Words matter. Language matters. And they especially matter when they are used to name the gravest kinds of injustices.
Words are “weapons wielded by the powerful” but are also powerful tools for inspiring social resistance and reconfiguring historical wrongs.
Because America has a shameful, and sometimes unacknowledged, history of violence against racial minorities it is particularly important that we name that violence correctly and do not dilute its meaning by appropriating the language we use to do so for other purposes.
This is especially true for lynching.
Calculated misuses of the language of lynching have become an all-too-frequent part of the Republican playbook in American politics for at least the last half-century. But the misuse of the language of lynching is not limited to one group of partisans. Even Democrats have sometimes used it for their own political purposes.
Rescuing the word lynching and connecting it to the shameful history associated with it is just one reason why the Emmett Till Antilynching Act that President Biden signed into law last week is so important. It makes lynching a federal hate crime for the first time in American history.
Examples of crass misuses of the language of lynching are legion.
Former President Donald Trump used it in 2019 to describe the congressional investigation of his effort to blackmail Ukraine’s president to provide dirt on Joe Biden.
Trump called his first impeachment a “lynching” because it was, in his view, carried out “without due process or fairness or any legal rights.” He called on his Republican allies to “remember what they are witnessing here—a lynching.”
Senator Ted Cruz joined Trump in saying that the Democrats calling for Trump’s impeachment were a “lynch mob.”
Not far behind was Senator Lindsay Graham who defended Trump’s equating his impeachment with a lynching. Graham reiterated that the impeachment probe was a “lynching in every sense.” As Graham put it, “I think lynching can be seen as somebody taking the law into their own hands and out to get somebody for no good reason. What does lynching mean? When a mob grabs you, they don’t give you a chance to defend yourself. They don’t tell you what happened to you. They just destroy you.”
To be fair, not all of the former president’s usual allies jumped on the bandwagon. Some, like Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, distanced themselves from Trump’s comparison of the impeachment inquiry to lynching. “Given the history in our country,” McConnell explained, “I would not compare this to a lynching. That was an unfortunate choice of words.”
Not one to admit his mistakes, Trump responded to such criticism by doubling down on his use of the word.
Offering no examples and no proof, he boldly insisted that “It’s a word that many Democrats have used, it’s a word that many people have used over the years, but that is a word that’s been used many times. Let me tell you something, the level of unfairness for a perfect conversation with the president of Ukraine, this was a perfect conversation.”
Trump was right that Democrats recently also have misused the word in unguarded moments.
In 1998, then-Senator Biden branded Bill Clinton’s impeachment a “partisan lynching.” And a report in the Washington Post noted that five Democratic congressmen—Representatives Danny K. Davis, Gregory W. Meeks, Jim McDermott, Charles B. Rangel, and Jerrold Nadler—also compared the Clinton proceedings to a “lynching,” or referred to Clinton’s opponents as a “lynch mob.”
Unlike Trump, Biden admitted his mistake and recognized the danger of using lynching comparisons for partisan purposes. Biden apologized. “Our country has a dark, shameful history with lynching,” he said, “and to even think about making this comparison is abhorrent. It’s despicable.”
Perhaps the most infamous misuse of the language of lynching occurred more than thirty years ago in 1991 when Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas branded the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment a “high tech lynching.”
Thomas said at the time that “as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.”
Stanford law professor Richard Ford argues that during the hearings Thomas used race “as a silent inoculation against critique,” but in his talk of lynching “it was deployed openly as a full-strength antibiotic.”
According to Ford, Thomas cynically “sought to link his struggle to sit on the highest Court in the United States to the struggles of African Americans to avoid physical mutilation, torture, and death. He implicitly evoked the experience of blacks such as Emmett Till, a young black man from Chicago who was tortured and killed by whites after teasing a white woman in Mississippi. He compared milquetoast Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to an angry mob armed with firearms and strong rope.”
Two decades before Thomas’s invocation of lynching, Republicans used that language to defend President Richard Nixon during the Senate Watergate hearings. Rabbi Baruch Korff, one of the president’s most fervent supporters, claimed that they displayed what he labeled a “lynch-mob mentality.” As the Watergate investigation unfolded, he railed against “the lynching psychosis that is permeating the United States Congress.”
At the time, Ronald Reagan, then-governor of California, also used the language of lynching to talk about Watergate. Reagan said, “I think all of us agree that the persons who did this unlawful thing are wrong and they should be brought to justice—some of them have. But it shouldn’t be a lynching.”
To those who, like Trump or Thomas, compare their treatment to lynching, Emory Professor of African American Studies Carol Anderson responds, “You weren’t castrated & forced to eat your genitalia like Claude Neal. You weren’t dragged behind a car, doused w/gasoline & set on fire like Cleo Wright. You weren’t blow torched until your eyes popped out of your head like John Jones. That’s lynching.”
The bill President Biden signed on March 29 is one antidote to the misuses of the language of lynching that Anderson names. It is a reminder of lynching’s gruesome history and its continuing legacy and of its use as a tool of racial hatred.
It imposes sentences of up to 30 years for “Whoever conspires to commit a hate crime offense that results in death or serious bodily injury or that includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill shall, if death or serious bodily injury results from the offense.”
But as important as the linguistic corrective is, it is not enough. The Emmett Till Antilynching Act needs to be used to bring perpetrators of racial hate crimes to justice.
It should energize the Justice Department whose record of investigating and enforcing existing federal hate crimes legislation leaves much to be desired. The president and Attorney General Merrick Garland must use the historic passage of the new law to put the full weight of the federal government behind efforts to stem the epidemic of hate crimes plaguing this country.