“High Tech Lynching”: White Virtual Mobs and University Administrators as Policing Agents in Higher Education
Biko Mandela Gray
Stephen C. Finley
Lori Latrice Martin
Few professional environments have led to more threats of violence recently than at Predominately White Institutions (PWIs). White virtual mobs (WVMs), conservative bloggers, dissatisfied students, and internet vigilantes use social media and electronic communications to intimidate and organize campaigns against Black professors. White administrators are often complicit, usually siding with the assailants. Although various publications have reported on controversies involving Black professors and statements made both inside the classroom and on social media, few academic studies have explored these controversies by simultaneously offering genealogies of such attacks, theoretical explanations, methodological considerations, and policy implications. This article addresses these lacunae by making three important interdisciplinary interventions utilizing Black Sociology, African American religious studies, and Africana philosophy. Specifically, we first offer a recent history of academic cases of African American scholars who were victims of WVMs, contending that academic victims of WVMs were lynched. Consequently, we argue for expansion of the notion of lynching, suggesting that WVMs and White administrator complicity result in particular kinds of professional and social “deaths” of the victims. Second, we theorize WVMs acting in solidarity with White administrators as regulatory technologies that police and threaten the careers and safety of Black academic professionals, And last, we assert that to make sense of WVMs, their persistence and endurance, it is necessary to apprehend them as religious and part of an expansive complex of whiteness as religious. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of understanding assaults on Black faculty by WVMs.
Keywords: White virtual mobs, regulatory technology, religion, religion of whiteness, lynching, university administrators, race, whiteness
My anxiety only deepened as I heard Anita Hill vilified as a traitor to her race. I had originally sympathized with Thomas for the same reason most black people did—the historic memory of white on blackviolence. Although I thought it was outrageous when Thomas labeled the hearing ‘a high-tech lynching,’ I understood that evoking images of white justice meted out on the burning body of the black male, Thomas elicited sympathy. This history black people knew.
Wave on wave, each with increasing virulence, is dashing this new religion of whiteness on the shores of our time.
—DuBois (1920 :18)
LOW-TECH/HIGH -TECH LYNCHINGS AND WHITE UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATORS
The history of lynching in America is at once invisible and hypervisible, as evidenced by the absence of anti-lyching laws well into the twenty-first century, and the simultaneous opening of a historic lynching museum (Equal Justice Institute, 2018). The confounding combination of visibility and invisibility, of thought memorials and unthought inaction, raises considerable questions about the nature and history of lynching in this country.
More specifically, this dialectic of disclosure and concealment pushes us to ask a simple, yet pressing question: If lynching has only recently been deemed a federally illegal mode of extrajudicial and virulent violence, is it possible that lynching persists legally in the current moment? This article answers this question in the affirmative, but argues that the reality of lynching has mutated and expanded. In other words, we claim that lynchings still occur in the United States—albeit in different guises. We claim that WVMs are contemporary manifestations of lynch mobs; as such, WVMs force us to examine classical definitions of lynching (Finley, Gray, and Martin 2018; Rheingold 2003).
We argue here that lynching has a subtler—and for this reason, more diffuse and therefore more pernicious—presence than its previous historical incarnation, and we do so by exploring how universities and the administrators tasked to protect them enact violence against their faculty of color by in/advertently fostering the emergence and physical actualization of what we (2018) call White virtual mobs (WVMs), which we define as a collections of individuals who operate inside and outside of institutions and use various social media platforms not only to comment on so-called “controversies” but also to threaten, harass, terrorize, and otherwise bully people of color, especially African Americans and faculty of color. We mark WVMs as regulatory technologies which are best understood as religious. White universities (and the “White” here adjectivally modifies both the universities and the administrators tasked to protect them), as Sara Ahmed (2007) describes them phenomenologically, are catalysts for a religious valorization of whiteness that polices—and, in many cases, produces violence against—the bodies and thoughts of faculty of color. While we focus on faculty of color, particularly black faculty, in this article, we nevertheless contend that this logic of lynching extends beyond the university into the larger society.
WVMs protect whiteness from being marked and made visible and, therefore, insulate White racial structures both inside and outside of academic settings from potential disruption. Universities have been shown to provide protection for whiteness (Burnsma, Brown, and Placier 2013; Forsegren 2017). White virtual mobs cannot function effectively without the sanction of White elites in college and university administrative positions.
As the article “Affirming Our Values: White Virtual Mobs, African American Scholars, and the Complicity of White University Administrators” (Finley, Gray, Martin 2018) suggests, higher education administrators constitute an essential facet of WVMs and provide the institutional power that is a necessary condition for the efficacy of their terror. We extend that argument here by focusing specifically on the nature and function of White virtual mobs.
