MICHAEL B. KATZ. Why Don't American Cities Burn?by H. Gillette

The American Historical Review

About

Year
2013
DOI
10.1093/ahr/118.2.553
Subject
Archaeology / History / Museology

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thousands of African Americans since the 1880s and the manner in which these occurrences have been portrayed, memorialized, forgotten, and denied. The thematic core of the book is anchored in the notion of complicity: that is, how ideas about community, family, popular will, and racial progress facilitate the crafting of narratives involving victimization, accountability, and national identity. Additionally, the text is a meditation on how politicized both history and memory can be, particularly when the stakes hinge upon the very essence of what people believe about themselves, or would like for others to believe.

Ashraf H. A. Rushdy’s main argument, which becomes clear and vital by chapter three, is really a tension between two conceptual polarities. The author asserts that, since about 1940, civil rights activists, academics, public officials, and others have construed the trajectory of lynching in linear terms. According to this thinking, collective extralegal killings followed a teleological path of rise, decline, and demise. Thus, groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Association of

Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and other reformers who had kept vigilant tallies of annual lynchings assumed that as spectacle mob killings became less frequent, it was possible not only to have a lynching-free year but also to predict the eventual disappearance of such lawless communal murders in

America. These presumptions, which the author labels “end-of-lynching discourse,” were predicated upon the inexorable march of American civilization into a higher stage that would marginalize lynching as anachronistic, barbaric, and premodern. Rushdy suggests that this discourse was also based in a variant of American patriotism that reveled in the country’s putative capacity for positive change and enlightened improvements over time, surmounting any past difficulties that issues of race had previously posed. In short, votaries of this perspective believed in the possibility of a “last American lynching,” a final, definitive endpoint for this most shameful of pastimes that would bracket the era of mob executions as a thing of the past.

Rushdy is decidedly at odds with this perspective and stands at the other end of the spectrum, which champions continuity and complicity as the distinguishing features of lynching’s history. In sections that deal with the lingering impact of lynching photography and the increasingly rare lynchings that have occurred during the second half of the twentieth century, the author argues for expansive definitions of lynching and complicity that capture whole communities, past and present.

Whether as seen through the latter-day outrage of activists, the anguish of the families of victims, the silence of observers and bystanders, or the indelible stain that mob murder has left on American history, Rushdy posits that lynching—which he defines as a hate crime committed by a group (p. 141)—has never been eradicated completely; it has simply morphed and evolved over time. In elaborating his position, the author tends to overstate the sway of the end-of-lynching narrative in academe and among the general public. If anything, abundant examples demonstrate the enduring presence of the phenomenon in the nation’s consciousness and vernacular, as exemplified by self-serving lynching references by public officials, choreographed images of

American cruelty at Abu Ghraib, and the occasional strung-up effigy of President Barack Obama. Indeed, lynching has never fully exited the American experience, nor has there ever been a lack of willingness on the part of many to call it out by name, even in the current century.

The End of American Lynching has a slow, somewhat pedantic start, which belies the intellectual momentum of its latter portion. In more pages than seem necessary, the author recaps the history of lynching in America, citing the origins of the phenomenon in the vigilante underpinnings of the American Revolution and its racialized transformation by the Reconstruction era into an alleged curative for perceived black threats to white masculinity, chastity, and supremacy. Beyond some early etchings of an argument that is more compellingly articulated later in the narrative, the first two chapters (there are a total of four, plus conclusion) center around a survey of the extant literature, despite the author’s efforts to construct a typology of lynching around various paradigms—“legal complicity model,” “ethical complicity model,” “familial complicity model,” and so forth—that see, at best, only infrequent and lukewarm deployment in the remainder of the book. Notwithstanding this initial inertia, Rushdy has some intriguing things to say about lynching photos, which were “not a historical rendering of an event but part of it—the part where the event moves from ritually staged activity to ritual recollection” (p. 92). Likewise, Rushdy has contributed provocatively to our understanding of lynching’s far reach into the recesses of the American psyche and past, which, according to him, is not yet behind us.

CLAUDE A. CLEGG III

Indiana University,

Bloomington

MICHAEL B. KATZ. Why Don’t American Cities Burn? (The City in the Twenty-first Century.) Philadelphia:

University of Pennsylvania Press. 2012. Pp. 210. $29.95.

As a collection of thoughtful essays about the nature of the American modern city and especially the persistent pattern of concentrated poverty there, this book serves as a useful synthesis for recent policy debate. Going well beyond the topic suggested in his title, Michael B.

Katz assesses, among other things, the nature of black inequality and the shift to market-based solutions to urban problems, as well as the reasons why cities have seldom since encountered the widespread civil disturbances that broke out across the United States in the 1960s.

Cities no longer burn, but not because their problems have been solved. Rather, Katz argues, the selective incorporation of minorities into local power structures as