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President Biden has signed a bill that makes lynching a federal hate crime

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

At the White House today, President Biden signed a bill more than 120 years in the making.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I just signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime for the first time in American history.

SNELL: Efforts to outlaw lynching have failed in Congress more than 200 times since the start of the last century. Here with more is NPR race correspondent Adrian Florido. Hi, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Kelsey.

SNELL: First, what does this new federal law do?

FLORIDO: Well, it defines lynching, as the president said, for the first time under federal law as a crime motivated by hate, as two or more people conspiring to kill or harm someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or other prejudices. This differs, Kelsey, from the technical definition of lynching, which is an extrajudicial mob killing, not necessarily motivated by hate. And historically, for example, white mobs carried out lynchings not only against Black people, but also against fellow white people. But this law recognizes a historical reality, which is that for a long time, lynchings were primarily a way that white people imposed racist terror on Black people and, to a lesser degree, other non-white groups. So this bill says if you conspire to commit what federal law already defines as a hate crime, then you are guilty of lynching.

SNELL: And what is the punishment?

FLORIDO: Well, under existing law, a hate crime is already punishable by life in prison if the victim dies. The real substantive change here is that if two or more people conspire to commit a lynching, they can be locked up for 30 years, even if their victim is only injured. And that is a lot more time than someone would face for acting alone in the commission of a hate crime.

SNELL: You know, I think a lot of people would be surprised that lynching is a problem lawmakers felt they still needed to address. Is this bill more symbolic than anything?

FLORIDO: Well, the symbolism is undeniable. I spoke with one of the bill's authors, Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush, who said that he vividly remembers being a young boy in 1955 and his mother gathering him and his siblings around the dinner table and showing them the issue of Jet magazine that covered that infamous lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

BOBBY RUSH: And she pointed to that grotesque picture of Emmett Till in a casket. And she said, that's why I want my boys out of Georgia. And I've never forgotten that.

FLORIDO: Rush said seeing Till's beaten body in that casket was a big motivator for him in backing this bill. But it wasn't the only thing.

RUSH: Even today, it's more than symbolism. I mean, racial hatred is alive and well in America, even as we speak.

FLORIDO: He suggested that lynching is not necessarily a thing of the past, something the president also suggested today. Data show that hate crimes are up across the country.

SNELL: Now, is there a sense that this anti-lynching law will be useful to prosecutors?

FLORIDO: Rush thinks so. I mean, if you look recently at the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Greg and Travis McMichael worked along with their neighbor to chase down Arbery and ultimately kill him. They were each convicted of individual hate crimes. But Congressman Rush said that that would have been a textbook lynching under this law. So he expects and hopes that prosecutors will welcome this new law as an added tool in the fight against hate.

SNELL: That's NPR's Adrian Florido. Thank you.

FLORIDO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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