Friday, September 07, 2007

What's Lynching Got To Do With The Price of Cotton?

-- by Sara

Via Will Shetterly, this Livejournal entry, written last month by loligo:
As early as 1940, social scientists noticed that if you looked at the history of the Deep South, whenever cotton prices fell, lynchings tended to jump. The link seems to pass what one of my professors used to call "the intra-ocular trauma test" ("It hits you right between the eyes!"), but in the decades since then, the size, the meaning, and indeed the very existence of that link have been debated.

Today we have many more sophisticated statistical techniques on hand than we did in the 1940's. In 1990 in the American Sociological Review, Stewart Tolney and E.M. Beck published what is probably the definitive study of the cotton/lynching connection for the years 1882-1930. Importantly, they controlled for price changes due to inflation (among many other variables). They found that when they examined the price of cotton in constant dollars, falling prices meant more lynchings and rising prices meant fewer. However, when the price of cotton rose as part of general inflation, lynchings increased.

In the "King Cotton" regions of the South in that era, there was a dramatic economic gulf between the major planters and employers on the one hand (all white), and the day laborers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers on the other (some white and some black). Predictably, the black workers were on average even poorer than the whites. So when cotton prices dropped, white and black workers shared all the typical stressors of poverty, though in differing amounts. But this economic pressure brought about another stressor for African-Americans that was completely absent for whites: increased risk of being murdered by an angry mob.

...[T]his study of lynchings shows that race can play a dynamic role in the maintenance of class systems. It certainly worked out well for the white elite, didn't it, that poor whites chose to ally themselves with wealthy whites in racial oppression of poor blacks, rather than making common cause with the blacks against their economic oppressors? I don't know much about the history of progressive movements in the US, but Tolnay & Beck say that there was a brief time at the beginning of the Populist movement when whites and blacks *were* starting to work together... before someone, somewhere stirred shit up, and the Populist movement became radically racist, and the first great wave of lynchings was unleashed.
The "brief wave" was indeed at the very beginning, back in the 1880s when the first Populist stirrings were starting to rise out of a series of financial panics that left American farmers in dire straits. In the years after the Civil War, as James Loewen has pointed out, there was hardly a town of any size in the country that didn't have at least a handful of African-Americans trying to make a go of it -- often, quite successfully. They were the Populist movement's natural allies -- until that "first great wave of lynchings," which really began to take off around 1890, gathered momentum, and swept throughout the South for the next 60 years. (In the North and West, this is also when sundowning began in earnest.)

It's old news that economic stress increases tension between the various working classes in America. But this study brings up a couple points that shed some new light on where we find ourselves today.

First, the study is striking in that it shows very directly how a poorly-performing economy correlates with extreme forms of racial violence. Whether it's violence against African-Americans in the South during the lynching years, Asians on the West Coast in the first part of the 20th century, or Mexicans in today's faltering market, a depressed white working class always means those just below them in the economic pecking order are sitting ducks for a wave of vigilante violence. The more you look at the history, the clearer it appears that the cause-and-effect relationship is both ubiquitous and inevitable. It's a fact of American life that whenever the economy tanks, people of color are going to pay the price in blood.

Right now, of course, the wealth gap in this country is yawning ever-wider. It's as big now as it was during the 1920s heyday of sundowning and lynching across the country. And so we shouldn't be surprised to find "Minutemen" and other racists threatening (and, occasionally, actually committing) violence against Mexican workers -- usually without much regard for their legal status. When you get this many have-nots, there are only two ways to go. They're either going to turn on each other -- or organize.

Which brings me to my second point. This kind of violence has always been instigated with a hard shove from the economic royalists, who would rather have the lower classes killing each other on the courthouse lawns rather than going inside the courthouses to challenge the structural inequalities they find so profitable. We know the Minutemen are backed by wealthy supporters, who are using the group to promote exactly the same kind of racial scapegoating that tore apart the early Populists -- and, no doubt, for exactly the same reasons. Now, as ever, divide-and-conquer is proving to be a handy-dandy little trick that never fails to prevent people with similar economic interests from recognizing their common concerns, and pulling together for real, long-term change.

We've seen this trick so many times before that you'd think we'd be onto it by now. But, now as ever: when the price of cotton falls, the number of lynchings rises. And somehow, the people who actually created both the gross inequalities and the racial animosities that lead to this kind of violence never seem to be the ones who actually end up swinging on the end of the rope.


Back last June, I wrote a piece on how the ghosts of that wave of lynching still haunt communities throughout the South; and the ways that some of these towns are starting to confront that past -- and move beyond it at long last -- using the truth and reconciliation process. My homie Lower Manhattanite over at The Group News Blog has written a story from the inside about the ways this old history lingers on, poisoning families and communities even to this day. It's long -- his stuff always is -- but, even more than usual, it's worth every minute of your time.

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