— Journalist Elizabeth Drew (@ElizabethDrewOH) September 26, 2018
It’s not clear exactly who journalist Elizabeth Drew was referring to in this tweet, sent days before the testimony of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
But regardless of its subject, the language is cavalier and dangerous. This framing erroneously equates a judicial process to a very real, very painful—and very American—act. It’s a dishonest twisting of history too often used to silence those who speak truth to power.
It’s becoming a popular refrain in our culture. Students will hear and absorb this. That’s why we have to push back on this rhetoric and explain why it’s reprehensible.
Teachers must help students understand exactly what lynching is. A basic definition of lynch is “to put to death by mob action, usually a hanging, without legal authority.” The Equal Justice Initiative describes lynching as “violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials.” Students must also understand that this widely supported, brutal tactic is woven into the fabric of the United States.
At least 4,743 lynchings, spanning from 1882 to 1968, have been documented in the United States. These acts of terror were held in public places, often attracting large crowds to witness the spectacle. Extrajudicial killings were used to enforce racial subordination and segregation, ultimately reinforcing white supremacy. The Teaching Tolerance classroom film An Outrage illustrates how racial terror has had a lasting effect on black Americans, which is reflected in a discriminatory criminal justice system.
Students should also know that there was plenty of resistance, with robust anti-lynching campaigns. Lynching reshaped the United States, as black Southerners escaped racial terror and headed to the North and Midwest during the Great Migration. Laying out the effects of racial terror helps students understand how this history influences current attitudes about race. The film’s viewer’s guide offers ways to prepare students for the subject matter, and to examine this history more deeply.
To rein in the idea of equating such a violent phenomenon to a political inquiry, teachers can also discuss with students real examples of lynchings, like those addressed by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Students will understand that men, women and children were subjected to violent deaths as an intimidation tactic to keep black people politically and socially powerless. For example, a man was lynched for walking past a window while a white woman was inside bathing. Kissing a white woman’s hand or testifying against a white man accused of raping a black woman also cost the lives of two black men in Georgia. Their black bodies were publicly destroyed while, in some cases, hundreds or even thousands looked on in glee.
When powerful men are being challenged and we compare them to victims of lynching, we are supporting a toxic culture that seeks to maintain a status quo—a system that explains away boys’ sexual misconduct as a rite of passage. It’s happened often in modern history, and it is usually a rebuttal for men in politics or entertainment.
Trivializing an act so violent reduces the humanity of those who truly suffered at the hands of lynch mobs.
Bill Cosby’s publicist has called his sexual assault trial a “public lynching” and asserted that both Cosby and Kavanaugh were victims of a “sex war.” Cosby’s wife, Camille, has also insisted that accusations against him “evolved into lynch mobs.”
Singer R. Kelly, the subject of numerous allegations of mistreating women and sexual assault, also evoked the sentiment when the #TimesUp-endorsed #MuteRKelly campaign called to remove his music from radio play.
In a statement, the singer’s representative said, “Since America was born, black men and women have been lynched for having sex or for being accused of it. … We will vigorously resist this attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”
Rapper Kayne West also used lynching imagery on Twitter as he faced backlash for stating that slavery was a choice.
“They cut out our tongues so we couldn’t communicate to each other,” he wrote. “I will not allow my tongue to be cut. They hung the most powerful in order to force fear into the others.”
And most directly related to Kavanaugh’s confirmation process is Justice Clarence Thomas’ 1991 hearing. After Anita Hill’s testimony, he indignantly brushed off accusations of sexual harassment as an effort to put a black man in his place:
This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, 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.
Because these examples happen to come from powerful black men, one might think they’re different from Drew’s or others’ remarks defending Kavanaugh. One might believe the history and experiences of black men in this country makes a difference here.
Yet, from Thomas to Kavanaugh, this language is an attempt to deflect from serious allegations in the wake of a changing culture that aims to eliminate oppressive systems and violence against women. This language is dangerous and it’s wrong. People who use this language understand that the history of lynching is a sore spot for Americans. They know that black people have a fear and distrust of the criminal justice system, one rife with systemic racism. It’s triggering.
Furthermore, trivializing an act so violent reduces the humanity of those who truly suffered at the hands of lynch mobs. This deflects from where our minds need to be—challenging those who may abuse their power. Let this be a lesson for students to think critically, challenge oppressive systems and choose words wisely.
See our toolkit for “A Museum. A Memorial. A Message.” for guidance on discussing this history in the classroom.
Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article suggested that Drew's tweet defended Kavanaugh against accusations of sexual assault by comparing his senate hearing to the act of lynching. We have updated this article to correct this error.