Measuring Legacies of Collective Racial Violence

Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
AuthorSarah Gaby
Subject MatterIntergenerational Effects
122 ANNALS, AAPSS, 694, March 2021
DOI: 10.1177/00027162211023091
Legacies of
Racial Violence
1023091ANN The Annals Of The American AcademyMeasuring Legacies Of Collective Racial Violence
The “legacy effect” of lynchings and other forms of
racialized violence has shaped patterns of inequality in
America. While past studies have been relatively simi-
lar in their design—relating basic counts of lynchings to
various contemporary outcomes—I argue for and dem-
onstrate a more nuanced approach. I show that if we
think of racialized violence as more than just the act of
lynching, and consider both the temporal and spatial
proximity between historic events of racial violence and
contemporary inequality, we can establish this relation-
ship in a more fulsome way. In the case of this study,
the relationship is drawn to housing segregation. I
argue that expanding the conceptualization of racial
violence is critical for both empirical inquiry and shap-
ing community efforts around redress.
Keywords: collective violence; racial violence; lynch-
ing; housing segregation; measurement
Contemporary patterns of violence and ine-
quality are frequently attributed to enslave-
ment and racial violence in the nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries. These violent acts
left a “legacy effect” that has shaped inequality
in expansive temporal and spatial ways extend-
ing beyond specific events or eras. America’s
“original sin” and violent measures of racial
control not only produced immediate effects in
the form of death, bodily harm, separation of
families, and segregation of communities, but
supported the creation of persistent, centuries-
long patterns of inequality. Current rates of
violence, mortality, imprisonment, environ-
mental injustice, white supremacy, and residen-
tial segregation, to name a few, are empirically
Sarah Gaby is an assistant professor in the Department
of Sociology and Criminology at the University of
North Carolina, Wilmington. Her research focuses on
social movements, organizations, education, and ine-
quality with a particular focus on youth civic engage-
tied to enslavement and early racial violence (e.g., Kramer etal. 2017; Black etal.
2015; Jacobs, Malone, and Iles 2012; DeFina and Hannon 2011; King, Messner,
and Baller 2009; Messner, Baller, and Zevenbergen 2005).
Scholars have consistently identified strong correlational effects: places with
higher historical levels of lynching also have more extensive contemporary racial
segregation, racial violence, and racial health disparities (Porter 2011; Messner,
Baller, and Zevenbergen 2005). Research in this vein enhances academic and
community understanding of the social processes that drive inequality. Scholarly
work on lynching and its correlates followed increasing attention to these phe-
nomena from communities, governments, and social justice organizations that
seek redress for the lasting impacts of these violent crimes (see Williams 2020).
Both to enhance the quality of social scientific research and due to the close con-
nection between academic work on legacies of racial violence and community
outcomes, scholars must understand whether and how data and measurement
impact the findings produced by this growing line of inquiry.
The majority of findings on the relationship between lynching and contempo-
rary patterns of violence and inequality are produced from count measures of
state or county lynching rates drawn from few available datasets. But research on
lynchings and their connection to contemporary inequality requires an in-depth
empirical examination of spatial and temporal, as well as an in-depth conceptual-
ization of historical racial violence. This study reexamines an existing analysis on
the relationship between lynching and Black/white housing segregation (DeFina
and Hannon 2011), reproducing the original data as well as including new data
and measures of racial violence.
Scholars of racial violence call for measures that include quotidian incidents of
racial violence as well as racial control measures for which lynching may function
as a proxy (Porter 2011). The analysis reported here closely parallels current
scholarship that seeks to extend the definition of historical racial violence beyond
completed lynching to include attempted lynching (Beck, Tolnay, and Bailey
2016) and averted lynching (Makovi, Hagen, and Bearman 2016). These prac-
tices mirror the type of racial control, threat, and fear that establish legacy
effects, which are not contingent on the completion of a lynching. In combina-
tion, the current study and these various approaches call into question assump-
tions about the relationship between lynching and contemporary inequalities,
while simultaneously generating resources and approaches to studying legacies of
racial violence that extend the field.
In this study, I also examine the highly contingent relationship between levels
of lynching measurement and findings on their effects. I argue for both consist-
ency in measuring lynching, generated by a collaborative approach to data collec-
tion, as well as for the importance of transparency in measurement. I argue that
data and methodological consistency are critical for both empirical inquiry and
shaping community efforts around redress. I suggest that studies should expand
correlates of historical racial violence to include and conceptualize various meas-
ures beyond completed lynching.

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