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When I hear the word “lynch,” I immediately think of the black experience of torture, persecution and dehumanization that was so prevalent in the first half of the last century in the American South.
I also think of the murder of Leo Frank, a Jewish business owner who was convicted of raping young Mary Phagan, had his sentence commuted, but was kidnapped by an angry mob from his prison cell and hanged from a tree. I think, too, of the 11 Italian men who were lynched in New Orleans after having been acquitted of killing an Irish police officer.
This Jewish man and these Italian men shared one very fundamental characteristic with the legions of African Americans murdered by racists: They were not considered white. Jews were “others,” and Italians were considered one step removed from blacks on the racial spectrum. That’s our history.
According to Merriam-Webster, which provides a race-neutral definition of the word, to lynch someone is defined as “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission.”
But we all know that there is nothing “race-neutral” about the word.
When Billie Holiday sang her masterpiece “Strange Fruit,” a song that made famous a poem written to protest American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans, we know that she was not singing about anyone other than a black man. If 14-year-old Emmett Till had been white, his whistling at a white woman would not have ended with him swinging from a tree. That’s just a fact.
I bring this up because last week, President Donald Trump tweeted that an impeachment inquiry against him is a lynching.
Trump is well known for saying things off the cuff and “shooting from the hip,” something that delights his most loyal supporters. But invoking the word “lynching” to describe his current situation is offensive and tone-deaf. It overlooks the historical connotation of the word.
Some are frustrated that people are reacting strongly about the use of the word. They point to Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, who more than 20 years ago used it to describe the Clinton impeachment. Where, they ask, was the outrage for that?
I agree that Nadler and the liberals are hypocritical in screaming about Trump’s use of the word now if, as I suspect, they had no problem using it to describe a white victim — their white victim — back then. But yesterday’s Democratic hypocrisy does not excuse Trump today. Conservatives who chafed at being called “deplorable” by Hillary Clinton can’t seriously dismiss the president’s use of lynching as a big nothing-burger.
When I posted about this on my Facebook page, some of the friends I most respect implied that I was being oversensitive. They wondered why I was being “triggered.” They asked me if it was wrong for Clarence Thomas to use the phrase “high-tech lynching” to describe his Supreme Court nomination process that was, according to many people — including me — an exercise in character assassination.
I shouldn’t have had to remind them that the odds Justice Thomas had relatives who’d been lynched were significantly higher than the odds that President Trump’s family lived that tragedy.
The point is this: Some words have profound historical meaning. I think abortion is mass genocide, but I cringe when people call it a holocaust. There was one Holocaust, and that word is taken. The same thing with lynching. Being annoyed that a partisan crew is making your life hell doesn’t give you the right to appropriate someone else’s dark tragedy.
Call it railroading. Call it a witch hunt. Heck, I’d even agree.
But leave the word lynching alone.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She can be reached at email@example.com.