We make three important interventions and extensions from an interdisciplinary perspective, linking African American religious studies, Africana philosophy, and Black sociology. First, we offer a recent history of academic cases of African American scholars who were victims of WVMs, contending that academic victims of WVMs are lynched. To make this point, we compare the features of classical lynchings, often times associated with the Deep South (although lynchings took place, and continue to take place, across the United States) to contemporary attacks on Black professors on social media and electronic modes of communication (such as emails and telephone calls). We therefore expand the notion of lynching, suggesting that WVMs and White administrator complicity result in particular kinds of professional and social “deaths” of the victims. Second, we theorize WVMs, which act in solidarity with White administrators, as regulatory technologies that police and threaten the careers and safety of Black academic professionals. We maintain that it is crucial to understand these attacks as persistent and enduring technologies, not confined to the use of contemporary social media and electronic forms that are linked to historic modes of White supremacist social maintenance such as classical lynching. Third, we assert that to make sense of WVMs and their persistence and endurance, it is necessary to apprehend them as religious and part of an expansive complex of whiteness as religious, which is to say, they constitute structures of the religion of whiteness. As such, White university administrators participate in and perpetuate the religion of whiteness through various enabling actions that implicitly sanction and encourage the violence of WVMs against faculty of color in PWIs across the United States.
We begin with an examination of scholarly literature about traditional White mobs and White mob violence followed by a discussion of White virtual mobs. We then explore changes in
the definition of lynching and offer our own expanded definition, which includes literal and figurative Black deaths. We define death as the process whereby someone or something becomes inert or meaningless, which may include someone’s career, or “good” name (Heidegger, 1962b). Our discussion of White virtual mobs includes a number of case studies involving Black scholars, who we argue may suffer black deaths, or high-tech lynchings, as a result of their work on race. Next, we examine the ways that white virtual mobs may best be understood as religious. Then, we further outline how White virtual mobs function as technologies and we examine the roles of the identified technologies. Finally, we conclude with a discussion about the theoretical, methodological, and policy implications of our work.
WHITE VIRTUAL MOBS AND HISTORIC LYNCH MOBS: TOWARD A COMPARATIVE EXPANSION OF THE CONCEPT OF LYNCHING
Violence against black bodies, institutions, and communities is not new (Lindsey 2018; Spillers 1987; Teague 2018). Violence was, and still is, used as an important tool to maintain the system of physical bondage, to infringe upon the civil rights of people of African ancestry, to enforce segregation, to stabilize a system of intellectual hegemony, and to maintain a racialized caste system for the generations that followed (Hine, Hine, and Harrold, 1999; Michael 2009; Morris 1984). Antiblack violence was aimed at reinforcing and legitimating myths about white supremacy and black inferiority, which included efforts to criminalize and control black populations (Fanon 1952). Among the most horrific and sadistic examples of the use of violence as a form of torture and terrorism rooted in antiblack sentiments were the many acts of mob violence occurring between Reconstruction and the 1960s. Definitions of what constitutes mob violence have changed over time to include extralegal murders of black people who were accused of threating the values of White communities to actions involving three or more individuals (Waldrep 2000).
Just as definitions of mobs have changed over time, so too have definitions of lynchings changed over time ( Tolnay and Beck 2018). For a time, scholars looking back on White mobs focused primarily on the gratuitous violence against Black bodies that united and stabilized White communities and reinforced the racial status quo in America with a particular focus on key actors. (Tolnay and Beck 2018) Lately, scholars have reconsidered whom to include as participants in White mobs (Ohl and Potter 2013). White people—men, women, and children included— both angrily and cheerfully participated in lynchings and racism across the country both actively and passively, that is, through inaction and tacit support (McLaughlin 2007; Prince 2017; Yancy 2004). Increasingly, conceptualizations of White mobs expanded to include individuals, groups, and institutions complicit in the domestic terrorism aimed at Black people in America across the South and the North (Ohl and Potter 2013). Thus, White mobs must include witnesses refusing to identify perpetrators, journalists publishing defaming stories about Black people or refusing to publish stories about White mob violence (Ifill 2003; Yancy 2004).
Likewise, WVMs seek to maintain and justify White supremacy and assault and terrorize Black bodies, communities, and institutions. WVMs, like those of their forefathers and foremothers, rely upon the complicity of a broad spectrum of White people and predominately White institutions to continue to harm Black people in material, physical, psychological, political, and professional ways. Where White virtual mobs differ is in their simultaneous function as a technology and in their use of technology to protect against perceived attacks upon White supremacy, which involves fusing the grammar of old and what some scholars call new racism (Bonilla-Silva 2003; Collins 2005). We will return to the distinction between function and use of technology later in the article.
Among the most prominent examples of high-tech lynching enacted by White virtual mobs against individuals embodied as Black in this century are the recent attacks on Black scholars, especially at predominately White institutions (PWIs) where administrators seek not to defend the constitutional and academic freedom of experts in their employ but rather are often complicit in inciting White virtual mobs. We now turn to an examination of scholarly literature about traditional White mobs and White mob violence followed by a discussion of virtual White mobs.
