Community note: The RoundTable is offering this history in light of the ongoing investigation of the three nooses found May 13 during a student protest of teacher transfers at Haven School.
The appearance of a noose can neither be seen as an accident or a merely a distasteful, harmless joke. A noose is a symbol that runs much deeper. Since Reconstruction, lynching was used as a method of racial terrorism, a way to intimidate and brutalize Black people.
In some states such as New York, California and Louisiana, the appearance of a noose immediately qualifies the crime to be charged as a hate crime.
Scholars and research have shown that the history still impacts people today, and the acceptance of lynching as an intentional and horrific act crosses political lines.
In 2008, when there was an uptick in nooses appearing in public places, President George W. Bush said in a speech: “Displaying one is not a harmless prank. And lynching is not a word to be mentioned in jest. … As a civil society, we must understand that noose displays and lynching jokes are deeply offensive. They are wrong. And they have no place in America today.”
The effects of nooses
Extensive studies and examination of lynching have been produced by historians and academics. The NAACP and the Equal Justice Initiative have written reports on the widespread use of lynching in the South and the North.
Indeed, the Equal Justice Initiative founded The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which is dedicated to chronicling the terror of enslaved people and documenting 4,084 lynchings. (It is presumed the number is an undercount, and there may well many more lynchings for which no documentation exists.)
While this is historical information, scholars have found the impact and the abhorrent symbol still remain powerful and are continued to be used to intimidate, terrorize and harass Black people.
“Lynching profoundly impacted race relations in this country and shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans in ways that are still evident today,” reads the introduction to an report by the Equal Justice Initiative. “Most critically, lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America.”
The report continues, explaining that while lynchings were most prevalent in the South, the organization “has documented more than 300 racial terror lynchings of Black people that took place in other parts of the United States during the same period. The vast majority of these 341 lynchings were concentrated in eight states: Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.”
Nooses and hate crime laws
Yet, not every state includes nooses in the statutes that define hate crimes, nor does the federal government mention the word in its law.
But, in 2021, the U.S. Justice Department on order of the Attorney General Merrick Garland did elevate hate crimes to the top priority of its Civil Rights Division, because of the increase in violence law enforcement officials were seeing across the nation.
The Brennan Center for Justice, which describes itself as “an independent, nonpartisan law and policy organization,” keeps track of various state hate crime statues. Its analysis shows there are only five states without hate crime laws, as well as the federal hate crime law.
While both the state of Illinois and the federal government introduced legislation to amend hate crime laws to include a noose or nooses as reason to categorize a crime as a hate crime, both bills never passed into legislation.
Yet, Illinois has still charged people with hate crimes for putting a noose in a public place.
That is the reasons the RoundTable cannot refer to this crime as a hate crime, since the terms is a legal designation made by law enforcement.
But the news organization can still call it what it is a heinous, shocking act intended to intimidate and traumatize Black people.
Here are more resources on hate crimes and the history of nooses as part of racial intimidation and terrorism in the United States.
Equal Justice Initiative on lynching.
State of Illinois hate crime law.
U.S. Department of Justice hate crime resource.
Brennan Center on Justice hate crime statute information.