Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
On A Fraught Word
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2016 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
(This is a blog post specifically aimed at people who aren't in or from the United States and who have conversations with people from the US, especially online. Also, content note: I explain what lynching is and why it's a bad idea to joke about it, with examples.)
Sometimes when people are joking about vigilante justice, they might use the word "lynch," like "we ought to lynch so-and-so," and think it is a harmless and hyperbolic way of saying "we ought to punish them". As a person who likely (if you are reading this blog) cares about inclusivity and social justice, you probably should not use this term in this way. While some people certainly think it has that generic and benign meaning, in the US (the country whose history I know best), it mostly means white people getting together in mobs to kill black people -- for succeeding, for daring to buy houses or vote, or simply for anything deemed unacceptable by those angry racist mobs. It very rarely still happens here, but it was a more common occurrence not so long ago, such that the history and ramifications of this particular form of race-based terrorism are still very present in the American conscience.
In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy from Chicago, was spending the summer with family members in Mississippi, when he was suddenly accused of breaking the South's unwritten rules of interracial conduct by catcalling a white woman. He was abruptly apprehended by an angry white mob, tortured, and lynched. His mother asked for him to have an open-casket funeral, so people could see the extent of the battering and butchery, and newspapers around the country published the photos. This raised the consciousness of Americans across the nation and helped to spur the movement for civil rights in the United States.
More recently: in the 1990s, a black man (Clarence Thomas) was nominated to be a US Supreme Court justice. Anita Hill, an accomplished black female lawyer and Thomas's former employee, came forward and publicly stated that he had sexually harassed her. This accusation, and the subsequent televised judicial hearings, were a watershed moment that brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment into widespread national debate. Thomas responded to the accusations by calling them "a high-tech lynching". Hill was alternately applauded and attacked; however, the hearings ultimately proved no obstacle for Thomas, as the legislature went on to confirm his appointment. Twenty-five years later, Justice Thomas still sits on the US Supreme Court.
I know the basic facts above from memory, and those of us who were raised in the USA basically know much of this stuff by heart as part of the history of hate crimes. So that's the kind of shit that we are reminded of when someone jokes about lynching, and why you probably just shouldn't do it around us.
(Thanks to Camille Acey for suggesting revisions that improved this piece. And thanks to the white person I spoke with on this point in private conversation; I adapted that conversation into this post.)