THE SPORT AND SPECTACLE OF WHITE MOBS
Antiblack violence has taken on many forms throughout the course of American history (Olaloku-Teriba 2018). It may be described much like play when the violence is done for its own sake; it is often informal, spontaneous, and guided by emergent norms (Coakley 2008). Antiblack violence also takes the form of dramatic spectacle, which can be defined as actions to entertain an audience for the purpose of attaining rewards (Coakley 2008; Hartman 1997). Furthermore, antiblack violence can take the form of a sport where antiblack violence is well organized, well established, officially governed, with an eye towards both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards (Coakley 2008). White mobs engaged in the lynching of Black men, women, and children, and in the destruction of black institutions, and in wiping out entire Black communities by way of race riots (Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 2001). These forms of antiblack violence provide some of the best evidence of why White mobs formed, how White mobs have functioned, and how definitions about White mobs and lynching have changed over time.
Vincent Franklin is among scholars who have examined violence against Black people historically, and White mob violence in particular. Franklin (1975) used the race riots in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1918 to address a number of issues seen not only in that specific time and place, but also in cities and rural communities across the nation. According to Franklin (1975), competition for valued resources such as housing and jobs often proceeded the formation of White mobs. An inability to restore what Whites in a community perceived as an “accommodative pattern of race relations” was another precondition to emergence of White mobs (Franklin 1975:348). Preserving the image of a city, region, or state may have also contributed to when and where White mobs formed (Beck, Tolnay, and Bailey 2016).
White mobs also coalesced for other reasons—and even emerged for no reason at all (Hine, Hine, Harrold 1999). A Black veteran refusing to take off a military uniform, a witness testifying on behalf of a Black defendant, a leader promoting racial uplift, and any person exercising the right to vote might also contribute to the formation of a White mob (Ifill 2003). White mobs were also known to form when Black people protected their property (Martin 2013). White aggression was almost always met with Black aggression (Franklin 1975).
Harvey Newman and Glenda Crunk found similar patterns in their work on the race riots in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1906. Harvey and Crunk (2008) described the ways in which White mobs were motivated by prejudice, fear, and socioeconomic conditions to engage in antiblack violence. White mobs, according to Harvey and Crunk were not limited to those individuals engaged in the physical torture of lynching victims, but also included the cheering White men, White women, and White children gathered to witness the event. (Harvey and Crunk 2008; cf. Yancy 2004).
Although White mobs were comprised of people from across the sociopolitical spectrum of White communities, what united them was their belief in the superiority of the White people and the perceived benefits of racial segregation (Harvey and Crunk 2008). The real issue for White mobs, according to Harvey and Crunk, was how to control the Black population, and the solution was white mob violence. Even for those White residents in the numerical minority wishing to put an end to violence, the underlying motivation was not the realization of the humanity of their fellow Black citizens; rather, it was their concern for the loss of profits to elite White business owners. (Harvey and Crunk 2008). Sherrilyn Ifill (2003) estimates that about 3,500 Black people were lynched in the United States between 1865 and 1968.
Efforts to portray lynchings in history and popular culture can tell us a great deal about their role in promoting domestic terrorism against Black American citizens; but they often perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes of White mobs. For example, White mobs are often portrayed in movies and in historical accounts as “crazed” as opposed to “collective, deliberate, and controlled” (Ohl and Potter 2013, 187). The historical evidence that extensive planning and publicity went into many lynchings shows how wrong some scholars and others have been in their interpretations of lynchings (Ohl and Potter 2013).
Charles Waldrep chronicled the changes in the definitions of mobs and lynching in an article published in the Journal of Southern History. He connected the agendas of various civil rights organizations to efforts to quantify lynching, which required operationalizing lynching. In the first decade of the twentieth century, lynching was understood as the murder of a Black person(s) that was sanctioned by the community. In the following decade, the definition was changed to include the murder of a Black person by three or more persons. By the 1930s, lynchings widened to include deaths of Black people without community support. During the 1940s, following a meeting of anti-lynching groups in Tuskegee, Alabama, lynching was define as an act in which “killers need only believe they acted ‘in service to justice, race, or tradition’ to qualify as lynchers” (Waldrep 2000:98). Waldrep concluded that “understanding lynching as a powerful symbol, a symbol with a history distinct from that of the racial violence itself, will allow historians to unravel the true story of how America has, sometimes justified and, at other times, fought against barbaric violence” (Waldrep 2000:100).
We agree with Waldrep’s conclusion that anti-lynching advocates understood that “lynching was too powerful a word to be surrendered so easily” (2000:88), and here we extend the definition of lynchings beyond positive renderings to include figurative and social deaths that may involve many of the characteristics of corporeal or historical lynchings, such as the suppression of the truth, slander, proxy targets, the criminalization of blackness, presumption of guilt, shame, degradation, and the legitimization of the myth of whiteness as normative.
WVMs, then, function in our contemporary society as lynch mobs. This is especially the case as it relates to their assaults on Black scholars at PWIs, which have increasingly appeared over the last decade and are particular to the social media age (Flaherty 2013). Additionally, we show that administrators play an important role in promoting the high-tech lynching of Black scholars (much like Southern journalists and others promoted the actual lynching of Black people in the past) by chastising Black scholars in the public sphere to excuse high-tech lynchings so that White people and the public as a whole view them as justified and normative (Waldrep 2000). We see high-tech lynching as carrying the same logic of historical lynchings, but they are different in that these lynchings occur as a direct result of technological advancements, such as social media and conservative websites.
