I was discussing race in my Introduction to Sociology classes this week and talked about how race continues to be an issue in the U.S. for a lot of reasons (e.g., income, healthcare, quality of life, racism, etc.). To illustrate that racial tensions have not disappeared, I linked to this NYTimes article about a principal receiving a noose in the mail. We talked in my classes about the symbolism behind the noose – it has come to be seen in the black community as a symbol of oppression and a reminder of the Jim Crow era in the U.S.

One of my brighter students then pointed out a controversy I had not heard of yet – that some people decorating for Halloween have been hanging fake corpses with nooses in their yard to decorate. The NYTimes is now covering this controversy as well.

Here’s where my conflicting feelings come into play: Growing up in admittedly almost 100% white Morgan, UT, my family always decorated for Halloween. Halloween has long been one of my favorite holidays, maybe because I always had so much fun on Halloween dressing up and scaring kids coming trick or treating. For a a number of years (this would have been from around 1990-1995 or so), one of our decorations was a dummy hanging from the house with a noose around its neck. I learned how to tie a noose along with other knots in Boy Scouts – and there was no perceived connection to race when we were taught it. It was more for entertainment than anything else. What we would usually end up doing is, on Halloween night, I would slip into the clothes the dummy was wearing, put the noose around my neck and put the mask on, then pretend like I was the dummy as kids would walk up to the house to trick or treat. When they got close enough, I’d come alive and scare the crap out of the kids (I usually wouldn’t come alive if they were really young). It was loads of fun and, honestly, had no racial over or under tones.

As I reminisced about what I thought of as good times this year leading up to Halloween, I saw this story and thought to myself: Okay, I know there is a symbolic association with a noose and racism in the US. But does the noose always have to have that symbolism? It’s not like the noose was used exclusively to hang black men in the South – it was widely used out West to hang criminals and has been used around the world for similar purposes. There are plenty of other examples of items having different symbolic meanings depending on the context: the swastika is generally seen as a symbol of Nazi fascism, but has its roots in Jainism and indicates a oneness with the universe; the cross is both a symbol of Christianity, a simple grave marker (with no indication of religious preference of the deceased), and a useful tool at times for helping plants grow or for holding a scarecrow. When I recently visited a Jain temple in West Chester, OH, they had a swastika decorating an altar. I know there has been no uproar over their use of this symbol, rightfully so!

Is the current uproar by the NAACP about the use of the noose as a Halloween decoration an attempt to push political correctness too far? Basically every person who has put up a noose as a decoration has said straightforwardly that there were no racial connotations – it was just a Halloween decoration. Can it be that sometimes a noose, is a noose, is a noose, and not a symbol of racial oppression?

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10 Replies to “an intriguing race issue”

  1. I agree with you entirely. Furthermore, I think that “pushing political correctness too far” is a completely underrated issue in this country. Back home, as you might recall, Ryan, there seem to be only two kinds of people when it comes to describing Mexicans: the idiots who think everyone who speaks Spanish (or “Mexican”) is a Mexican, and the timid who think that using the term “Mexican” to describe people from Mexico is inappropriate. I know that rules of connotation apply here, but I can assure you that Mexicans are Mexicans just as surely as Utahans are Utahans and Floridans are Floridans–or Argentines as Argentines for that matter. It’s a lame example, I know, but I think you should explore this issue more on your blog (considering your educational background) and expose it whenever possible.

  2. By the way, Ryan, please feel free to check out our new Chard family blog–you’ll find some great pictures of Wendy!

    douglassark.blogspot.com

    Hope you both are doing well.

    M.

  3. “Push it too far”? I dunno. I think it’s more what social problems kittens call the “radical flank” effect – make outrageous claims and demands, and expect to see reasonable claims offered as a compromise.

    It’s akin to children asking their parents for $20 when they just want $10. Of course, saying that is imposing my *assumption* that such claims of Halloween decorations are made dishonestly, and that it’s truly an attempt to get at lesser changes. Worst, I don’t know that I could think of what those changes are. What I do know is that I’m beginning to appreciate the zealots on both sides of the political spectrum, as I find that my comfy middle-of-the-road preferences more often that not are satisfied with the feeling that everyone benefits.

