White Privilege Attempts to Claim “Lynching” Too

It should go without saying that Donald Trump is not being lynched.  Impeachment, an orderly, fact-based inquiry into wrongdoing based on clear legal principles outlined in the Constitution and including ample opportunity for the accused to present argument and evidence in his defense, is the polar opposite of “lynching.” Lynching is what happened to thousands of black Americans who were summarily executed for often imagined crimes or simply for offending the sensibilities of white people. Lynching was what happened to the 300 or more people who lost their lives during in the Tulsa Race Riot (or, more accurately, the Tulsa Massacre) of 1921, a real-life event recently recreated for the science fiction show Watchmen, a sequel to the famed comic book of the same name.  In the real Tulsa, the affluent African-American neighborhood known as Black Wall Street was burned to the ground and hundreds of its inhabitants slaughtered, ostensibly over a trumped up rape charge but really because a collection of rich and independent black people was an affront to the racial hierarchy of the day.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on President Trump’s complaints that he is being lynched in the impeachment process. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley (both targets of Trump’s racist rhetoric in the past) point out, this is very likely an attempt by Trump to engage in race-baiting, creating outrage over this new remark as a way of distracting us from Ukraine and Syria and emoluments and any number of misdeeds. And while Trump may not excel at actually doing things strategically – an odd shortcoming for someone who is the President of the United States – one thing he knows how to do is troll, especially when he can do so in a way that plays on racism, sexism, or some other offensive ideology (remember the Birther conspiracy or “blood was coming out of her” or any number of controversies he’s drummed up).  So, no, let’s not play this game and focus on the horrible words from Trump and ignore the horrible substance of what’s been going on during this presidency.

I will, however, take a moment to condemn Trump’s enablers, the powerful former or current politicians who excuse or agree when he says things like this, even if they have to do so in defiance of their own consciences and common sense.  So no, Lindsey Graham – you who stood up to the President for about two seconds over the Kurds and Ukraine before returning to your feckless obsequiousness when it comes to Donald Trump – it is not “accurate” to call this a lynching. You should know: our shared home state of South Carolina had at least 156 lynchings between 1882 and 1930, and may have even given the practice its name. And no, Newt Gingrich, impeachment is no more a lynching when directed at Donald Trump than it was when you were leading the charge against Bill Clinton. And extra no, Gingrich, it doesn’t matter that white people were also lynched in history, as you tried to argue to Whoopi Goldberg on the View.  There were white slaves in history too (the ancient Greeks and Romans had many slaves in their societies), but that doesn’t mean that American slavery wasn’t a horrifically and thoroughly racist institution.

This last point  – that lynching (or racism or anything else) happens to white people too – well, I want to dwell on that for a minute.  Gingrich’s but-white-people-were-lynched-too defense struck me especially hard coming less than 24 hours after I had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw speak. Dr. Crenshaw, for those who don’t know her (and everyone should) coined the term “intersectionality” some thirty years ago to give a word to the complexities of identity and the bases by which many people (such as black women) suffer discrimination in unique and pernicious ways.

One of Dr. Crenshaw’s many observations during the talk she gave at Boston University this week (and I’m poorly paraphrasing, as she expresses everything much more eloquently) was that she has had the bittersweet experience of watching “intersectionality” go from a concept that the dominant segment of society – white, straight, cisgender men, basically – had ignored to a concept that some members of this dominant class are now using to present themselves as the oppressed minority (i.e. the strawman, or perhaps straw-woman, argument that straight white male voices are being suppressed or drowned out nowadays).

This re-purposing of intersectionality, coupled with yesterday’s attempts to take the concept of “lynching” and apply it to perhaps the single most privileged white man on the face of the Earth, represents a particularly insidious form of racism and privilege. It’s the idea that everything belongs to the dominant class in society, even the experiences and the pain of those outside of that class.

Not only do black people (and you can add any number of oppressed or marginalized groups or identities here) not get to possess property, or political power, or the dignity of not being killed for arbitrary or imagined reasons, but we also don’t get to own our own stories of oppression.  We don’t get to “own” lynching – that’s something that rich white men sitting in the Oval Office can experience too! We don’t get to own intersectionality – that’s really a conspiracy against white people.  We don’t get affirmative action unless it will benefit our rich white classmates, as well.  We don’t get to reclaim and own the dreaded “n-word” – white people, or sometimes other non-black minorities, should get to use it too, at the very least if they’re just singing their favorite song (and honestly, Ta-Nehisi Coates already put that particular idea to bed, so please go listen to his explanation of how “words have context”).

And so, having at various points taken everything else, the dominant stratum of society now seeks to take away the very stories and experiences of those who have been dispossessed.  Fortunately, those of us who have in the past had to tolerate such dispossession are now armed with the tools – civil and political rights; concepts like those developed by Dr. Crenshaw and many others; new organizational, economic and social power; consciousness or “wokeness” – to put up a fight.

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