We see lynching, including high-tech lynching, as a symbol of a perverted American culture that is in need of a new vocabulary and grammar that takes into consideration associated rhetoric, symbolism, and meaning of lynching in all its forms. We use the term in a way that is not to be confused with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ use of the term. Thomas used the term, as Deborah Gray White (1999) observed in the first epigraph, to solicit sympathy and to deflect attention from claims he sexually harassed Anita Hill and was not suitable for a lifetime position on the Supreme Court. Thomas, at least in part, was successful on both fronts, because of the symbolism and meanings associated with lynching.
We understand the symbolism and meaning associated with lynching and discuss lynching as a religious and regulatory technology that does not evoke sympathy, nor does it deflect from core issues such as racism and whiteness; rather, our use of the term places race and whiteness as foundational to understanding attacks on Black scholars and the complicity of administrators at PWIs.
WHITE VIRTUAL MOBS AND BLACK SCHOLARS OUT OF PLACE
White virtual mobs could not exist and be efficacious without the support, tacit or explicit, of White institutional elites such as college and university administrators (Finley et al. 2018). White people—including White university administrators—angrily and cheerfully, actively and passively, contribute to contexts and climates in which White virtual mobs thrive. We argue that these administrators are also complicit in the material and intangible outcomes of their actions. The following case studies provide some evidence of White virtual mobs at work and the critical
roles White administrators often play in providing structural support that is necessary for WVMs to work.
The desire to placate anti-intellectual and antiblack sentiments has manifested itself in a number of controversies. Shannon Gibney, for example, was attacked based not upon her academic writings, but on comments she made in the classroom. Dr. Gibney, a full-time, tenured professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, was teaching an introductory course in mass communications and was challenged by a White male student who eventually lodged a complaint against the professor. The university’s reaction constructed a false equivalency and conceptually faulty interpretation of its policy against “racism in all its forms.” Such a move echoes the recent tweets and statements by the current president, who was quick to draw his own false equivalency after the Charlottesville White supremacist demonstration (Mercia 2017). The assumption was that there are many forms or racism beyond antiblack racism, including antiwhite racism, or colloquially “reverse racism.”
In the case of Gibney, and others, like that of Dr. Larycia Hawkins, professor at Wheaton College, who was chastised for showing solidarity with members of the Islamic faith while employed at a conservative Christian college, show the many ways that administrators at PWIs use their “bully pulpits” to provide the proverbial rope and fire for White virtual mobs. This would be repeated in assaults on a number of other Black scholars, including Tommy Curry, Johnny Williams, Zandria Robinson, George Yancy, and Saida Grundy, to name a few (Graham 2016; Hetter 2015; Jaschik 2015; Quintana 2017). Through official public statements and public comments, administrators at PWIs cosign on broader efforts to suppress the truth about the critiques made by Black scholars, ignore the slander Black scholars endure, and facilitate attacks on proxy targets by making it seem as though attacks on whiteness and White accomplishments are commonplace in institutions of higher education. The failure of administrators at PWIs to defend Black scholars and instead to issue apologetic statements and disciplining faculty lends to efforts to delegitimize blackness in similar ways as historical lynch mobs criminalized it.
THE QUESTION CONCERNING TECHNOLOGY: WHITE RESENTMENT AS POTENTIATED SOCIOPOLITICAL ENERGY
Despite the various apparatuses that attempt to maintain its social-ontological validity, the myth of normative whiteness does not come sui generis. It is not an inherent state of the world. As Lewis Gordon once put it, “to be white requires the choice of whiteness as a project” (1994:147). Because whiteness is a project that must be chosen, it is also a project that must be maintained. To choose whiteness as a project requires more than microcosmic decisions at the interpersonal level; it extends beyond the level of “alt-right” members posting outright racist invective. In fact, the choice of whiteness—whether in its more violent and explicit form (alt-right) or in a more implicit, liberal, and “values-oriented” approach (see Finley, Gray, Martin, 2018)—requires a series of techniques that encourage such choosing. The choice of whiteness, the decision to develop and then maintain structures that reinforce the normativity of whiteness, therefore requires a technology (from the Greek technê, or intentional and skilled know-how, which includes art and culture), a modality of engagement that continues to (re)produce normative structures whereby whiteness maintains its normative legitimacy as supreme.
We do not use the term technology lightly. While White mobs historically formed in the wake of White resentment at the very appearance of or “belief” in the possibility of Black freedom, contemporary White mobs—as evidenced by the Charlottesville catastrophe—often emerge in digital spaces, which maintain and expand a sociopolitical, sociocultural, and social-ontological reservoir of White supremacist resentment. From social media to conservative news websites proffering the most violent and vicious White supremacist and antiblack sentiments, White mobs have, in more recent times, also taken on what Brian Massumi (2003) calls a virtual character. As Massumi once put it, “the virtual…is a realm of potential. In potential is where futurity combines, unmediated with pastness” (2002:30). And it is this potentiality, this space of possible possibility, that captures quite succinctly the nature of the “virtual” in White virtual mobs.
