When did individual groups of people begin to own words?
Was it 1993, 2009, 2017 or some other year to which one can assign a date? And who gives permission for groups of people to own words, to forbid they be uttered by anyone other than the group in the mood to feel aggrieved?
We speak today of the word "lynching," used recently by President Donald Trump in a tweet bemoaning the situation in which he finds himself, an impeachment investigation over what many believe is questionable behavior about the Ukraine and assistance for that country.
"So some day," he tweeted, "if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching. But we will WIN!"
As soon as the tweet was, well, tweeted, the racist criticism began. Trump can't use that phrase. Doesn't he know it's offensive to use a phrase that in the past referred to the unwarranted killings of blacks over alleged incidents without due process?
While one might argue that there is so far a lack of due process for the president about impeachment proceedings, here's a hint for all those criticizing the president over his use of the term "lynching." You're giving him way too much credit.
Trump may know a lot about business, may have made some creditable decisions as president and may have changed his stripes to be more supportive of conservative social issues than he'd made plain in the past. But Trump was talking about himself when he used the word "lynching," not tweaking blacks with a word negatively associated with the past.
A president who has helped bring black unemployment to record lows and raise middle-class wages for blacks has no truck with insulting a race that is likely to increase its percentage of votes for him in 2020 compared to 2016.
Trump likely used "lynching" with thoughts similar to those in our New Oxford American Dictionary — "kill, especially by hanging, for an alleged offense with or without a legal trial."
The president, of course, is not physically being killed but was referring, especially, to the "alleged offense ... without a legal trial."
He also likely had no idea of the phrase's origination, which is thought to refer to the roundup by Capt. Charles Lynch and other Virginia officials around 1780 of suspects loyal to England, not blacks, who were then given summary trials by informal courts and punished.
But returning to the ownership of the word, we think immediately of two other folks in political circles who uttered the word prominently without any controversy.
The first of those is former Vice President Joe Biden, who slammed Trump's use of the word earlier this week and called it "despicable." Only hours later, 1998 CNN footage emerged of then-Sen. Biden — speaking about the potential impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton — saying "history is going to question whether or not this was just a partisan lynching."
Confronted with the hypocrisy, the 2020 presidential candidate did the only thing he could do after criticizing the president. He apologized, saying, "This wasn't the right word to use, and I'm sorry about that."
But it was what he felt in 1998, apparently before the word acquired ownership.
The second use of the word came from a black man, then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who — coincidentally after an offer to speak from Biden — called his 1991 hearing "a high-tech lynching." A conservative nominated by a Republican president, he lambasted Biden and other Democratic senators for the purely political nature of the hearing, saying it was designed "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."
Afterward, no one questioned the nominee's use of the word "lynching," but Democrats and their media cohorts were quick to defend everything that occurred in the hearing.
Was Thomas wrong to use the phrase? Was it OK because he is black? Would it be wrong for him to use it now, though he is black?
In truth, what now-Justice Thomas said after he used the term "lynching" is what is instructive. If all of culture had followed his directives — to think for yourself, to do for yourself, to have different ideas and not kowtow to an old order — no one would have questioned Trump's 2019 use of the word, or Biden's. And we wouldn't have to worry about what year people began to own words.