And you are lynching Negroes
"And you are lynching Negroes" (Russian: "А у вас негров линчуют", A u vas negrov linchuyut) and the later "And you are hanging blacks" are catchphrases that describe or satirize Soviet Union response to United States criticisms of Soviet human rights violations. Use of the phrases like these, exemplifying the tu quoque logical fallacy, was an attempt to deflect criticism of the Soviet Union by referring to racial discrimination and lynching in the United States.
The Soviet media frequently covered racial discrimination, financial crises, and unemployment in the United States, which were identified as failings of the capitalist system that had been erased by state socialism. Lynchings of African Americans were brought up as an embarrassing skeleton in the closet for the U.S., which the Soviets used as a form of rhetorical ammunition when reproached for their own perceived economic and social failings. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the phrase became widespread as a reference to Russian information-warfare tactics. Its use subsequently became widespread in Russia to criticize any form of U.S. policy.
Former Czech president and writer Václav Havel placed the phrase among "commonly canonized demagogical tricks". The Economist described it as a form of whataboutism that grew ubiquitous after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The book Exit from Communism by author Stephen Richards Graubard wrote that it symbolized a divorce from reality. Author Michael Dobson compared it to the idiom the pot calling the kettle black, and called the phrase a "famous example" of tu quoque reasoning. The conservative magazine National Review called it "a bitter Soviet-era punch line", and added "there were a million Cold War variations on the joke". The Israeli newspaper Haaretz described use of the idiom as a form of Soviet propaganda. The British liberal political website Open Democracy called the phrase "a prime example of whataboutism". In her work Security Threats and Public Perception, Elizaveta Gaufman described the fallacy as a tool to reverse someone's argument against them.
The use of the phrase as a reference to demagoguery and hypocrisy is traced to a Russian political joke about a dispute between an American and a Soviet man. After receiving criticism of his country because of the deaths caused by the 1903 anti-Jewish Kishinev pogrom, the Russian Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav von Plehve pointed out "The Russian peasants were driven to frenzy. Excited by race and religious hatred, and under the influence of alcohol, they were worse than the people of the Southern States of America when they lynch negroes." Soviet artist Dmitri Moor produced the lithograph Freedom to the Prisoners of Scottsboro!, after the 1931 trial of the Scottsboro Boys of Alabama. The treatment of the Scottsboro Boys popularized the phrase in usage by the Soviet Union against the U.S. as a form of criticism against those who themselves criticized human rights abuses. In his 1934 book Russia Today: What Can We Learn from It?, Sherwood Eddy wrote: "In the most remote villages of Russia today Americans are frequently asked what they are going to do to the Scottsboro Negro boys and why they lynch Negroes."
Subsequently, when the Soviet Union faced harsh words from the Western world over its civil liberties problems, it employed the phrase as a common retort. In a 1930s argument with black student Pierre Kalmek, Bolshevik politician Dmitry Manuilsky said that in the United States "whites have the privilege to lynch Negroes, but Negroes do not have the privilege to lynch whites." He called this a form of white chauvinism, asking: "Do we have a difference here between the salaries of Negro and white workers? Do we have the right to lynch Negro citizens?"
During the Stalin era, praise for the quality of any aspect of U.S. life prompted the rejoinder "Yes, but they lynch Blacks, don't they?" Throughout the 1930s, white men traveling from the U.S. to the Soviet Union on business reported to the U.S. consulate in Riga, Latvia, that locals asked them about the dichotomy between living in a free society and "the 'lynching' of blacks." The term worked its way into fiction literature books written in the country, and was seen in this context as criticism of foreigners. Years later a science fiction comic, Technique - The Youth - 1948. - No. 2 titled "In a world of crazy fantasy" (Russian: "В мире бредовой фантастики") featured a poem of political attacks on the cover which included a similar line: "Every planet's Negroes are being lynched there."
The phrase became a common witticism used among Soviet citizens; a parable involved a call-in program on Radio Moscow where any question about their living conditions was met with the answer: "In America, they lynch Negroes." A U.S. citizen living in the Soviet Union in 1949 was arrested after complaining the government barred him from work; a local paper made fun of his expectation of fair treatment, writing of the U.S. as "the country where they lynch Negroes." In 1949 Soviet author and war poet Konstantin Simonov gave a speech at a Soviet jubilee event honoring poet Alexander Pushkin, where he delineated between the Soviet Union and the Western world by simply using the phrase to refer to English-speakers: "There is no need for those who hang Negroes to commemorate Pushkin!" Historian Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov wrote in his 1953 book The Reign of Stalin that Soviet media put forth the notion that U.S. citizens "are unanimous in pursuing an anti-colour policy, and that the average American spends his time lynching negroes." Perpetuation of the phrase during the Soviet period engendered negative feelings towards the U.S. from members of the working class.
