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The Exploitation of Lynching

America’s most heinous form of racial terrorism should never be used to dodge suspicion of a crime, much less to allegedly stage one

Clarence Thomas, Jussie Smollett, Justin Fairfax

JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock; Stephen Lovekin/Variety/REX/Shutterstock; Steve Helber/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The rope scarred James Cameron’s neck. That’s how close he came to dying in 1930. The same mob that had already lynched two other suspects in a white man’s murder spared the 16-year-old when, as he would tell it, a voice proclaimed his innocence. Cameron thus became the only known survivor of a lynching attempt in the United States when he died in 2006 at age 92. There haven’t been any others since, no matter what Clarence Thomas would have you believe.

Fifteen years after the eventual Supreme Court Justice called his questioning over the Anita Hill harassment allegations a “high-tech lynching,” Cameron was able to witness, in person, Congress apologize to him for never passing anti-lynching legislation. He didn’t live long enough to see the government actually do anything about it. Lynching still isn’t a federal hate crime today; while the bill introduced by the Senate’s only three black members passed in December, as of today, it sits waiting in the House before it is sent to the president for his signature. The bill itself counts at least 4,742 people, predominantly African-Americans, who died by lynching between 1882 and 1968. That’s not far from the count that the Equal Justice Initiative keeps in Montgomery, Alabama, at the new museum and memorial dedicated to the victims of this form of domestic terrorism.

However, even with a surge in lawmakers, historians and activists re-contextualizing the crime for a new era, we continue to see prominent black men, in particular, misuse the iconography of lynching for their own purposes.

Jussie Smollett, the singer and now-suspended Empire actor, allegedly staged his own attempted lynching-style attack, complete with a rope around his neck. Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson was indignant last Thursday when he blamed Smollett for supposedly shaming his city. That was an odd and opportune bit of deflection coming from a man in charge of a department with an earned reputation for dishonesty and violence. Rather than going there, Johnson could have stuck with the first point that he made that morning. “Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations?” he asked. “How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile?”

Smollett’s exploitation of lynching is not the only one we’ve seen in recent weeks. Justin Fairfax, Virginia’s African-American lieutenant governor, has refused to resign despite being credibly accused of sexual violence by two black women earlier this month. On Sunday, when speaking before the state Senate over which he presides, he invoked both slavery and lynching to describe his ordeal. You can watch his remarks in full below.

Referring first to 2019 being the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to Virginia’s shores, Fairfax soon centered himself in the story. “In this moment, we have to decide what the next 400 years look like,” he said. “And if we go backwards in a rush to judgment, if we eliminate due process,” he added, referencing the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, “[if] we allow for political lynchings without any due process, any facts, any evidence being heard, then I think we do a disservice to this very body in which we all serve.” His remarks provoked condemnation from Republicans and Democrats alike. (Fairfax’s office, when contacted by Rolling Stone about his remarks, offered no further comment or clarification.)

Fairfax became a national name in January, prior to Virginia’s explosion of scandals, when he stood apart from that same state Senate when they chose to honor Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Fairfax seemed then to have not only an apt grasp of history, but a keen sense of where the political winds were blowing. Perhaps he still does, considering that some Republican elected officials bet that undermining women with misogynist rhetoric and policy will pay off at the ballot box.

Thomas, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly and now Justin Fairfax are all black men who have been accused (or, in Cosby’s case, convicted) of different crimes against women, but nonetheless all saw fit to use lynching as a form of dismissal or deflection. With the exception of Cosby, all of the accusers are black women. Even in the wake of Kelly’s recent arrest in Chicago over a newly surfaced video depicting another incident of alleged sexual abuse, it is difficult to forget what journalist Jim DeRogatis wrote in one of his many reports about the Kelly saga: “The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women.”

Misogynoir, the particular kind of intersectional hatred directed at black women, isn’t solely to blame. Just as history has forgotten the many lynched black women, Americans have placed an undue emphasis on the fragility of black male lives at the expense of black female and non-binary lives. It may seem understandable, especially since the killings of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and so many other unarmed black men and boys at the hands of police helped expand awareness among Americans who didn’t know this was a problem. It is also undeniable that America’s history is littered with the bodies of falsely accused black men, many for sexual crimes. However, as Thomas proved when he escalated matters during his 1991 confirmation hearing, a black man using the word “lynching” carries a unique weight.

Summoning the specter of black men hanging from trees, their lives ended by a raging white mob who sometimes took photographs and picked at their dead flesh for souvenirs as if they were at the county fair, is neither casual nor figurative. Though many argue that lynchings continue, some evolving into reckless police killings, the metaphor remains too casually employed. It is utterly inapplicable even in cases of libel and slander. The insult to the thousands who died this way grows exponentially with every instance of exaggeration.

Fairfax’s chief of staff, Lawrence Roberts preceded his boss’ “political lynching” remarks with a stunning comparison of his own. Roberts published a Facebook post on February 16th that read, in part, “Emmett Till’s case alone should give people pause before rushing to judgment — a young man lynched like so many others without recourse to justice because of a lie,” Roberts wrote, referencing one of the most notorious American murders of all time to defend the lieutenant governor from allegations that he raped one woman during college and later forced another to perform oral sex.

Lynching is such a horrible crime that any comparison to it requires an almost surreal skewing of perspective to liken it to anything one might experience in modern life, even while black. It is just about impossible to hyperbolize, and yet here we are. Hence, it is easy to see why using it to either exonerate yourself or to incriminate your enemies in the service of a hoax would appeal to someone with selfish motivations. If one was going to make the mistake of exploiting lynching, Smollett allegedly chose about the stupidest possible way to do so, and he likely will pay a steep price. (I’d argue that the performer would benefit less from the three years in prison than from education. Perhaps he should be forced to learn the name of each and every victim of lynching documented on those iron slabs hanging at that memorial, including all the “unknowns.”)

But while Cosby was eventually convicted and Kelly soon may face justice, Thomas is still on the bench, casually threatening press freedoms. As you may have seen in the video above, Fairfax’s colleagues preceded his remarks with praise and applause. It would have been better for one of those state Senators to remind Fairfax that no one has been “politically lynched.” It is too loaded an image to conjure, particularly as he is discussing the very history of African bondage in this country. In that respect, Fairfax’s language is worse than Smollett’s alleged actions, because the former is in a position of political and sexual power.

The two women who have leveled accusations against Fairfax, Dr. Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, have said that they would testify publicly and the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates announced Friday that it will give them that opportunity by holding hearings. Independent of criminal charges or impeachment, neither of which Fairfax could possibly want, that is the due process he has available at the moment. The women will have their platform to speak their truth, and presumably he will have his. If he holds dear the values of equality and justice that he spoke of in his remarks, then Fairfax would be wise to use that time proving his innocence rather than asserting his victimhood.

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