Wednesday 12 November 2014

What's in a name? Ask Loretta Lynch

During the American War of Independence (or Revolutionary War) a Virginia planter and magistrate called Charles Lynch, the son of a poor Irish immigrant, was in the habit of locking up supporters of the British without trial. His friends in Congress protected him from prosecution after the fact by legalising these questionable activities. This is the likely origin of the US term Lynch Law for any kind of pseudo-judicial punishment and, by extension, the word lynching for a mob execution by hanging.

After the Civil War and Emancipation, lynching became mainly associated with the murder of black men by gangs of white men (though victims were not exclusively black and a small but significant minority were female). According to research at the University of Missouri, nearly 3,500 African Americans were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968. The circumstances varied, but the overarching purpose was to maintain white control in the southern states by intimidating African Americans into accepting their servile status. Black people were discouraged by whatever means necessary from voting, acquiring education, or challenging white authority.

Civil Rights legislation changed all that – up to a point. Young African American men are still disproportionately stopped and searched, pulled over, harassed, charged, convicted and locked up. Extra-judicial executions now take the form of shootings of unarmed black men and teenage boys by police officers or by vigilantes encouraged by a new wave of 'stand your ground' laws.

The Supreme Court has recently opened the door to discriminatory voting legislation in individual states, designed to make it harder for certain sections of the population to vote, particularly those without settled addresses or the time to wait in long lines at inconveniently placed polling stations during the working week. Along with the overlapping categories of students, poor people, and the footloose renter class, minority populations are disproportionately affected.

Eric Holder, Attorney General for the past six years, has been outspoken on these issues. Now that Holder has decided to step down, Obama has nominated Loretta Lynch, who is currently the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. If appointed she will be the second African American, the second woman, and the first African American woman to hold the post.

The child of a Baptist minister and a school librarian, Lynch was born, as it happens, in Greensboro, North Carolina, a town significant in the history of the Civil Rights movement for the 1960 sit-in by black students at Woolworth’s lunch counter in defiance of the whites-only policy. Lynch is unquestionably qualified to be Attorney General, though the smear campaign against her, by people who would object to anyone chosen by Obama, has already begun.

The name Lynch derives from the Gaelic word meaning ‘longship’ or ‘mariner’. I don’t know where Loretta Lynch got it from, but I’m willing to guess that her ancestors acquired it unwillingly from a plantation owner of Irish heritage. I hope she's appointed. It would be heartening to think that she might do something to rehabilitate this ancient Irish name in the context of American racial politics.