Growth during the Cold WarEdit
During the Cold War, the leftist French publication Combat used the phrase to criticize the operations of the House Un-American Activities Committee, pointing out what it saw as corruption of "a nation that lynched blacks and hounded anyone accused of 'un-American' activities." Use of the phrase as a tu quoque fallacy grew in popularity in Russia during the 1960s, and was used as a widespread quip between Russians. In this version, an American and a Soviet car salesman argue which country makes better cars. Finally, the American asks: "How many decades does it take an average Soviet man to earn enough money to buy a Soviet car?" After a thoughtful pause, the Soviet replies: "And you are lynching Negroes!" The phrase garnered numerous iterations during the Cold War period. Its pervasiveness in Russian society reflected a strong sense of Soviet socialist patriotism. When the government faced criticism for discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union, the idiom was used with excessively sentimental tone to complain about racism in the United States. It was used as an aphorism among fellow Soviets during the Mikhail Gorbachev period, as an answer to complaints about the lack of civil and political rights including freedom of movement. A variant used during this time as a form of reciprocity when faced with criticism over imprisonment and treatment of Refuseniks, was to put the focus on race in the United States criminal justice system. A similar phrase was used to counter complaints about Soviet transportation inefficiency.
Use in Eastern EuropeEdit
Alternate versions of the phrase have been used in Eastern European satellite countries then-controlled by the Soviet Union, such, that it was ported for usage in Poland. The phrase also saw usage in other languages, including Czech, Hungarian, and Romanian.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the term had become a synecdoche in Russia, as a reference referring to all of Soviet propaganda. During a trip to Washington, D.C., in 1999, then-prime minister of Russia Sergei Stepashin attempted to tell a joke using the phrase as a punchline at a speech before the National Press Club. He faced a disturbing quiet from the audience in response to his attempt at humor, and he later observed those in the U.S. have difficulty understanding the Russian perspective on comedy.
By 2015, the phrase had entered the common lexicon in Russia as a tool to criticize any form of U.S. policy. Russians used the term between themselves so often it became a form of satire, as a ubiquitous rejoinder to all crises dealt with and low quality of life, including purchasing groceries or dealing with road congestion.
Michael Bohm, a U.S. reporter working out of Moscow, became the target of the phrase after appearing on Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovyov, which aired on a major state-run TV channel. Commentator Igor Korotchenko wrote: "people like Bohm dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they lynched Negroes." In a 2015 contribution to the Russian journal International Affairs, Russian Federation Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and editor-in-chief Armen Oganesyan lamented the likelihood a Russian rejoinder to an international treaty's publication by the U.S. State Department would be viewed as a form of the "you lynch Negroes" response. Ryabkov and Oganesyan wrote that this reaction harmed the collaborative process as it was important for nation-states to disagree and enable discourse.
Modified use against UkraineEdit
Journalist Daniel Greenfield noticed in his December 2015 piece for the conservative journal FrontPage Magazine, that Russia began using a similar tactic towards Ukraine during the War in Donbass; adding, that the phrase was a "classic staple of Soviet propaganda." Greenfield wrote, that over time, the phrase lost its meaning after being worn out through repetition: "There's a reason, 'And you are lynching Negroes' became a cliché, a sign of how bankrupt and dishonest Soviet propagandists were."
Agency of African AmericansEdit
It has been argued that African Americans have had a more nuanced position in this issue between the two states, highlighting their agency despite being used for propaganda gains of others. While repeatedly confronting the exploitation of African Americans by and for the gains of Soviet propaganda, African Americans have nevertheless been expanding on such use for the sake of the raised issue of racism and its institutionalization. That this effect of the instrumentalisation is being often lost when discussing the issue, has been critizised.
Journalist George Feifer recounted in a 2009 article how when he traveled to Moscow in 1959 to cover the American National Exhibition, he faced those using the phrase against him. Feifer wrote: "Skilled propagandists stationed among the listeners regularly interrupted to repeat questions intended to discredit me. Why did America tolerate shameful poverty and lynch Negroes?"
In a January 2008 article, The Economist popularized the term whataboutism for the repeated usage of this rhetorical tactic by the Soviet Union. The magazine wrote, that the tactic became overused, and by the time of the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, it had become a figure of speech referring to the entirety of Soviet propaganda.
