Real lynchings and the worst face of whiteness

When the president likened his impending impeachment to a lynching, several things exploded in my brain. The first explosion was that he has to be trying to distract us from his impending impeachment. The problem there is that he’s a racist and racism is not a distraction. It’s another separate, very real and all too often deadly problem.

The second idea that fired off in my head was that there is no language for his situation. Lynchings were how a white male power structure punished Black people. The president often claims to be a victim of a witch hunt—how a white male power structure punished women. If you are a white male, the power structure that supports you will not punish you. This is not to say white men don’t get punished by a system, just that being white isn’t the cause for their punishment. In other words, white guys don’t get pulled over for being white guys, no political party is trying to take away the white guy vote, etc., on and on, ad infinitum.

The third thought that fired off in my head was about my grandfather, Gus. He was born in 1890, less than 15 miles outside of Waco and he didn’t know any white people. Everyone in his neighborhood, everyone he worked with, everyone at his church and everyone in his family was Black. He only ever even heard about white people when something bad happened.

Between 1882 and 1930 there were 492 recorded lynchings in Texas. In 1916, when Gus was 25 years old, Waco was thought of as a particularly forward-thinking and progressive place. That same year in Waco was when Jesse Washington was lynched.

Jesse was 17 years old and had been accused of raping and murdering his white boss’ white wife. Even though it was probably his white boss who killed her, Jesse was given a “trial” and convicted. Immediately following his conviction, a mob came into the court, wrapped a chain around Jesse’s neck and dragged him outside. They marched Jesse up and down the block while people in the street beat and stabbed him. Then they castrated him. Then he was chained up, his fingers cut off to keep him from climbing the chain. They covered him in oil and raised and lowered him over a fire for two hours, occasionally cutting and stabbing him to keep him conscious. This all happened in front of 10,000 cheering white people. After Jesse eventually died, his body was dragged through the streets and picked apart, teeth and toes and other pieces of his corpse sold as souvenirs. Photos were taken and turned into postcards. Jesse’s lynching would be known all over the country as The Waco Horror.

In the weeks that followed, the newspapers spoke very little of the Waco Horror. When the rare editorial spoke out against the lynching, the response from other editorials called them “Holier than thou.”

That’s what whiteness was to Gus. It wasn’t the innocent mildness that it associates with itself. It wasn’t Donna Reed or Goop. It didn’t give him a heartfelt smile or make him roll his eyes with embarrassment. It wasn’t anything close to innocuous and it certainly wasn’t any kind of victimhood. Whiteness was only what it showed itself to be, and all it ever showed Gus was a ruthless and deliberate and all too often deadly animosity.

Gus died in 1957. So much of the world changed in his lifetime. So much more has changed since, but were he alive today, I think the president would seem very familiar to him.

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