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R. Kelly, Michael Jackson — are they being ‘lynched’?

Bringing up lynchings in these cases is profiting off the very real horrors inflicted on black people

From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 African-Americans were lynched across the country. That means that 3,446 black people were murdered viciously for the joy of white onlookers. Lynching is as embedded in the fabric of the state as it is in the fabric of America.

And yet:

“We can’t just stand by while this public lynching goes on, and the vulture tweeters and others who never met Michael go after him.” This is a recent statement from Michael Jackson’s family.

On May 4, 2018, R. Kelly’s representatives responded to allegations that he was holding women against their will after years of accusations and a 2005 court case around his alleged sexual encounters with underage girls: “We will vigorously resist this attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”

These men aren’t being lynched. They’re being asked to reasonably answer for actual crimes that they are accused of.

This one is from Charles Steele, president/CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: “As national President/CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I find the posthumous lynching, Leaving Neverland, to be both unfair and unacceptable.”

This is a common chorus when black men are faced with evidence and accusations of sexual assault. The strategy is to make a comparison to the history of white Americans hanging black people for crimes they either didn’t commit or that in no way warranted the level of violence these victims faced. The rhetorical move is designed to engender sympathy and guilt and shift the narrative from the crimes these modern men are accused of.

But these men aren’t being lynched. They’re being asked to reasonably answer for crimes of which they are accused. The difference is vast, and bringing up lynchings in these cases is profiting off the very real horrors inflicted on black people. All for personal gain.

For example, the statements from the Jackson family arrive in the wake of HBO’s Leaving Neverland documentary, a scathing four-hour testimonial from two men, James Safechuck and choreographer Wade Robson, who allege that Michael Jackson molested them when they were young boys.

The effects of the documentary are tearing through the fabric of global popular culture. Some radio stations, including three in Canada, have stopped playing Jackson’s music. Lifelong fans have written about casting Jackson’s artistry to the side forever. And Oprah Winfrey has used the documentary to open a new dialogue on child sex abuse.

Another documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, has led to the arrest of the embattled singer. Gayle King of CBS News questioned R. Kelly about his accusations and he melted down on national television, crying and denying the claims of his victims. Kelly has been dropped from his label, and he’s teetering on bankruptcy.

In 1991, when Clarence Thomas appeared before a Senate committee to defend himself from allegations of sexual harassment by former co-worker Anita Hill — she said he made passes at her and used sexually explicit language despite her asking him not to — he described the hearing as a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”

In his testimony, Thomas made a deliberate attempt to frame the issue as racial, claiming that the United States doesn’t want to see conservative black men ascend to the Supreme Court. “You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. — U.S. Senate — rather than hung from a tree.”

Bringing up lynchings in these cases is profiting off the very real horrors inflicted on black people. All for personal gain.

Therein lies the problem, however: Thomas was not facing any jail time. He wasn’t facing death by brutal beating and hanging by a white mob. What Thomas faced (at the time he had a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit) was the possibility of not getting a promotion.

Thomas trivialized horrific black death. But in many ways, his strategy worked — he’s a Supreme Court Justice — and helped set the blueprint for black men during times of public and/or legal peril. In May 2018, Bill Cosby’s wife, Camille, took to social media as her husband faced the prospect of prison time for allegations of sexual assault — he had long been accused of sedating and assaulting women. Cosby claimed that her husband had been a victim of “lynch mobs.”

The language hearkens back to the root of so many lynchings: the paranoia that black men would use their post-emancipation freedom to rape white women. The manner in which the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation portrayed savage freedmen who victimized white women led to a newfound enthusiasm for the Ku Klux Klan and a rise in lynchings.

Black men were burned alive, beaten and strung up on trees while white spectators gawked. The language of “lynching” makes a direct connection between false sexual assault accusations and the historic terrorism of lynching deaths. The commodification of the history of lynching is intentional, direct and manipulative.

Lynching represents unjust persecution, generational trauma and a public display of black death. To use something that has caused the end of so many innocent black lives as a protective cover for black men who face some jail time or career inconveniences is an attempt to use dead black bodies to garner sympathy. It’s disgusting.

And sometimes it works. The racial sentiments brought up by the use of the word “lynch” and the painful imagery it calls up often rile black folk who want to defend them and garner pity from white people who are still figuring out how to reckon with their history of racial terror.

It’s only natural to have these kinds of inclinations, as there is a documented history of powerful black men being cut down in America by white-led establishments — whether that be the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali’s disenfranchisement from boxing or Colin Kaepernick’s forced exile from the NFL.

But that precedent doesn’t apply to every black man, especially those who have sexual assault allegations that must be addressed. Thomas’ use of race and lynching helped place him on the Supreme Court. Cosby’s insertion of race into the discussion worked with conspiracy theories that he was trying to buy NBC and had used his power as a black man to the point of becoming a target. Jackson, who is being accused exclusively by white men, is held up as a black man who is a victim of a desire to strip him of the Beatles catalog and a general need to take down a black man who happens to be the biggest global entertainment icon the world has ever seen.

But to say that any of these men are, say, Emmett Till (who was accused of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955 and subsequently beaten to death) is absurd and an insult to the life the teenage lynching victim lived. And it’s an insult to the manner in which he was violently killed.

Lynching is a reminder of the hatred that still exists and is even growing in this country. The easy recourse is to brush the entire history under the rug. The harder, more crucial work is truly reckoning with the toll that lynching has taken.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.