The “virtual” need not be understood in terms of contemporary digital gadgets; the virtual, as we said above, is meant to connote potential. Whiteness—and particularly, White resentment—is available as a resource to be harnessed and manifested at any moment. Recent hashtags, online articles and magazines, and social media posts are, therefore, not expressions of a new or even “remixed” version of White virtual resentment; they are merely new through which an already given historical context of White resentment is expressed.
Contemporary WVMs form not because a particular president has been elected, but instead because the United States has cultivated, vindicated, and sanctioned a historical (“pastness”) context of and predilection toward White normativity and white supremacist resentment. From the police neglecting to prevent lynchings, to the various wars on drugs and crime, to the current president’s equivocation about the violence in Charlottesville, we are consistently met with the fact that the U.S. sociopolitical context has all but legalized White entitlement. This sense of entitlement is challenged when it is (perceived to be) attacked; resentment forms as a result, and it is encouraged by the state, maintaining its potency, awaiting actualization (Finley and Gray 2015). All one needs is a trigger.
By discussing virtual potentiality, we have already moved into the realm of the technological. In his essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” Martin Heidegger conceptualized technology as the transformation of the (putatively) natural world into what he calls “standing-reserve” (Heidegger 1993: 322). Heidegger (1993) explains, “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering" (1962a:322). This standing-reserve is nothing less than the re-ordering of nature into reservoirs of potentiality awaiting actualization—by which Heidegger means use. The technological, in other words, needs and reproduces the virtual.
Technology is no mere utilization of a device or the perpetuation of scientific and machine progress; it is, at base, a structure of perception, a mode of engagement, that cannot but help to turn the entire world into a context of potential resources awaiting use and availability. Heidegger calls this “enframing” (1962a:325-26). Technology “enframes” the world as a totalizing context of standing- reserve: water is put to use to build hydroelectric energy; the sun is siphoned for its solar energy; land masses are no longer beautiful landscapes, but instead “mined” for the minerals they contain (one need only think of the current president’s attempt to “bring coal back” as a modality of technological engagement or the last president’s authorizations of fracking in the wilderness or pipelining of sacred indigenous land).
Enframing, as such, is a “way of revealing” (Heidegger 1962a: 318). But this revealing is no mere disclosure. The technological mode of revealing is connected to truth and normativity; it is not (merely) expressed through the use of particular gadgets, networks, or mechanized and scientific advancements, but instead comes to its fullest “presence in the realm where…truth happens” (Heidegger 1962a:319).” Heidegger will eventually tell us, however, that the “truth” attendant to “enframing” is also a kind of concealment; by turning everything into standing-reserve, the essence of technology, the “enframing” that sets upon the natural world in order to siphon its various energies does so because it already has a sense of what is needed. The very “disclosure” of technology already situates the world as resources to be used, instrumentalizing the world according to whatever needs or desires society may desire or need. And there may be no clearer site of standing-reserve than blackness itself.
WHITE VIRTUAL MOBS AND UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATORS AS REGULATORY TECHNOLOGIES OF DISCIPLINE AND PUNISHMENT
Heidegger’s (1962a) discussion of technology affords us the possibility of thinking about the technological in ways that exceed and ground the contemporary use of machines. But, embedded within Heidegger’s account of the essence of technology is a flaw, a blemish. This blemish is blackness. Blackness has historically been articulated as labor potential, as enfleshed matter awaiting form. This “form” comes to us as the Black body. If Heidegger’s standing-reserve is an “objectless” space, if it is the constellation of material and affective reservoirs from within which technological machines are both conceived and created.
Ultimately, what this means, then, is that technology is not a neutral enterprise (we need only think of atom bombs and chemical warfare as relatively recent examples). If modern technology—the kind of technology in which Heidegger is interested—is the paradigm through which we get high-tech machines and networks like cell phones and social media, and if this modern technology has its roots in an essential enframing that turns objectless standing-reserve into particular objects of use and convenience; then one of the clearest—and we might even say, the original—site of technology, of the essence of technology, is the enframed mutation of African society (the flesh) into individual Black slaves (Black bodies). The reality is that modern technology’s heritage, its provenance, comes to us through violence, and this violent history has been perpetuated through a host of “developments” whose primary goal is the eradication of life itself (think of the weapons we mentioned earlier). In not wrestling with (one of) the originary site(s) of technological reproduction, technology in its very essence conceals its own violence and therefore falsely believes itself to be neutral—or, at worst, “progressive.”
What does this have to do with lynching—let alone lynching as a technology? Everything, it turns out. Theologian Anthony Pinn—to whom we’ll give even more attention in the next section— once wrote that slavery and lynching were rituals that transformed enslaved Africans into objects and tools of comfort and efficiency (Pinn 2003:49). These rituals operate as the technological mechanisms through which the enslaved are reproduced as tools; it is through such rituals that the standing-reserve of Black flesh is transformed and then sustained as the tool that is the Black body. Therefore, these ritual technologies are most-accurately understood as religious, given the social and preternatural alchemy that is necessary for the conversion of blackness from standing-ready flesh to object-tools.