  4. Yeah…I know what I would like to use that noose for…
    It really bothers me that the people shouting so loudly for equality (NAACP) are the real racists… Being the brother of the blog’s author, and having grown up hanging dummies from nooses as well, I never once in my entire life associated a noose with hanging someone of a specific race, UNTIL I saw that story about the Halloween decorations on the news. So…thank you NAACP for pushing your racism on me, and trying to make me a racist!
    Mario is indeed correct in his post, this is an underrated problem, and it sickens me. the only racists left in this country are a handful of clan members in the south, a couple politicians, and the NAACP.

  5. I’m glad I got some feedback. A few responses…

    On political correctness… I see the benefits of political correctness and I generally think it is the appropriate approach to take. But I also think it can do more harm at times, than good. Sometimes we need to be politically incorrect in order to make a point or to illustrate an idea. This is why I showed Dave Chappell’s “Clayton Bigsby: The Black White Supremacist” in my Introduction to Sociology class. It’s absolutely not politically correct, but it does a great job illustrating how racism is learned and not innate.

    Mike’s comment about this being a “radical flank” effect is well-taken. It very well may be. The NAACP may just be trying to remind people that racism does still exist (a point I’ll return to in a moment), at the expense of a Halloween decoration.

    Josh is right – our Halloween decorations growing up really were harmless. We had a great time doing it and never once thought about race or racism in the process. I think it is fair to say that most people using this decoration are innocent in their intentions, but maybe not all. Josh is also right, I believe, when he argues that the NAACP is constructing a social problem and attaching racial messages to nooses; it wasn’t a race issue until they made it one. Point for Josh.

    That said, it is overstating the case to claim that there are only a few racists still in the U.S. In fact, there are a lot of racists still in the U.S., even though the forms racism takes in the U.S. aren’t as overt as they once were.

    I tried this experiment in my Intro. class the other day. Picture yourself walking down a street in a sketchy part of town late at night. You’re alone and headed toward your car a few blocks away. As you walk down the street, several people approach you. How do you respond if it is:
    a) three young black men
    b) three young white women
    c) three young white men
    d) three young Hispanic men
    e) three young Hispanic women
    f) three young black women

    If you’re honest, you’ll probably have a more negative response toward the men than the women, and more negative responses toward the Hispanic and black men than the white men. That is a subtle form of racism. Racism isn’t dead; it’s just changed from overt to covert.

    One last thought. I mentioned this issue to a friend of mine who made a very good point: Racist or not, aren’t there are a lot of other things people can use to decorate for Halloween? Good point. I’m not sold on the idea that a noose is inherently a symbol of racial oppression, but it also isn’t free of symbolism. I think people should be able to decorate their houses however they want, but I also think it is a good idea to be aware of peoples’ sensitivities.

  6. On the “oversensitivity” point, I agree. That was why I wrote this post in the first place.

    As for the NAACP being a cause of racism… Not sure if that is true. They can and probably do turn non-racialized issues into racialized issues, but I don’t think they actually cause racism. There are other hypothetical causes.

    Yes, the visualization test isn’t perfect, but it does make a good point. Sure, statistically, if you are in an inner-city neighborhood, you are more likely to run into young black men, and inner-city neighborhoods tend to be violent, but the majority of crime in the U.S. is committed by white people (whites still make up over 60% of the population). Blacks are disproportionately punished for crimes they do commit and they are disproportionately shown on TV, making it seem as though blacks are more violent than whites. Mike can give us the best statistics on this as he is a criminologist. Either way, the anxiety towards blacks is a covert form of prejudice.

    Yeah, Dave Chapelle is hilarious.

