William James on Lynching

A friend of mine, Peter Reilly, who writes a blog on tax matters, and studies history on the side has discovered a forgotten essay by William James, the great psychologist of religion. The essay is an introduction to a book written by another author on 'negro lynching'.  Read Reilly's post here. It includes the full text of William James's essay.

A key graf from James, speaking about the author of the book he is introducing
...Dr Dean Richmond Babbitt in this book correctly writes of “love of bloodshed” and of “homicidal instincts”, for the indulgence of which the possession of a black skin is rapidly coming to be regarded as a legitimate provocation. I find it hard to comprehend the ignorance of history and of human nature which allows people still to think of negro lynching as of a transient contagion destined soon to exhaust its virulence. It is on the contrary a profound social disease, spreading now like forest fire and certain to become permanently epidemic in every corner of our country, north and south, unless heroic remedies are swiftly adopted to check it.
James places the blame for lynching on the murderous impulses of humanity. To be more precise, he concurs with Dr. Babbitt's statement to that effect. He does not see that the practice of lynching was terrorism in service of the systems of political and economic subjugation of African Americans. This distinction, between a psychological motivation for racist violence and a systemic view, is important.

The great migration of African Americans to the North created a new system of economic and political subjugation: housing segregation and inner city 'ghettos'.  There were a whole wave of white riots in various cities as to keep African Americans in their new places. And now, it is the police for whom "the possession of a black skin is rapidly coming to be regarded as a legitimate provocation."  Or as commentator has said "They used to hang black men from trees; now they lay them on the pavement." And as the groundswell of support for Darren Wilson shows, there are many who support this modern day lynching.


  1. Tom, I agree with you overall but the one aspect that I have never understood, completely, is the economic explanation for racist violence. There were poor farmers in the Confederate Army who were likely harmed by slavery, and the presence of poor whites who would benefit from an alliance with disadvantaged African-Americans in the KKK. Neither of these realities could be explained by, entirely, by economics.

    It seems to me that something about the exertion of power exemplified by the right to harm another person with a different skin color, and perhaps the status that that privilege conveys, play a role in this type of violence even when there is no economic aspect.

  2. Last night I posted a graphic on the I Love Unitarian Universalist Facebook page that attempts to illustrate the connection between lynchings of the past and what's going on now.



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