These rituals were not only violent; they were normative. Which is to say, these rituals served an important function for regulating Black behavior and reinforcing White superiority. No longer tools in service of agricultural or industrial production, Black bodies were now a tool in service of reinforcing the social order of white normativity. Or, as we noted earlier, “Killers need
only believe they acted ‘in service to justice, race, or tradition’ to qualify as lynchers” (Waldrep 2000:98). A lynched Black body was, and is, a technological creation serving to regulate Black behavior. In other words, lynching, like the auction block, was a mechanism through which technology regulates behavior. And this was not simply the case in the past.
Responses to Black faculty under attack by White virtual mobs often reinforce the objective and objectified status of Black bodies, in general, and Black professors, in particular; these White institutional responses participated in the technological transformation of a human life into a tool for White convenience. And in this way, they participated in the technology of lynching, in the technological transformation of a relational being into an object of comfort, use, and efficiency. We are only grateful that Gibney, unlike so many other Black victims (e.g., Keeanga-Yamahtta, Tommy Curry, Johnnie Williams, Saida Grundy, George Yancy, Larycia Hawkins, et al. [Dias 2016, Flaherty 2013]) did not become the strange fruit of traditional lynchings.
LYNCHINGS AS RELIGIOUS PHENOMENA: “LYNCHING” AND WHITE VIRTUAL MOBS IN THE RELIGION OF WHITENESS
Why were lynchings so significant? This is a deeply pressing and vexing question that deserves a response, since lynchings in America are gruesome occurrences that ostensibly contradict all the “universal” values of freedom, equality, justice, and democracy. Lynchings were obviously rooted in deep desire and central meaning. Indeed, lynchings and WVMs and White university administrators as forms of contemporary lynch mobs, co-constitute a regulatory technology that is best understood as religious.
We’ve already discussed lynching as a regulatory technology. Here, we deepen discussion by returning to Anthony Pinn. His Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion theorizes lynching as a primary ritual of White religious history in the United States (Pinn 2004:52-77). We will return to the notion that lynching is a ritual White religion, but first it is important to ascertain what is meant by “religion,” for it is not necessarily the worship of deities, the adherence to creeds, or formal institutional realities. For Charles H. Long ( 1999), one of the foremost theorists on religion and author of Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, religion means “orientation—orientation in the ultimate sense, that is, how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one’s place in the world.” Long contends that religion is “more than a structure of thought; it is experience, expression, motivations, intentions, behaviors, styles, and rhythms” ( 1999:7). Which is to say, religion is embodied, and, as such, its experiences, expressions, motivations, and the like, give rise to particular forms of thought, which are nuanced by, for example, cultural contact and the resulting (re)orientations. Religion is, therefore, fluid rather than static, and those phenomena that have come to represent religion in the popular imaginary, such as belief in gods, creeds, sacred texts, aesthetics, rituals, and institutions are secondary and tertiary effects and cultural developments—which function in and as attempts to rupture history and to secure freedom and fullness and the forms of social and cultural capital that will help to ensure such (Pinn 2004).
Drawing from Long, Pinn suggests that religion, at its core, is a “quest for complex subjectivity” that “addresses the search for ultimate meaning” (Pinn 2004:157). While Pinn is specifically writing about Black religion, this notion of religion as a quest for complex subjectivity is meant to point from the particular to the general. It describes the human search for meaning and the ways humans organize their worlds to make them coherent, so that they might apprehend their places in the world in the ultimate sense. “Religion,” then, can and does take many forms, from seemingly mundane practices to those that manifest in formal settings and apparently secular contexts. It is complicated and broad and entails multivariate meaning making practices and processes that cannot and should not be assumed always to be ethical nor positive. In this regard, religion is a neutral descriptor, which can and does take many forms in the lived world, beyond religion as a merely a social institution, to include that of whiteness.
WHITENESS AS RELIGIOUS ORIENTATION OR THE RELIGION OF WHITENESS
Philosopher George Yancy defines whiteness as “a synergistic system of transversal relationships of privileges, norms, rights, modes of self-perception and the perception of others, unquestioned presumptions, deceptions, beliefs, ‘truths,’ behaviors, advantages, modes of comportment, and sites of power and hegemony that benefit whites individually and institutionally” (2004:7-8), and
scholars have recognized this complex of whiteness as a religious orientation (Finley and Martin 2017; Perkinson 2003; Perkinson 2004; Perkinson 2014; Weed 2017). Taking Long’s definition of religion, it is not difficult to imagine that whiteness has been a primary means by which those who are signified by the category have come to engage, understand, and organize the world, such
that it becomes meaningful. Whiteness has been and is the primary religious lens through which White people have come to understand the world and their place in it in the ultimate sense. Yancy’s definition of whiteness makes it clear that this racialized way of living in the world is all-encompassing (perhaps short of totalizing) in that it mediates relationships of privilege with others in various ways. White bodies therefore function as sites of power individually, corporately, and institutionally. Whiteness thus operates as a changing-same across semiotic fields.
