‘Virtual Lynching’ and Listserv Rhetoric

As D.C.’s racial makeup is changing, racially-charged rhetoric can end up being used in the typical neighborhood squabbles that happen in many communities. The latest example came across the Brookland neighborhood Listserv, in which an ANC commissioner accused a few people of using the forum to “virtually lynch” a family who have taken years to complete a large home renovation. The family is black and started the work in 2007. The complaining neighbors are white and have raised questions over the Listserv about the size of the project and its documentation, among other concerns.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

A woman checking her email.

Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs director Nicholas Majett wrote an email on the Listerv in January explaining the property had three years’ worth of allegations of illegal building, but that most of the allegations were unsubstantiated. A few citations had been issued and he added that his office was looking into new complaints brought by neighbors.

ANC Commissioner Vaughn Bennett writes in an email to DCentric that he has no regrets with his characterization of situation as a “lynching:”

In the same vein as claiming that a black man whistled at a white woman, the rallying call is that a black man is building a house in violation of the law (which he is not), resulting in the unwarranted outrage and attacks from those hidden behind computer screens.

Consider, how many other houses are being built, (from the ground up), by black men, (or black women), in our neighborhood? How many other homes and homeowners have come under such a sustained “virtual” attack? None. Not even the house under construction in the 1200 block of Evarts where a worker was recently killed by being buried under a collapse of mud.

The Evarts house also had proper work permits, but nonetheless, Bennett writes, “[I] am fully confident that what I said correctly summarized the circumstance and situation. My use of the term ‘virtually lynch’ was not done without due diligence and forethought.” Additionally, one of the homeowners had previously posted an email on the Listserv, writing they are “very tired of people that are neighbors constantly harassing my family on this [Listserv].”

The term “lynching” conjures up images of a tragic history in which black men were killed by white mobs in acts of vigilante justice. One volunteer moderator took down Bennett’s post, asking whether it was necessary to use the term “‘lynching’ whenever two people of different races have a legitimate disagreement. Surely this use of the language cheapens what happened to the people who were actually lynched.”

Allegations of modern-day lynchings are nothing new; the most well-known recent employment of the term was by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as he was preparing to face confirmation hearings. He had been accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, and the allegations were being widely discussed in the media. Thomas said to an all-white, all-male panel of senators who were questioning in a televised hearing:

This is not a closed room. There was an FBI investigation. This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint as a black American, as far as I’m 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 kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree.

Some argue that it was Thomas’ very use of the term that helped him fend off Hill’s accusations.

Emma Coleman Jordan, former counsel to Anita Hill, wrote about Thomas’ use of the term lynching in a 2007 Washington Post editorial:

Lynching is a powerful symbol of America’s racial past precisely because it sits astride a deep and largely invisible divide in the memories of blacks and whites. Blacks and whites sometimes have conflicting and irreconcilable accounts of the use of horrific violence to keep blacks “in their place” between the end of the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Lynching still touches an intensely sensitive nerve because it conjures up multiple images: violent enforcement of residential segregation, brutality and unfairness in the criminal justice system and myths about black male hypersexuality.

Bennett’s use of “lynching” may be seen as very polarizing in what is an otherwise common neighborhood dispute. But as powerful as the term can be, for some the memory of intimidation can be just as powerful.