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What Scholars Make of the Noose Incidents

While some have suggested that the hangman’s noose has been deduced to a hoax planted only to get a quick rise from the media and people of color, scholars say there is much to be concerned about.

Experts agree that the highly charged Jena Six case is responsible for the resurgence of nooses. In the months since a noose dangled from a schoolyard tree in Jena, La., the infamous symbol of racial hatred and prejudice has been at the forefront of three high-profile racially charged incidents on college campuses.

The most recent incident at Columbia University in New York sparked a mass demonstration by hundreds of students and faculty members who rallied in protest of the noose found hanging on the office door of Dr. Madonna Constantine, a Black professor, at Columbia’s Teachers College.

A noose hung in September outside the social enclave of Black students at the University of Maryland, College Park kindled a milder public outcry from the community. Then a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut found a noose in his bag, but it wasn’t until a civil rights officer there found a noose in her office that a criminal investigation was launched.

In late 19th century, the lynching of Black people in the South was an institutionalized method used by Whites to terrorize Blacks, and the hangman’s noose served to antagonize. Outside the arena of higher education, the loathsome symbol was spotted at post office near Ground Zero and a firehouse in New York. But the objective of current-day perpetrators is unclear, teetering somewhere between hate and hype.

Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, told Newsday, “I must dissent from the surge of racial histrionics and hysteria

 over the discovery of a hangman’s noose at one of our campuses. I dissent from the hard and fast conclusion about the incident as a hate crime, even before the investigation is complete. I know the real history of lynchings in America. Whatever happened on Columbia’s campus was no such hate crime, regardless of what the rope symbolizes.”

Not everyone agrees with that, contending that displaying a noose is very much an expression of hate. But, some experts muse over the media’s wonderment of noose nostalgia in a time where Black-face parties and mock slave auctions run rampant on college campus.

“This sort of behavior is not new,” says Dr. Nathanial Norment Jr., a professor of African-American studies at Temple University. “It is reminiscent of something that has been pervasive for many years. The noose is just one illustration of racist sentiments on college campuses; racist e-mails or notes posted on bathroom walls are others.”

Dr. Lee Baker, associate professor of cultural anthropology and African and African-American studies at Duke University, can attest to that. He found an insidious email in his inbox two weeks after the Jena Six protest. Less poignant than a dangling noose, the e-mail read, “The media will NEVER report a story where the victim of a ‘hate’ crime is White. And the Blacks always feel they are OWED something. It’s too bad we still don’t have lynching, OJ would have swung from a tree years ago. Gentrification is the only way to purification.”

Baker suggests that the anonymity of the Internet has fueled more racial acrimony, which has normalized symbolic violence and hate speech among a very small number of individuals. “Actions online are spilling over to action off-line.”

Dr. Sharon Harley, associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park tells Diverse that the catalyst for these incidents stem from a combination of complex social and economic issues.

“There is the turning back of a commitment to racial equality once prevalent throughout academia and a frustration over limited resources. When there is a limited amount of economic resources there is a tendency to blame people of color. The use of noose is reflective of one’s an inability to articulate their frustrations intelligently to others,” Harley says.

It is a matter of fact that racially charged symbols such as swastikas, confederate flags, burning crosses and dangling nooses will always incite anger.

Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, an associate professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, argues that some students are strategically placing these hateful objects on campus to gain an academic advantage. “White students know that Black students have a tendency to be distracted by various forms of hate crimes. Those students seeking to gain a competitive edge figure that as long as African-American student are counter-acting hate crimes, they will not be pursing academic endeavors,” Neal says.

Whether the objective is to scare, provoke, intimidate or distract, the use of the noose has been prevalent for centuries and will continue to be as long those responsible for the noose hanging continue to go unpunished, experts say. The identity of the perpetrators responsible for these crimes remains unknown as their actions continue to make headlines. Investigations are still pending.

Whether the culprits are prosecuted or not, one thing remains clear says, Sherrilyn Ifill, author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in theTwenty-first Century and professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law: “There has been this long standing silence about lynching. We now have an opportunity to discuss the history associated with this symbol and why it is particularly odious.”

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