If you studied American history prior to about 2000, even if you studied it at the college level, you were almost certainly taught something wrong, because the truth was one of America's last, best-kept secrets. And it has to do with lynching. You see, if you studied before then, one of the things you were told about lynching was that lynching was usually motivated by anger, by hatred, by exaggerated fear of "impurity," by anger over Reconstruction, by irrational over-reaction to minor black crimes. But then a historian made a lucky find, one that unlocked a whole field of study. A set of records, more or less accidentally compiled, gave us a longer and more comprehensive list of lynchings than we had. A very macabre set of records. It turns out that hundreds of lynchings between roughly 1860 and 1950, some of which we didn't even know had happened, had offered souvenir postcards for sale the next day. And among the very few people who knew that, any more, were a few collectors of those grisly souvenirs.
When one of those collections fell into the hands of a professional historian, it opened up a whole large statistical universe of lynching incidents, each of which came with a location, one or more names, dozens or hundreds of faces that can be identified, and importantly, a date. That made it possible to research not just a few lynchings, but hundreds of them, and to compile statistics on what had happened before and after them. And the terrible, but fascinating, bit of secret history turned out to be the immediate aftermath of over half of those lynchings. Over half of those lynchings turned out to involve black men who owned their own successful farms and/or businesses. And the day after the lynchings, those farms and businesses were sold to white neighbors, in closed auctions, for pennies on the dollar, and the surviving real heirs were run out of town. And in a terrifyingly large number of those cases, historians were able to show one or more of the following facts. The buyer was the person who made the initial accusation against the victim. And the buyer was a relative of one or more of the following: the mayor, the chief of police, the local minister and/or the municipal judge.
I want you to get this through your head, and never forget it. Lynching was not a hate crime. Lynching was an economic crime. In cities all over America, the best kept secret of 80 years' worth of white politicians was that if they wanted to steal a black man's property, they could arrange to have that man murdered, take his property for little or nothing, give it to whoever they wanted to have it, and know with 100% certainty that no police officer would arrest them, no prosecutor would indict, no jury would convict, no judge would sentence.
You've heard me go on and on about the American Dream: the discovery, by 1630s Puritans, that irregardless of any spiritual benefit, if you got as much education as you could afford, stayed out of trouble, worked hard, spent as little as possible on pleasures, and invested that money in three and only three things (a home, a business, and education for your kids) that it would make each generation of your family an entire social class wealthier than the generation before. That you could even have things go wrong, along the way, and if you at least tried to follow that formula, you could be very nearly 100% confident that at the very least, you and your children would get to keep what you have. What I did not clearly enough footnote that with is: "Some exceptions may apply." 80 years worth of black men, in many but not all towns in America, learned that this offer was not extended to them. They learned that if they stayed in school, stayed out of trouble, worked hard, bought and improved a home, started and invested in their own business ... some white politician and his less-successful-than-you businessman friend would come along and steal it. And as likely as not, kill you if you weren't willing to let them have it for whatever pittance they offered you, although the thefts continued long after the killings stop. And the courts and the cops still mostly don't care.
Ever since I learned that, I haven't marveled that so many black men have given up on the American Dream, choosing to instead gamble on insane long-shot professions like music or pro sports, or turning to crime. I've marveled that so many of them haven't.