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Is the Noose An Inherently Racist Object?

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You know what they say, no noose is good noose.
Two St. Louis sheriff's deputies say it is, and the outcome of their workplace discrimination lawsuit against their boss, Sheriff James Murphy, may hinge on convincing jurors that the iconic hangman's knot does indeed symbolize prejudice.

Walter "Pat" Hill and Jacques Hughes (both of whom are black) claim Murphy (who is white) discriminated in their workplace -- the St. Louis civil courts building -- by passing over African-American employees for promotions and raises and giving preferential treatment to Caucasians in the department instead.

But at the heart of their lawsuit, filed in 2007, is their claim that Murphy failed to discipline three other deputies who displayed a noose in a prisoner holding area in the courts building in 2006.

Reporting on the trial yesterday, the Post-Dispatch quoted a witness -- Deputy Neil Riley -- as saying, "This noose meant hate. I was just blown away that this could be hanging in the Civil Courts Building in the year 2006."

The report states that Murphy's attorney claimed that "the employees responsible for the noose had [also] tried to suspend a white deputy's chair from the ceiling as a practical joke," and that Murphy "put letters in their personnel files" in response to the incident. He believed the noose was not intended to be racist.

That begs the question: Even if the intent of the twisted practical joke was not racism, does the mere presence of a noose constitute hate speech?

The knot itself is quite simple -- consisting of just two loops and six to thirteen coils -- but its symbolism in contemporary culture is much more complex.

At least two states (New York and Connecticut) have outlawed displaying the noose. (Similar legislation was proposed in Missouri in 2008 but ultimately defeated.) In Louisiana in 2007, a noose prank at Jena High School led to altercations between black and white students and protests from thousands of civil rights demonstrators.

After the Jena incident, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said, "The noose is replacing the burning cross in the mind of much of the public as the leading symbol of the Klan." Potok noted that the image is no fodder for jokes, adding, "Most of these kids don't know much about civil rights history, but every single one of them understands what a noose means at the end of the day."

Of course nooses have also been used in jokes in the past -- most memorably in the hangman scene in Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights -- and the hangman's knot made many memorable appearances in Hollywood westerns as a symbol of frontier justice. But far more common is its association with the lynching of blacks during the Jim Crow era.

Even George W. Bush  said in a speech in February 2008 that "displaying [a noose] is not a harmless prank. And lynching is not a word to be mentioned in jest. As a civil society, we must understand that noose displays and lynching jokes are deeply offensive. They are wrong. And they have no place in America today."

The sheriff's department says the noose display was an isolated incident, that blacks constitute more than 40 percent of the department's workforce and that two of the three captains' positions within the department are currently held by African-Americans.

Hill and Hughes -- who lost his job with the department in 2008, after the suit was filed -- disagree. They're asking for more than $25,000 in damages and a court order mandating changes in the Sheriff's Department.


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