All 100 Senators Agree That Black Lives Should Matter A Little

Post-Racial America

It's hard to imagine all 100 members of the Senate agreeing on anything, even a pro-mouthwash bill, but that's what happened Wednesday when the Senate unanimously passed a bill making lynching a federal crime. The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act was introduced in June by the Senate's three black members: Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Tim Scott. Along with at least one good macaroni and cheese dish at Senate potlucks, this is one of the upsides of having three black senators all at once.

If the bill gets through the House -- and it's sad that it didn't seem to be Paul Ryan's priority, as he was busy standing up for the oppressed Irish -- it would add a "lynching" section to federal civil rights law. It doesn't make for pleasant reading, but it will state that if at least two people kill someone because of the victim's race or religion, they can face life in prison if convicted. Someone like Tucker Carlson might suggest anti-lynching legislation is redundant when the act itself is arguably already covered under current hate-crime laws, but that's only because they're racist. Lynching occurred with such impunity that it's important to single it out now as something uniquely abhorrent under the law.

"Lynchings were needless and horrendous acts of violence that were motivated by racism," Ms. Harris said in a statement. "And we must acknowledge that fact, lest we repeat it."

Kamala Harris is a lawyer, so I'm confident she double-checked the text and made sure it hadn't somehow been altered to an anti-anti-lynching bill. You can't help but get a little suspicious when the entire Senate's on board, including Rand "The Civil Rights Act Sucks" Paul and ongoing embarrassment Cindy Hyde-Smith. Mississippi's public hanging aficionado was presiding officer in the Senate when the bill passed. You just know this made her white hood blue. Imagine a Senator Michael Jordan having to preside over passage of anti-dunk shot legislation.

The text of the bill calls out lynching as the "ultimate expression of racism in the United States." According to the NAACP, at least 4,742 people, most of them black or black-adjacent, were lynched in the US between 1882 and 1968, and 99 percent of all perpetrators escaped punishment. The 1 percent must have been black folks who lynched black folks but then later got lynched themselves.

Congress had tried 200 times previously to pass anti-lynching legislation without success. That's slightly less often than Hollywood has failed to make a decent movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The first anti-lynching bill was introduced 100 years ago by Missouri Republican Representative Leonidas Dyer, who was appalled by the race riots in St. Louis at the time (somehow there was racial division prior to Barack Obama's presidency). It demonstrates how significantly the political landscape has changed that so much about the preceding sentence is confusing.

White Southern Democrats in the Senate blocked the bill through filibuster three times. Senator Lee S. Overman of North Carolina told the New York Times that the "good negroes of the South did not want the legislation for 'they do not need it'." He was probably not the best spokesperson for what "negroes" good or bad wanted. You wonder how many lynchings he attended.

"For over a century, members of Congress have attempted to pass some version of a bill that would recognize lynching for what it is: a bias-motivated act of terror," Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who introduced the bill, said in a statement. "Today, we have righted that wrong and taken corrective action that recognizes this stain on our country's history."

It was great to see Harris essentially oversee passage of the bill. She helped make good on the work of literal "anti-Lynching crusaders" Ida B. Wells, Mary Burnett Talbert, and Angelina Grimké, who all risked life and limb for suggesting that white people not kill us. Harris took their torch a much-needed light at a time when the FBI reports hate crimes have increased for the third consecutive year since 2016. This was not a mere symbolic act but in fact deterrence. The past, unfortunately, is never truly past.

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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