A Red Record: Lynching as a Competing Informal Institution

By Camille Steens

After the emancipation of slaves in 1865 in the United States’ South, white people that had previously had “unlimited power” over their slaves and could subject them to “any and all kinds of physical punishment” in order to force them into labor, saw their “white supremacy” threatened. Therefore, a system of “anarchy and outlawry” emerged as described by Ida B. Wells Barnett in her pamphlet A Red Record. Lynching became a practice that was often employed to punish black people suspected of a crime without granting them a judicial trial. Lynchings are open, public murders that are carried out by a mob.

Robert Gibson describes this practice as emerging from the Federal Government’s “laissez-faire” policy in regard to black people in the South. This coupled with the idea that lynching emerged as a way to “compensate” the loss of white supremacy seems to reflect a concept that Helmke and Levitsky (2004) described as a “competing informal institution”. This is an informal institution that “coexists with ineffective formal institutions”. Because formal rules and procedures are not systematically enforced, actors can ignore them. Because actors ignore the formal rule, the competing informal institution creates a divergent outcome from the one intended by the formal institution. In the case of lynching, the formal institution is that all American citizens have equal rights, yet this informal institution creates unequal rights for black citizens.

The case of lynching is an example of a case in which an informal institution emerges out of an ineffective formal institution and in which this informal institution competes with the formal institution.