved shooting data from 2015–2020.

Source: Author’s analysis of Historical American Lynching Project data and officer-involved shooting data from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi.

Taken together, these three figures suggest that lynchings continue to plague our communities, including our police departments.

As we see protesters across the country demanding justice for Floyd, Arbery, Taylor and countless others, let’s remember that no amount of justice will bring their lives back. While justice is necessary, there needs to be a fundamental change to how, and on whom, laws are enforced. By demanding change, in addition to justice, protesters can stop being forced to demand justice, with varying levels of success, every time police officers lynch Black people.

There are steps being taken to stop these heinous crimes, including an anti-lynching bill that, as of Thursday, was being held up in the Senate by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.)who added an amendment to the bill, strongly opposed by several Democratic senators, including Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

Lynchings, she stressed in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday opposing the amendment, are “the great stain of America’s history.”

“Senator Paul is now trying to weaken a bill that was already passed—there’s no reason for this, there’s no reason for this. There is no reason other than cruel and deliberate obstruction on a day of mourning,” she said, about Floyd’s memorial service in Minnesota.

To learn from our past, we must break the cycle of state sanctioned violence.

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