Hierarchical racial taxonomies at whose apex whiteness is fixed are seen and lived as “the ‘natural’ order of things” (Yancy 2004:15), such that whiteness functions as the “Transcendental Signified within the specious taxonomy of naturally occurring racial kinds, [in which] whiteness is deemed that center from which all other racial differences are constituted” (Yancy 2004:10). Which is to say, whiteness as Universal Subject is the “invisible (or unacknowledged) center” (Yancy 2004:2). Historian of religion James Perkinson frames this racial complex simply as “the religiousness of such a whiteness” (2014:64).
Unlike Yancy, however, we would frame whiteness as a matter for theory of religion. The interrelation of race and religion, and race as religion (and, therefore, religion as a racial category) should come as no surprise. DuBois' essay, “The Souls of White Folk” in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil ( 1999:17-29), is a scathing interpretation of “the new religion of whiteness” (18), in which whiteness as religion was no mere metaphor. DuBois understood whiteness literally as a cruel, violent, and avaricious religion in which whiteness—not capitalistic desire, which was also a product of this religious orientation—led to “curious acts” (17). Among these manifestations is warmongering and “mob” behavior. Whiteness, for DuBois, articulates itself through various forms of violence, obfuscating this reality by framing White people as moral leaders of the globe. But DuBois sees through their machinations by drawing upon that which whiteness despises the most—blackness.
DuBois locates his methodology of engaging and interpreting whiteness from within a particular tradition of African American religious knowledge production known as conjure (Chireau 2003), which is ultimately the reference for his entire project, given the expression as the title of his book, Voices from Within the Veil. The “veil” is important here; in his most well known text, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), DuBois introduced the concepts of “veil,” “second-sight,” and “seventh son” as ways of describing the phenomenology of Black consciousness. The religious connotations should not be missed here; DuBois’s sociological analyses are structured by religious terminology culled directly from Black magical and conjuring traditions.
In having this “second-sight,” in articulating what he will call “clairvoyance,” DuBois apprehends truth, not (simply) with his eyes but in the direct and unmediated experience of seeing and therefore knowing, which transcends the empirical. This African American convention privileges intuitive ways of knowing, modes of perception which are not bound by material reality, or by cause and effect epistemologies, but, rather, through archaic ways of noetic production that are extant in African American culture.
DuBois claims that clairvoyance allows him to see whiteness as a specter, a wayward soul. DuBois notes that his knowledge does not come from intimacy with White people, nor through relations of subjugation. Albeit his precise epistemological insight of whiteness, he suggests, was generated by and through a mode of being concomitant with African American folk religion, and, therefore, not the high science of the objects of his gaze, it was, nevertheless, verified: “I know their thoughts and they know that I know.”
Since DuBois, numerous scholars have explicated the history of the modern emergence of race and religion as inseparable concepts (Finley 2018; Vial 2016; Carter 2008; Nonbri 2010; Walker 2010; Perkinson 2004; Pinn 2004; Long  1999; Smith 1991). Of those theorists, perhaps none is greater than Charles Long and his monumental Significations. According to Long, race has religious origins, and religion is a racialized and imperial category. The two emerged in modernity in complex processes of signification, which were the imperial products of cultural contact and conquest (Long  1999), and nascent “whiteness” was at the epicenter of these processes. Long is the clearest on this as well as extending our conversation of a racialized “center,” which is important for apprehending whiteness as religion. (In fact, this center is the very genesis of religion). Long declares that the modern notions race and religion were the result of colonialism and Europeans’ contact with “the others” (in the fifteenth through twentieth centuries) whom they named in contrast to themselves. They also named the life-ways and life-worlds of colonized people. As a result, race and religion emerged as new conceptions in
and of the modern age. In other words, they were signified. The West “created” (or recreated) the cultures of “non-Western” people as products of complex signification. What Long means by “signification” is “the ways in which names are given to realities and peoples during this period of conquest; this naming is at the same time and objectification through categories and concepts of those realities which appear as novel and “other” to the cultures of conquest” ( 1999:3).
The processes of colonialism and imperialism operated out of a center, what Long calls “Western ideology” ( 1999:85, 86). That is, the origins of race and religion were a function of the center, the origins of nascent whiteness (or White supremacy). Whiteness became the raison d’être for the existence of race and religion, categories of otherness, which point back to and signal whiteness as magisterial. In this sense, whiteness is deific, which is to say, of God (Finley and Gray 2015). This has been especially true in the United States of America.
WHITE VIRTUAL MOBS AS RELIGIOUS RITUAL
Returning to Pinn (2004) and the notion of lynching as White religious ritual, we argue that—as a lynch mob and regulatory technology—WVMs and the university administrators who have almost universally supported them (some of them have been neutral at best), perform the same function. In other words, they enact the same religious ritual as nineteenth-century and early-to-mid twentieth-century lynchings, in the classical sense of the term.
