Retracted: A Legacy of Lynchings: Perceived Black Criminal Threat Among Whites

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
A Legacy of Lynchings: Perceived Black Criminal
Threat Among Whites
Daniel P. Mears Eric A. Stewart
Patricia Y. Warren Miltonette O. Craig
Ashley N. Arnio
This article examines the legacy of lynchings on contemporary whites’ views
of blacks as criminal threats. To this end, it draws on prior literature on
racial animus to demonstrate the sustained influence of lynching on contem-
porary America. We hypothesize that one long-standing legacy of lynchings
is its influence in shaping views about blacks as criminals and, in particular,
as a group that poses a criminal threat to whites. In addition, we hypothesize
that this effect will be greater among whites who live in areas in America
where socioeconomic disadvantage and political conservatism are greater.
Results of multilevel analyses of lynching and survey data on whites’ views
toward blacks support the hypotheses. In turn, they underscore the salience
of understanding historical forces, including the legacy of lynchings that
influence contemporary views of blacks, criminals, and punishment policies.
Racial tensions in America have persisted since the country’s
founding (Alexander 2012; Bell 2002; McPherson et al. 2001; Peff-
ley and Hurwitz 2010; Peterson 2017; Unnever 2014). Although
many such tensions can be identified, the “lynching era” (Tolnay
and Beck 1995: 17)—which spanned a roughly 50-year period
from around 1880 (the end of Reconstruction) to the 1930s—
stands out and has been the subject of an emerging body of
scholarship that seeks to document and understand the legacy of
lynchings in contemporary America.
Research on lynchings has emphasized the salience of lynch-
ings for exemplifying and supporting a culture of racial animus
The authors thank Stewart Tolnay, E. M. Beck, and Amy Bailey for sharing updated
data on southern lynchings. The authors also thank the editors and anonymous reviewers
for thoughtful guidance in improving the paper.
Following the initial online publication on January 25, 2019, the authors identified a
coding error. The authors have corrected the error and updated all of the tables and fig-
ures, as well as the accompanying discussion in the data and methods section, findings
section, and associated footnotes. The substantive results, findings, and conclusion
remain the same.
Please direct all correspondence to Daniel P.Mears, Florida State University, College
of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 112 South Copeland Street, Eppes Hall, Tallahas-
see, FL 32306-1273;e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 53, Number 2 (2019): 487–517
©2019 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
and hostility toward blacks that exerts a persisting influence on
race relations in contemporary America (DeFina and Hannon
2011; Durso and Jacobs 2013; Jacobs et al. 2005, 2012; King et al.
2009; Messner et al. 2005; Porter 2011; Porter et al. 2014;
ˆngs 2016; Stewart et al. 2018). Many studies in this tradition
highlight the salience of racial threat for explaining how the racial
animus exemplified by lynchings contributes to modern-day
whites’ views about and reactions to blacks. In so doing, they par-
allel the research that employs racial threat theory to understand
racial disparities in crime policy, law enforcement, punishment,
mass incarceration, and Americans’ views about blacks and crime
(see, e.g., Chiricos et al. 2004; Goidel et al. 2011; Smith and
Holmes 2003; Stults and Baumer 2007; Tonry 2012; Ulmer and
Laskorunsky 2016; Wang and Mears 2010).
This paper seeks to contribute to scholarship aimed at under-
standing the historical legacy of lynchings and contemporary
racialized views of crime. To this end, it examines whether lynch-
ings influence modern-day views that whites hold of blacks both
as criminals and as criminal threats to whites. The touchstone for
this theoretical argument stems from literature on the role of
lynchings in expressing and supporting a deep-rooted cultural
view of blacks that persists in contemporary society and continues
to shape how whites perceive blacks. Drawing on this work and
on racial threat theory, we hypothesize that whites who reside in
areas where lynchings occurred will be more likely to perceive
blacks as criminals and, more specifically, as criminal threats to
whites. We draw, too, on scholarship that highlights the salience
of social class and political ideology to hypothesize that residency
in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage and political conservatism
will amplify these effects. In what follows, we discuss prior theory
and research that provide the context for these hypotheses. We
then discuss the data and methods used to test them, the findings,
and their implications for scholarship.
The Legacy of Lynchings in Contemporary America
The Civil War marked a turning point in the history of the
United States, one that drew attention to changing status of blacks.
Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery,
raised questions about whites’ position in society (Acharya et al.
2016; Alexander 2012; Davis 2006; Feagin 2013). In response, dur-
ing the post-War upheaval, whites’ animosity toward blacks esca-
lated (Brundage 1993; Tolnay and Beck 1995). Lynchings—which
peaked during the 1880s and 1890s and then persisted, albeit at
488 Perceived Black Criminal Threat Among Whites

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