Eric A. Stewart, Daniel P. Mears, Patricia Y. Warren, Eric P. Baumer, and Ashley N. Arnio, “Lynchings, Racial Threat, and Whites’ Punitive Views Toward Blacks,” Criminology, 2018
Photo of the Memorial for Peace and Justice by Judson McCranie, Wikimedia Commons, CC

The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors the lives of the over 4,000 Black men, women, and children who were lynched on U.S. soil between 1877 and 1950. When the memorial opened in Montgomery, Alabama last spring, reporters asked founder Bryan Stevenson, why build a lynching memorial? Stevenson aptly replied that the memorial serves to not only honor lynching victims but to highlight how the legacy of racial violence affects U.S. punishment practices today. A new study from Eric Stewart and colleagues helps us understand the relationship between lynching and the contemporary punitive attitudes of whites.

The study builds on a long line of research that stems from the work of Ida B. Wells and examines how this history of racial violence shapes criminal justice practices. Wells was one of the main public voices to challenge the common justification for lynchings among whites — that Black men committed acts of rape and other crimes against white women. Her work demonstrated that lynchings were in fact, not a response to crime but a tool of economic and political control used to maintain white dominance in both the South and North. Stewart and his co-authors attempt to unpack this complex history and its implications for criminal justice attitudes today.

The authors draw from a wide range of sources, including a 2013 national survey of crime and punishment attitudes and multiple historical lynching data inventories matched to modern county boundaries. Their findings indicate that this history of racial violence is relevant for whites’ beliefs about crime and punishment today. Specifically, white people who reside in areas where lynchings were more common have increased punitive sentiments towards Black people, including greater support for imprisonment, longer prison sentences, and the death penalty.

This effect is amplified among whites who view Black people as more prone to violence against white people. This finding demonstrates that the historical myth used to justify lynchings of black-on-white violence continues to hold sway over white beliefs’ about crime and punishment today. Further, the findings seem to apply nationally — not just in the South — and lynchings do not appear to impact the punitiveness among Black survey respondents.

Stewart and colleagues’ study demonstrates that the legacy of lynchings has shaped contemporary white views of crime, criminality, and punishment through a racial lens. Similar to Stevenson’s comments, the authors conclude that researchers must continue to unpack the importance of historical context in shaping contemporary views of crime and other social issues.