Brutal Justifications: Media Narratives of Twentieth Century Lynchings and Twenty-first Century Police Executions
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ABSTRACT: Dominant narratives treat lynching as a thing of the distant past and police violence as aberrant and isolated. Yet, many critical anti-racist observers have called today’s police executions of black bodies “modern-day lynchings,” suggesting there are numerous parallels. This article methodically examines the parallels, focusing on how the mainstream media has narrated and justified anti-black violence. I collected and reviewed media accounts of lynchings and police executions in two distinct years, 1917 and 2014, and coded them along salient themes. Across these two periods, the justifications for violence were nearly identical: Black victims were criminal, and they were characterized as less-than-human. This research builds on scholarship that argues that race is deeply connected to the constructs of criminality and abnormality, that merely “existing while black” can be a “crime” punishable by death. In illustrating the salience of these rationalizations across historical periods, I argue that the media is substantially culpable in the maintenance of white supremacy. This study thus disrupts the white innocence discourse that compartmentalizes history and deflects white responsibility for ongoing violence.