The US Senate has passed a bill to make lynching a federal crime, in a bipartisan gesture of tolerance and governmental virtue-signaling that ultimately has no real effect on existing federal hate-crime laws.
While Congress has made over 200 attempts to pass anti-lynching laws since 1882, when it was a serious risk to the lives of black Americans, this bill – which passed unanimously – represents the first time lynching has been legally classified as a federal crime.
The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act 2018 adds a “lynching” section to existing federal civil rights legislation, explicitly stating that murder by two or more people, motivated by race or religion, can result in a life sentence.
Given that such homicides can already be prosecuted as hate crimes, which can carry a life sentence as it stands, the bill serves little purpose except as a legislative photo-op, particularly considering that two of the senators who brought it to the floor – Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) – are believed to be planning 2020 presidential runs.
While lynching was once a serious problem – upwards of 4,700 people, most of them black, were lynched between 1882 and 1968, according to the NAACP, and over 99 percent of the perpetrators escaped punishment – it’s not exactly a popular pastime for even the most repugnant of hate groups anymore.
“Lynchings were needless and horrendous acts of violence that were motivated by racism,” said Harris. “And we must acknowledge that fact, lest we repeat it.” Harris has come under fire from members of her own party for locking up huge numbers of black Californians as the state’s chief prosecutor and arguing that early prisoner release programs would harm California’s ability to fight wildfires using prison labor.
A lynching bill may seem anachronistic, but its defenders cite FBI statistics claiming hate crimes are up for a third consecutive year, with nearly three out of five motivated by race and ethnicity. This category includes acts from minor vandalism up to murder and thus doesn’t necessarily reflect a resurgence in lynching, but there’s no real downside to passing such a law.
Ironically, the presiding officer during the bill’s passage was Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, who narrowly won re-election last month after she told a supporter at a campaign event that she’d sit in the front row if he invited her to a “public hanging.”
The Senate formally apologized to lynching victims and their descendants in 2005 for its failure to pass anti-lynching legislation when it was needed. In Montgomery, Alabama, a memorial for lynching victims opened in April.