Lynching is an ugly word. It's ugly precisely because what it refers to is both deeply horrific and utterly counter to what it means to be an American. The history of lynching in this country is, sadly, a long and brutal one. Uncountable human beings -- mostly black males in the South -- were grabbed by what can only be called an angry mob, and summarily executed without benefit of a trial by a jury of their peers for their perceived wrongdoing. In many cases (if not most), this wrongdoing was fictional, it bears pointing out. The history of such lynchings is a sad and shameful chapter in America's story. Lynchings didn't happen in a vacuum, of course, since the broader (and more shameful) history of racial relations formed the backdrop in which such lynchings took place.
All of us should be aware (and ashamed) of this history. That such things took place in our country is something all Americans should know. This almost goes without saying. But what apparently does need saying is the reverse -- that the history of lynching should not be abused and belittled by politicians in hyperbolic fashion to make a much smaller point. Even if -- or perhaps especially if -- the politician in question is an African-American.
Here is how the Huffington Post reported this story:
A leading voice in the Congressional Black Caucus told supporters last week that Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers are devastating the black community economically and would be happy to see black people "hanging on a tree."
Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), the CBC whip, told attendees at the CBC's Job Tour visit to Miami that the Tea Party is actively taking steps to keep down the black community and other vulnerable populations.
"This is the effort that we're seeing of Jim Crow," Carson said. "Some of these folks in Congress right now would love to see us as second-class citizens."
"Some of them in Congress right now of this Tea Party movement would love to see you and me ... hanging on a tree."
A spokesman for Carson, later in the article, actually defended his boss' "strong language," saying:
"A child without basic nutrition, secure housing, and quality education has no real chance at a meaningful and productive life. So, yes, the Congressman used strong language because the Tea Party agenda jeopardizes our most vulnerable and leaves them without the ability to improve their economic standing."
Being without the ability to improve one's economic standing is indeed a dire situation. But it is not the same thing as being strung up by an angry mob from the nearest tree. It just isn't.
The accusation that the Tea Party harbors racism or racist elements has been around since soon after the Tea Party appeared on the American political scene. It is a subject for intense debate. Strong language is often used in this debate. But Congressman Carson's remarks have taken this language to an entirely different level -- a level where he really shouldn't have gone.
Because whether you believe the Tea Party is a pure-hearted organization which occasionally has problems of policing its own ranks at rallies to weed out racists who are using the public nature of the Tea Party events to spew their hatred, or whether you believe the Tea Party itself is actually racist to the core -- either way, Carson's remarks cannot be condoned. No matter what view you have of the Tea Party, to equate anti-minority political policies with applauding lynching should be seen as simply unacceptable.
Unless Carson has proof that Tea Partiers have actually suggested killing African-Americans, planned to kill African-Americans, or even considered killing African-Americans in this fashion, then he is just wrong to say what he said. To say nothing of his assertion that Tea Partiers would "love" to see such lynchings take place.
I say this even though I don't agree with pretty much of anything the Tea Party folks say they stand for, I should mention. I actually largely agree with the statement made by Carson's spokesman, that "The Tea Party is protecting its millionaire and oil company friends while gutting critical services that they know protect the livelihood of African-Americans, as well as Latinos and other disadvantaged minorities." The Tea Party platform, if fully enacted, would doubtlessly harm minorities disproportionately. So I fully understand where Carson is coming from on this issue.
But that doesn't mean I agree with the way he chose to make his argument. Far from it. I don't often enjoy defending the Tea Party, but in this particular case, I feel I must. I understand completely why the sole Republican in the Congressional Black Caucus (in which Carson holds a leadership position) is thinking of quitting the caucus over Carson's remark. I don't blame him a bit.
The politics of victimhood has been refined over the past 30 or 40 years in America. Democrats, in particular, have almost made it an art form. "We're oppressed!" is the cry, and woe to a Democratic politician who didn't respond to it. On the subject of race, it even has its own terminology now: "playing the race card." Republicans, over about the past five years or so, have developed their own strategy for playing the victimhood game (you could even make the case that the Tea Party phenomenon is a good example of this). On the race issue, Republicans now rush to play their own version of the "race card" first, before Democrats can even get theirs out of the deck. This Republican tactic consists of accusing Democrats of unfairly playing their own race card where no racism exists -- thus turning the "victim" label on its head.
All of this lies within the boundaries of acceptable political discourse, though. Even Representative Maxine Waters recently telling the Tea Party they could go "straight to Hell" has to be seen as nothing more than sharp words in a media and political climate that encourages such statements. But telling your political opponents to go to the Devil is one thing -- accusing them of outright deviltry is quite another.
On the level of political effectiveness alone, Carson is not doing his cause any good, and is in fact detracting from the argument he's trying to make. By "becoming the story" himself, Carson's bigger point is all but lost in the fray. Outrageous statements may get your face in the news, to put it another way, but when the story focuses solely on the outrageousness of your language, then you are turning off the very people you're trying to convince.
Carson should have stopped at: "Some of these folks in Congress right now would love to see us as second-class citizens," and his comparisons to the Jim Crow era. Whether you agree with this or not, Carson is making what he feels to be a very valid and urgent point. But Carson didn't stop there. He followed it up with: "Some of them in Congress right now of this Tea Party movement would love to see you and me ... hanging on a tree." He crossed the line into nothing more than a very ugly ad hominem attack by doing so.
There's a modern convention in political discussions (especially online) that calling someone a "Nazi" or comparing them to Hitler is completely unacceptable. The word Nazi should be reserved for speaking of Germans in World War II, to put it another way. It is seen as a heinous term that refers to inhumane brutality, and thus is placed outside the boundaries of proper discussion. Nazi comparisons weaken your argument, because it is so unreasonable to equate any contemporary political position with the stark reality of Nazi Germany.
But we're not Germany. Here in America, one of the ugliest accusations to be made is that of racism, because of our own history. Calling someone a racist is to use one of the strongest terms of disapproval possible in American discourse. But Carson went beyond even this strong language. He used the specific example of the lynch mob to paint his opponents in the worst possible light imaginable -- all on merely a hyperbolic level. But unless Andre Carson has some sort of evidence he hasn't yet made public that a Tea Party gathering not only lynched someone, but actually loved doing it, then he simply went too far in his rhetoric. What he said actually belittles and disrespects the memory of every lynching victim in our history, in fact. Even a Tea Partier who advocated cutting off every single penny of government help to minorities doesn't deserve to be smeared as someone who would "love" to see black bodies hanging from the trees. The two just are not the same thing.
Whenever any politician crosses such a line, I feel the need to admonish them. Because (full disclosure) I am more sympathetic to the Democratic point of view, it is always easier for me to do so when the transgressor is a Republican. When the Tea Parties were just getting started, I advised them to police their own ranks to weed out the crazies who showed up, because doing so would help them get their message out without such distractions. But Democrats need to do the same thing, at times. Which is why it pains me to say it, but it still needs saying: Andre Carson should apologize to the Tea Party. Because what he said was just wrong.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant