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Group Violence as it Relates to Lynching and Police Violence

[Photo credit: Getty Images]

By V. Alexis


Collective or group violence is a type of violence enacted by people who identify as members of a group (Hawdon). In all the literature on group violence, there is little written on lynching. This piece will cover the basic features of group violence, or more specifically how people who are considered “ordinary” are capable of committing atrocities. The atrocities discussed in this piece are police violence and lynching. This piece will also propose that police violence is a form of group violence and functions similar to lynch mobs.

There are three main features of group violence as it relates to lynching and police violence. These features include strongly identifying with said group, dehumanizing outside groups, and fear mongering. Group membership boosts self-esteem and provides a sense of self and pride. These groups create members and non-members. People tend to define themselves in contrast of other groups. This creates and “us” versus “them” mentality towards other people outside of the group. Discriminating against people outside of the group is often a way to elevate one’s position within the group. As the difference between “us” and “them” grows, there is more of a chance for violence against the outside group(s).


When people who are not experienced with violence do engage in violent behavior, they typically experience physiological and psychological distress. The proposed reason for why this occurs is that the person who committed an act of violence experiences outcome aversion. This outcome aversion is distress from considering the negative outcomes associated with harming others. These negative outcomes can come from knowing that the victim is likely experiencing distress or from expecting punitive consequences.


One way groups will decrease the aversive effects of committing acts of violence is through creating more social distance between them and the outside group. A common way to increase this social distance is through dehumanization. Strong social ties in the group make it easier for dehumanization to occur. Having strong social ties within groups decrease the need for making connections with people in outside groups.

One example of dehumanization is the history of claiming that black people have more proximity to animals than any other race of humans. Early scientists used to examine every part of the black body, but specifically facial angles to prove their theory that black people are less human. These practices and ideas have evolved but have never gone away (Hund). In modern times, there are studies which show that even many medical professionals have the preconceived notion that black people feel less pain (Hoffman). Just last year, there were a few female Track and Field athletes who were subjected to constant scrutiny of their bodies in an effort to figure out why they were so successful in their respective events. Some officials and scientists employed to conduct studies even went as far as insisting these women either take medicine to decrease their testosterone levels or compete with men.

The strategy of fear mongering entails claiming the outside group poses a threat. This threat can be economic, social, or a threat to survival. After the civil war, black veterans were targeted for lynching because white people thought black participation in the war meant that black people were getting “too much power” within the broader society. When lynching was prominent, there was a trend that as prices of cotton went up, the number of lynchings went down (Dutton). One could presume that this trend meant that when black and white people were closer to being financially equal, white people felt threatened economically. Or that black people were only worthy of living when being productive for white owners. Current studies show that black children are viewed as older and black names evoke threatening images in white minds. Black people are viewed as inherently dangerous.


Lynch mobs included three main groups of people; instigators, participants, and spectators. Instigators are the group leaders. They are the people who motivate others to lynch people. Participants are the people who participate in the brutalizing of the victim. The spectators are people who would come to watch and pass around limbs like it was some festival. Even children were spectators and celebrated these brutal deaths. The in-group in the case of lynch mobs are “white conservatives.” I specify conservative because white people with progressive ideas were also lynched. They were not, however, as nearly as vulnerable to lynching as black people.


One could argue that the violence of the U.S police force should be considered as group violence instead of individual isolated incidents or “bad apples.” Following the same framework as previously laid out, the U.S police force has a collective identity characterized as an in-group. This in-group would be considered “the good guys.” The outside group or out-group would perhaps be considered “the bad guys.” The bad guys are disproportionately black, brown, and indigenous people.

The use of dehumanization is arguably the same as during chattel slavery and the time of frequent lynching (Goff). The description of Michael Brown, who was murdered by the police in Ferguson, is one additional example of modern-day dehumanization of black people. The cop Darren Wilson’s account of the murder described Michael Brown as “superhuman.” He was quoted saying, “The only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan. That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.” Wilson also said, Brown looked like a “demon.” The idea that black people are simultaneously in bad health and superhuman has been around since at least the Jim-Crow era.

This idea that black people are superhuman also falls under the category of fear mongering – having ideas that black and indigenous people are inherently dangerous and thus must be controlled or dominated. The three groups in lynch mobs can all be applied to police violence: The instigators are the cops who start the aggression; the participants are those who are physically involved in the brutality and or murder; and the spectators are the so called “good cops” who do nothing to stop the “bad cops.”

Thinking of police violence as collective or group violence is important because all too often it is blamed on one “maniac” or “psychotic” individual. This type of language takes away from the fact that these cops are simply racist and/or are working in a racist system, performing in-group duties within a racist group (institution) with violent tendencies. It’s worth noting that this type of language is also ableist, as it further stigmatizes people with mental illnesses. Not everyone who is psychotic or who has any mental illness is violent and not every violent person is mentally ill or has psychotic traits. The only way to stop these acts of group violence, both lynching and police violence, is to abolish the in-groups.


Dutton, Donald G. The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres, and Extreme Violence: Why “Normal” People Come to Commit Atrocities. Praeger Security International, 2007.

Goff, Phillip Atiba, et al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2014,

Hawdon, James. “Group Violence Revisited: Common Themes across Types of Group Violence.”,

Hoffman, Kelly M, et al. “Racial Bias in Pain Assessment and Treatment Recommendations, and False Beliefs about Biological Differences between Blacks and Whites.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National Academy of Sciences, 19 Apr. 2016,

Hund, Wulf D., et al. Simianization: Apes, Gender, Class, and Race. Lit Verlag, 2016.