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Don’t call it a lynching

It's a term for the unspeakably brutal murder of innocents, not impeachment proceedings or Senate confirmation hearings
Illustrative. A postcard of the Duluth lynching, June 15, 1920. (Wikipedia)
Illustrative. A postcard of the Duluth lynching, June 15, 1920. (Wikipedia)

It’s hard to keep up when there’s another appalling scandal every hour.

But I do want to say something about Donald Trump’s description of the impeachment investigation as a “lynching” and Lindsey Graham’s insistence that it is indeed a lynching “in every sense.”

Both remarks lay bare the way this country still has not confronted the enormity of the evil it committed (and commits) against African-Americans. People who think the use of Holocaust imagery is always and everywhere beyond the pale ought to hold the same line regarding slavery and lynching, not because the two are necessarily the same (few things are more depraved and counterproductive than comparative suffering), but because each is a reality that sought to destroy the very humanity of its victims. Personally, I think Holocaust analogies can sometimes (rarely) be appropriate, but they ought to be invoked with extreme care and thoughtfulness, not to score easy political points. The same is true with lynching — it should go without saying that a legal process investigating a potential crime by an elected official that has nothing to do with race and that does not threaten anyone’s life or humanity is not an appropriate analogy.

It is difficult to capture how obscene Graham’s “in every sense” is. Rather than try, let me leave you with a description of what lynching actually was, what it did, and how it degraded and murdered innocent people, including children.

“By the 1890s, lynching fever gripped the South, spreading like cholera, as white communities made blacks their primary target, and torture their focus. Burning the black victim slowly for hours was the chief method of torture. Lynching became a white media spectacle, in which prominent newspapers, like the Atlanta Constitution, announced to the public the place, date, and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims. Often as many as 10 to 20,000 men, women, and children attended the event. It was a family affair, a ritual celebration of white supremacy, where women and children were often given the first opportunity to torture black victims — burning black flesh and cutting off genitals, fingers, toes, and ears as souvenirs. Postcards were made from the photographs taken as black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera. They were sold for 10 to 25 cents to members of the crows, who then mailed them to relatives and friends, often with a note saying something like this: ‘This is the barbeque we had last night'” (James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. 9).

Trump and Graham were not the first to cheapen the language and the memory of lynching. Justice Clarence Thomas condemned his Senate confirmation hearing, which grappled with Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment, as a “high-tech lynching”; Senator Joseph Biden, Jr., assailed impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton as a “partisan lynching.” Needless to say, none of these instances was remotely akin to a lynching.  It was wrong when Thomas and Biden invoked the horrific legacy of lynching, and it is wrong when Trump and Graham do it now. (There is something especially galling about a White senator from South Carolina so debasing the memory of Black suffering.)

May we live to see the day when racism and bigotry are a thing of the past — when the humanity of Black people is not constantly assailed and assaulted; when Black people have the right to vote without an unceasing barrage of attempts to disenfranchise them; when Black people have the same educational and housing opportunities that White people do; when Black men do not have to live in terror of the police; when we tear down monuments to the Confederacy and its ideology — and when America finally finds the moral courage to fully confront and (to the extent possible) make amends for its past.

That day is long past due.

About the Author
Rabbi Shai Held -- theologian, scholar, educator, and activist-- is president, dean, and chair in Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute (www.hadar.org), and the author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence and The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion.  
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