Being hung up on the wrong thing leads to an awkward swing.
Tuesday, November 19th, marked the second week of public hearings regarding the US House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into President Donald J. Trump. He is being charged with betraying his oath of office and putting America’s national security at risk by trying to enlist a foreign power (Ukraine) to tarnish a rival (former Vice President Joe Biden) for his own political gain. Understandably, the president disapproves of this inquiry, at one point in October referring to it as “a lynching.” In his opinion, expressed via Twitter, the Democratic Party, the current House majority, is trying to “impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights.”
When President Trump originally wrote the tweet likening his struggle to being lynched, he was immediately met with criticism. For example, CNN commentator and New York Times bestselling author Keith Boykin responded saying:
“Your words dishonor the memory of more than 4,000 African Americans who were victims of lynching in this country.”
Boykin’s sentiment was shared by many in the Democratic Party, who believed President Trump’s words were both erroneous and disrespectful to those who have died via lynching. However, various conservatives called the scolding coming from liberals hypocritical considering their use of the word “lynch” to describe political topics in the past. For example, Tom Elliot, founder of right-leaning aggregation site Grabien, posted on Twitter a video which showed Democratic Representative Danny Davis of Illinois equating former President William (Bill) J. Clinton’s impeachment to a lynching.
To lynch or lynching is defined as putting someone to death (as by hanging) via mob action with no legal approval or permission. Given this understanding, one can assume President Trump’s lynching comment is meant to imply that the Democratic Party seeks to end his presidency — put to death his term in office — through mob action, devoid of proper legal protocol. Thus, the president is victimizing himself by comparing his possible fate to those who have died via lynching throughout US history.
Equating an impeachment inquiry or non-violent offense to lynching is highly problematic given the unique place this heinous act holds in America. Though according to Vanderwees and Connolly (2018) it was initially used as a method of extra-legal punishment for political opponents and thieves in the early nineteenth century, it later morphed into a form of racism and is today considered a hate crime largely committed against Black individuals. Johnson (2019) asserted that the destruction of the Black body via lynching has been viewed as entertainment for White audiences historically. At its core, this act was and continues to be a way of conveying Black inferiority and White domination. Victims might endure beatings, mutilation, and eventually death by succumbing to their wounds, being burned alive, or being hanged by mostly, if not always, White mobs. Louise Wood (2018) purported to after the Civil War, when enslaved Blacks were emancipated, “lynching came to be understood as a racialized phenomenon” (p. 761). Moreover, this hate crime was practiced largely during the Reconstruction Era when White mobs singled out Black landowners, Republicans, and others who defied the racial order.
Though lynching is now considered a hate crime and presumably taboo in US society, Wood (2018) asserted that the spectacle of lynching never completely disappeared and has lingered in public consciousness. Examples of this have been seen during instances where a noose was used to either intimidate or insinuate future harm to Black individuals in present day. Moreover, a study by Mears et al. (2019) found that Whites residing “in communities with a greater historical legacy of racial animus and hostility, as reflected in and perpetuated by higher levels of lynchings, were more likely to view blacks as a threat” (Mears et al., 2019, p. 509). While there have been recent questionable events in which Black individuals were found hanged, lynching is now being applied to different, yet similar, events where this demographic is being harmed.
Arguably, the symbolic and cultural framework surrounding this hate crime can help explain current authorized policies and practices. For example, Vanderwees and Connolly (2018) stated that since the unlawful murder of unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin by a Hispanic neighborhood watch captain in 2012, several politicians, journalists, and scholars have described the modern-day consequences of the Stand Your Ground law and police shootings or killings of Black individuals — especially those unarmed and posing no threat — as a legalized form of lynching. In addition, Johnson (2019) contended that when Black athletes go against some form of social protocol, as was seen with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the singing or playing of the National Anthem, famed tennis player Serena Williams’ disagreement with chair umpire Carlos Ramos during the 2018 US Open, and NBA superstar LeBron James’ controversial 2010 decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat, they have been subject to violent or quasi-violent responses from fans and onlookers, largely White, “which ideologically and imagistically borrows from lynching” (p. 3).
Hang it up
It is because of the historical significance and present-day occurrence of lynching that likening the hate crime to anything short of violence is problematic. Going back to President Trump’s tweet, his life is not in danger and the Democratic Party, or mob as he presumably sees it, does not seek to harm him through violent means. In fact, it can be argued that comparing lynching to anything outside of its proper context takes away from the impact the act has had on its true victims. To fully understand this hate crime means to empathize with and provide justice for those who have suffered brutal deaths at the hands of both mobs and proponents of White supremacy. Furthermore, Williams (2014) stated that families of victims have experienced immense suffering since they were denied “the opportunity to experience a good death” (p. 858).
One last point about President Trump’s rhetoric regarding lynching is that it paints a picture of White victimhood and arguably compares his struggle to Blacks who have suffered. Given the legacy of slavery in the US, racial oppression, and inequities faced by Black populations compared with White populations, leading to issues such as Black-White differences in life expectancy and infant mortality (Brown Speights et al., 2017; Kaufman, Riddell, & Harper, 2019), his method of thinking is unjustified. Additionally, the president’s current position as a heterosexual White male acting as the head of government and head of state of the US makes it difficult to view him as a victim.
Brown Speights, J. S., Goldfarb, S. S., Wells, B. A., Beitsch, L., Levine, R. S., & Rust, G. (2017). State-level progress in reducing the black–white infant mortality gap, united states, 1999–2013. American journal of public health, 107(5), 775–782.
Johnson, P. (2019). Playing with lynching: Fandom violence and the black athletic body. Television & New Media, 1527476419879913.
Kaufman, J. S., Riddell, C. A., & Harper, S. (2019). Black and white differences in life expectancy in 4 us states, 1969–2013. Public Health Reports, 0033354919878158.
Louise Wood, A. (2018). The spectacle of lynching: Rituals of white supremacy in the jim crow south. American journal of economics and sociology, 77(3–4), 757–788.
Mears, D. P., Stewart, E. A., Warren, P. Y., Craig, M. O., & Arnio, A. N. (2019). A legacy of lynchings: Perceived black criminal threat among whites. Law & Society Review, 53(2), 487–517.
Vanderwees, C., & Connolly, A. (2018). Introduction — lynching and its legacies: Racial dynamics of discipline and punishment in american culture.
Williams, K. E. (2014). Regarding the aftermaths of lynching. The Journal of American History, 101(3), 856–858.