In Terror and Triumph, Pinn argues for two “rituals of reference” (2004:48-51; 71-77, 215), the slave auction block and lynching, both forms of terror that instituted a sense of dread in Africans and enacted and stabilized their place in the world as objects. This was an individual and communal experience in that the rituals spread terror and dread throughout the entire slave community. Slave auctions and other forms of terror served to associate pain with blackness, which became (and continues to be) a constitutive element in the white imaginary about the nature of blackness (Hartman 1997). These rituals also established White people as subjects (Pinn 2004). Slave auctions allowed White people to celebrate whiteness as given, as the central racial group in the universe, as slavery functioned as a mechanism to maintain control over Black bodies.
At the same time, the auction block, slavery as an institution, and the notion that Black people could endure pain, which made them perfectly suited to slavery in American ideology, allowed White people, ironically, to maintain a sense of humanity even while providing White entertainment and pleasure (Hartman 1997). Since Black people were seen as jovial, playful, and blissful in the context of terror and pain, White people were able to justify themselves as essentially “good” by providing an opportunity for Africans to participate in civilization. With the official end of legalized slavery in the United States (c. 1863-1865) came the need to develop new mechanisms for controlling Black bodies, which would also reinforce Whites’ status as subjects and Black peoples’ place as objects when they perceived Black people to be out-of-place, which meant that the system (which was always connected to a cosmogony of White mythic right to “own the world”as DuBois says) was out of order. Lynching served this purpose and was seen by Whites as reinstituting a God-given order (Pinn 2004).
Lynching was Pinn’s second ritual of reference. As we noted earlier, following Ronald Grimes ( 1995), Pinn (2004) argues that rituals were systematic activities, repeated over time, that were held in founded spaces (in the case of WVMs, in the virtual space of the internet and other electronic spaces). These rituals had socioeconomic and cultural significance, but they were primarily religious rituals. Lynching, as a ritual of White religiosity, which stabilizes and reproduces a system of social relations that posits whiteness as the ultimate “truth(fulness)” of the social order, reinforces Black people as historical objects, whose identity within the system, then, is cosmologically fixed. The Black knows no truth, and any challenge or critique of whiteness by scholars is met with a similar violence by WVMs and is stabilized by White elites, who hold authoritative positions in the academy. As we (2018) argued previously, this is exactly what occurs when African American scholars are perceived as out-of-place by White communities and have to be put back in their places by WVMs.
WVMs are religious, then, not because White hegemony is socially constituted nor because the hierarchical social arrangement happened by chance or by merit, due to hard work, ingenuity, and superior genius of Whites but because it protects this arrangement as the way of the cosmos. WVMs participate, with other rituals and technological mechanisms, in the maintenance whiteness as the invisible and presumed center of social life in America and around the world. They are responses to White need and desire to protect what for them is their birthright as White. Any challenge, political, economic, or intellectual, to this deeply felt and deeply ensconced system of unearned benefits is met with symbolic and physical violence through the technologies of lynching.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? SCHOLARLY IMPLICATIONS
The high-tech lynching of Black professors who engage in the work in which they were trained is a regulatory technology that is religious. Performing their work in the tradition of legendary scholars such as W. E. B. DuBois, which includes addressing race, whiteness, and the multiple forms of oppression Black people face in the world, is conducted with an aim toward truth, the disruption of those systems, and the liberation of Black people, necessary for the human fulfillment about which DuBois wrote.
To this end, this article offered a genealogy of such attacks on African American faculty, offered theoretical explanations about how best to describe and understand them, and addressed a number of methodological considerations, including new ways of thinking about, defining, and operationalizing lynching. We addressed the oversights in the literature by making three important interventions and extensions from an interdisciplinary perspective, namely by African American religious studies, Africana philosophy, and Black sociology and by offering a recent and empirical history of academic cases of African American scholars who were victims of WVMs and complicit university and college administrations. We compared the features of traditional lynchings to contemporary attacks on Black professors through social media and electronic modes of communication. Then we began what we hope is an ongoing conversation about expanding the notion of lynching. We theorized WVMs in solidarity with White administrators as regulatory technologies which police and threaten the careers and safety of Black academic professionals and attend various forms of violence and death. We asserted that to make the most sense of WVMs and their persistence and endurance, it is necessary to see them as religious and part of an expansive complex of whiteness as religious. This article points to the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations and the significance of religious studies, more specifically, theory of religion, which is often left out of scholarship on race, whiteness, and, in this case, forms of lynching.
The implications of the scholarly arguments made throughout the article are far reaching. Black scholars and others have a responsibility to address assaults on the work and rights of their
colleagues in a manner that is not only descriptive but placed in appropriate historical and contemporary contexts. In doing so, we contribute to an effort to understand how and why such attacks occur and thus limit their appearances and, if possible, to eliminate them altogether. Our article also points to the need to consider not only the genealogy of such enduring concepts of lynching but to explore the ways in which such concepts may change their forms, but not their functions. Administrators at PWIs must demonstrate the same loyalty to the Black professors in their employ that the Black professors show to their disciplines and to the mission and vision of the institutions where they work.
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About the Authors
Biko Mandela Gray, Syracuse University
Stephen C. Finley, Louisiana State University
Lori Latrice Martin, Louisiana State University