    There is an idea in social movement literature that institutions can build up “inertia” that ultimately leads to them trying to remain relevant even after they have served their purpose. I don’t know that that is true of the NAACP, but there may be some of that going on in this particular case. I don’t think the NAACP has outlived its purpose though – think Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath or the Jena Six or the recent spate of hate crimes occurring at Columbia University in New York. Racism still exists, much of it directed toward blacks. Until racism disappears, the NAACP still has a prominent role to play in our society.

  7. Yes, it is a great thing to be aware of peoples’ sensitivities, but where do you draw the line about being oversensitive?

    And yes, my comment about there being little racism left in America was grossly innacurate, but I was just trying to make the point that NAACP are a huge cause of it.

    And in regards to your visualization test, I think you are correct, people would respond differently, but how much of that is racism, and how much of that is caused by simply knowing statistics? Furthermore, if three black men in business suits approached me, I would feel much more comfortable than if three white guys sporting gang colors approached…

    And since we’re quoting Dave Chapelle, “If you see a bunch of black guys coming down the street, with 1 white guy in the group, it’s that white guy you better watch out for, because you don’t know what crazy sh#@ he had to do to impress those black dudes!”

    🙂

    Finally, in response to the radical flank comment, as I do not work for the NAACP, you well may be right. However, i tend to think that the good folks at the NAACP enjoy the power they wield, and if suddenly this were a utopia completely devoid of racism, suddenly the NAACP would have NO POWER, they would be devoid of jobs. I don’t want to come off as saying they havn’t done good in the past, I think it was an important organization, but I think they have taken things too far, and have become addicted to the power they wield, which is considerable.

  8. Ryan, I really appreciate your post and the discussion that has arisen because of it. There are parts of all the comments posted that I agree and disagree with. Growing up in Morgan as a minority (though not black or Mexican) was definitely not easy. And being a minority today as an adult still has its moments. I recently moved back to Utah after spending five years in New York City and I’ve been so surprised with how much racism and ignorance still exists. Of course I saw and experienced racism in NYC. But it was much more subtle for me and it was much easier to blend in with everyone else.

    But being back in Utah, I probably combat at least two or three times a week some ignorant comment based on race. Not all of these comments are negative. Some are even positive (you must be smart because you are Asian). But they are still comments on what you look like and who you are based on the color of your skin.

    I agree that the NAACP has overstepped its boundaries quite a lot, but I also agree that it still has its place. I think sometimes minorities get angry and have to stir up stories about innocent things like nooses on Halloween to just call attention that it sometimes is nice to be commentators. I definitely don’t condone racism in any shape or form, whether it’s coming from a white man or a black man or an asian man. But sometimes we minorities just want someone to hear us out because dealing with being a minority every single day is something the white man here in America cannot fully comprehend (outside the U.S. is a different story). I feel like examples like this is more of a call for understanding out of frustration than anything else. Whether or not that makes it right is an entirely different discussion.

  9. Melissa… Points well taken. As a white male I have to admit racism is not a serious interest of mine – and I admit that as a sociologist. I know a fare amount about it from an academic standpoint, but I have only ever really been the victim of racist/ethnicist behavior one time, at a party at the Guatemalan ambassador’s home in Costa Rica when an inebriated Guatemalan tried to pick a fight with me for being from the U.S. Other than that, I have basically been the beneficiary of white privilege my entire life and don’t REALLY understand racism.

    So, I try. And I value the experiences of those who do experience it regularly. So thank you for sharing.

    I’m fascinated by your assertion that racism is more prevalent in Utah. Armand Mauss (a famed sociologist who studies Mormonism) would probably not find that to flattering as his research says Mormons in Utah are no more racist than people outside of Utah, but I’ve never really believed that.

    I still recall coming to the defense of a newly arrived Hispanic student at Morgan High in the locker room during gym class. Several classmates started yelling “burrito” and “taco” at him as though that was somehow an intelligent put down. I called them on it and they shut up. I should have said, “stop showing how f*&^ing ignorant you are,” but I was probably too ignorant at the time to know any better.

    Anyway, I appreciate your comments. Thanks for stopping by.

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