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The menacing symbolism of the noose

Noose incidents are uncoincidentally on the rise as protesters continue to demand justice for Black lives.

Bubba Wallace, the only full-time Black Nascar Cup Series driver, wears an “I Can’t Breathe - Black Lives Matter” T-shirt on June 7 in Hampton, Georgia. A noose was found in his garage stall in Talladega, Alabama, on June 21.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

On Sunday, Nascar officials found a noose in the garage stall of Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., the only full-time Black driver in Nascar’s elite Cup Series. This comes two weeks after Wallace called on Nascar to ban the Confederate flag at its events and venues.

“Today’s despicable act of racism and hatred leaves me incredibly saddened and serves as a painful reminder of how much further we have to go as a society and how persistent we must be in the fight against racism,” Wallace wrote in a statement on Sunday.

Nascar said on Monday they were investigating the incident with the help of the FBI — an investigation that proved swift. Nascar released a statement Tuesday evening stating that Wallace was not the target of a hate crime. “The FBI report concludes, and photographic evidence confirms, that the garage door pull rope fashioned like a noose had been positioned there since as early as last fall,” which was before the arrival of Wallace’s team, Nascar said.

The heightened concern and fear that there was a noose in Wallace’s team garage comes at a time when Black men are being found dead and hanging from trees, and when people are reporting noose sightings in cities across the country from the Bronx, New York, and Altoona, Iowa, to Deer Isle, Maine. And in some cases, like in Oakland, California, and Birmingham, Alabama, on-edge residents have apparently mistaken ropes in trees as nooses, though law enforcement officials say they still plan to investigate the incidents to confirm that they aren’t hate crimes.

While some have tried to downplay the symbolism of nooses, the latest incidents and suspicion fit a trend: Noose sightings have been on the rise since President Donald Trump was elected into office. The increase in occurrences — coupled with the current moment of Americans protesting against racism and police brutality — speaks to the potency and long history of the noose’s power as a menacing symbol of racism and white supremacy.

The history of the noose is one of menace and racist terror

According to Jack Shuler, author of the book The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose, hanging has been a method of execution for thousands of years, with almost 9,500 people being hanged legally in America; the last legal hanging occurred in 1996. But it is the illegal hangings that give a particularly ominous weight to the noose. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the lynching epidemic killed almost 5,000 people, 75 percent of whom were Black. These victims were hanged from trees, bridges, and telephone poles. According to Shuler, the noose, or hangman’s knot, was usually perfectly tied as seen in the images of mob lynchings. The noose cannot be untied from its racist foundation.

These lynching events were not Klan events, Shuler emphasizes, but events where everyone from the community was present. As historian Nicholas Creary told Vox’s Anna North, to be considered a lynching the incident must have taken place at the hands of a group. “That recognizes that lynching is fundamentally a community action. There are a whole lot of people involved and there is coordination,” Creary told Vox. The spectacle of the public lynching worked to “keep Blacks in their so-called space” and managed to enforce a culture of silence around the perpetrators, Creary said.

Similarly, the presence of nooses today rocks communities in the workplaces, schools, and other locations where they are found. “The noose is the new burning cross and unmistakably an object that white people use to intimidate Black people and remind them of this country’s history of lynching,” Shuler said.

Noose-making is both racist and not illegal in the way that burning crosses — one of the Ku Klux Klan’s most egregious terror symbols — is. “They’re portable and easy to do. All you have to do is get a rope from Home Depot and look on YouTube to figure out how to make a noose,” Shuler told Vox.

And that’s part of the problem. US law does not prohibit nooses used as objects of harassment and intimidation. To be ruled a hate crime, law enforcement officials scrutinize the specifics of where it was placed and by whom, and whether it was placed with the intention to harm a specific group, with statutes varying state by state. After a Black woman discovered a noose hanging in a Delaware Home Depot in 2019, police ruled that the incident did not qualify legally as a hate crime since there was no clear, chosen victim who was targeted because of their race or other protected status. The person who tied the noose came forward and said it was part of a project that involved rope knot decorations.

And with the Nascar noose incident, the Department of Justice and FBI concluded that no federal crime was committed because video evidence confirmed that the noose was in the garage as early as October 2019. “Although the noose is now known to have been in garage number 4 in 2019, nobody could have known Mr. Wallace would be assigned to garage number 4 last week,” investigators said in a statement.

In 2011, Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced a bill, the Noose Hate Crime Act, to amend the federal code to “impose a fine and/or prison term of up to two years on anyone who, with intent to harass or intimidate any person because of that person’s race, religion, or national origin, displays a noose in public.”

Much like an anti-lynching bill that has been introduced in Congress many times over the years, the noose bill did not pass.

Noose hate crime incidents have been on the rise since Donald Trump took office

In Trump’s America, the symbolism of the noose has become no less visible. In 2017, the nonprofit legal advocacy organization Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported that “hate-fueled acts of intimidation and harassment” in public surged as the Trump administration hit five months in office. At the time, SPLC documented 1,863 bias incidents since the day after the 2016 presidential election until March 31, 2017, and found that 15.6 percent of the incidents were anti-Black motivated, with the display of nooses being “one of the most pervasive manifestations of these happenings.”

After Trump took office, nooses were placed on university campuses, at middle schools and high schools, and in various neighborhoods and museums in Washington, DC. In many of these incidents, the noose could be linked to an effort to intimidate and incite fear in Black people, according to the SPLC. For example, bananas with hateful messages were found hanging from nooses on American University’s campus, at the time the institution’s first Black woman president of the student government was set to assume her new role.

The SPLC wrote that these incidents were gaining more attention because of the administration’s “governing motives and tactics.” “Throughout the campaign season, Trump incited hatred and violence amongst his followers, urging them to confront diversity with hostility. He has continued to endorse such tactics throughout the beginning stages of his presidency with various political appointees, travel bans, unfeasible ‘infrastructure’ and attacks on basic healthcare rights,” the SPLC wrote.

Still, as Shuler pointed out, many noose incidents likely go unreported. Plus, law enforcement officials must occasionally sort through false claims and incidents with little evidence that is clear-cut.

But that doesn’t mean Trump hasn’t continuously stoked anti-Black sentiment during his four years in office with racist messaging like “Send her back!” which he screamed at a rally in reference to Ilhan Omar, and “Get that son of a bitch off the field” in reference to athletes who were protesting against racism and police brutality. This weekend, he hosted a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he spewed racist stereotypes and used the term “thugs” to describe protesters, among other remarks. Critics decried the timing of the rally, originally scheduled for Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery, and the location, the site of one of the country’s most brutal white supremacist massacres.

And now, while many in the country mourn the death of Black people at the hands of police and white community vigilantes, from Ahmaud Arbery to Breonna Taylor to Tony McDade, symbols of white supremacy and hate feel especially targeted and malicious.

“Right now, Black people are asserting their humanity and white people have not wanted that to happen,” Shuler said.

While the noose in the Nascar stall may not have been intentional, it doesn’t discredit the trauma and pain that seeing such imagery brings up in Black Americans. Nor does it discount the nooses that are placed with malice. Shuler says the intentional placement of a noose is an unmistakable response from people across the country who wish to preserve the status quo while sending a message of fear and bigotry.

On CNN Tuesday evening, in response to critics who said he engaged in a hoax, Wallace doubled down on his statement from Sunday: “This will not break me.”