The 1993 book Exit from Communism, edited by Stephen Richards Graubard, made a similar point, that the term encapsulated an overall divorce from reality: "Perhaps there are and perhaps there are not prison camps in Siberia, perhaps in the United States they do or perhaps they do not lynch blacks ... Ultimately it does not matter whether we are for real or just pretending: it is all just part of the story."
With the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president in late 2008, The New York Times reported that the tactic could see decreased usage: "In Russia, for example, where Soviet leaders used to respond to any American criticism of human rights violations with 'But you hang Negroes,' analysts note that the election of Mr. Obama removes a stain."
During the Ferguson unrest in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white policeman who shot and killed an unarmed black adolescent was not indicted, state-controlled press coverage in Russia was highly critical of racism in the United States. Writing for The Moscow Times, journalist Allison Quinn posited, that coverage of the protests in Ferguson served as an optimal method to distract media from the Ukrainian crisis. Quinn said, "American racism provided a go-to argument of American hypocrisy for years under the Soviet Union, with phrases like 'Well, you lynch negroes' hurled back at the U.S. in response to any allegations of human rights violations in the Soviet Union." She compared the Ferguson unrest coverage by Russia state-controlled media to prior use of this phrase as a form of Soviet propaganda.
Writing in March 2014 for the American liberal magazine The New Republic during the Ukrainian crisis, Julia Ioffe made a similar comparison as Quinn regarding Soviet versus the 2014 use of the technique. Ioffe wrote that the phrase took the form of a "cartoonish reply", and had been extended after the fall of Soviet Russia to a similar strategy used by Vladimir Putin.
In a 2015 article for the conservative magazine National Review, correspondent Kevin D. Williamson called the phrase "a bitter Soviet-era punch line." Williamson pointed out: "There were a million Cold War variations on the joke".
Reporter David Volodzko wrote for the international news magazine The Diplomat in 2015 about "the famous tu quoque argument". The piece said that the term was used as a way to criticize capitalism as practiced in the Western world.
Writing for the British liberal political website Open Democracy in 2015, journalist Maxim Edwards observed: "The phrase 'and you are lynching Negroes' has entered Russian speech as a prime example of whataboutism, a hypothetical response to any American criticism of Soviet policies."
In her 2016 work Security Threats and Public Perception published in October 2016, Elizaveta Gaufman characterized the phrase as a form of reversing someone's line of reasoning against them. Gaufman wrote, that by using this phrase in an argument, one was tacitly refusing to answer queries posted to them and instead responding with condemnations.
Journalist Catherine Putz commented on the phrase in a July 2016 article for the international news magazine The Diplomat, and compared it to use of whataboutism by businessman and politician Donald Trump: "Criticisms of human rights in the Soviet Union were often met with what became a common catchphrase: 'And you are lynching Negroes'." She criticized the folly of its use:
It demands, by default, for a state to argue abroad only in favor of ideals it has achieved the highest perfection in.— Putz (2016)
Writing for ChinaFile after Trump won the 2016 U.S. election, James Palmer feared an increase in racism "would give a brutal new credibility to the old Soviet whataboutism whenever they were challenged on the gulag: 'But in America, you lynch Negroes'."
Writing in July 2016 for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev made a similar comparison: "Trump told [T]he New York Times this week that America is in such a mess in terms of civil liberties that it cannot lecture foreign countries anymore, which is an echo of old Soviet propaganda that responded to American reprimands with the retort 'And you are lynching Negroes'."
Shalev followed up on this analysis in a September 2016 article, writing: "Trump conducts pro-Russian propaganda along the same lines as the old retort 'And You Hang Blacks' with which the Soviets tried to deflect U.S. criticism of their human rights abuses. He isn't troubled by Putin's political opponents being murdered, because 'people get killed here too'."
Similar phrases are used in the languages of Central and Eastern Europe, in different variants.
- Czech: A vy zase bijete černochy! ("And, in turn, you beat up blacks!")
- Hungarian: Amerikában (pedig) verik a négereket ("And in America, they beat up Negroes")
- Polish: A u was Murzynów biją! ("And at your place, they beat up Negroes!")
- Romanian: Da, dar voi linșați negrii! ("Yes, but you are lynching Negroes!")
- Bulgarian: Да, а вие биете негрите! ("Yes, but you are beating up Negroes!")
- Ad hominem
- Black lives matter
- Character assassination
- Clean hands
- Discrediting tactic
- Double standard
- Fallacy of relative privation
- False equivalence
- Lynching in the United States
- Physician, heal thyself
- Poisoning the well
- Psychological projection
- Race card
- Red herring
- Russian political jokes
- The Mote and the Beam
- The pot calling the kettle black
- Two wrongs make a right
- Unclean hands
- Victor's justice
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