The N-Word

Today’s Washington Post has a long, thoughtful piece on the “n-word” — the most hateful, racially charged word in the English language.  It’s worth reading in full.  And here is the uncomfortable issue that the article explores:  can the n-word, which in its a-ending form has become increasingly prevalent in youth culture, be redefined and eventually stripped of its racist connotations, or should the use of the word, in any variation, just be stopped?

This year the National Football League has empowered referees to penalize teams whose players use the n-word.  It’s the NFL’s response to several recent incidents with racial overtones — but the decision to penalize the use of the word has been criticized by many players as out of touch with the common use of the word among younger people of different races.  Indeed, internet search engines indicate that, in its a-ending form, the n-word is used 500,000 times a day on Twitter.  The resurgence of the n-word among young people is often attributed to hip-hop culture, where the word is commonly used in the lyrics, and even the titles, of popular songs.  The Post article recounts a story about a recent Kanye West concert where the performer gave white concertgoers permission to say the word as they sang along with his songs, and they did so.

I don’t listen to hip-hop music, and I was unaware of the extent to which the n-word has been reintroduced in the vernacular of the younger generation.  I think that development is very troubling and unfortunate.  I don’t think American culture should follow the lead of rappers in the use of the n-word any more than it should in adopting the misogynistic, twerking, gunfire-at-every-party elements of hip-hop culture, either.

There is a generational element to this issue; for those of us who grew up during the days of the Civil Rights marches and police dogs being unleashed to attack peaceful protesters, the n-word is unforgivable.  I don’t care if a hip-hop artist gives me permission to say it.  I won’t use the word because I don’t want to be linked in any way to the brutal racists of the past, and I do not believe that — changed ending or not — the word can ever be sanitized and divorced from its violent, terrible roots.

So put me in the NFL’s camp on this one.  It may prove to be impossible to stop the use of the n-word, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  Young people should be educated about why the word is so hurtful and discouraged from using it.  I agree with Denyce Graves, the terrific opera singer, who is quoted in the Post article as saying:  “I know we will never be rid of this word, [but] I would love to see it just vanish.”  I say, let it die.

Keeping Track Of Uncle Mack

10502429_944538671533_2387090454819837848_nFacebook obviously has its faults, but it’s got one huge virtue — it makes it so much easier to keep track of what your friends and family members are doing.  Take Uncle Mack, for example.  What’s the lawyer/saxophonist/actor/occasional Webner House contributor in the family up to?  It turns out he’s been working on a film called The Orangeburg Massacre.  Calhoun ‘da Creator’ Cornwell is the motivating force behind the movie, and his Facebook page has lots of information about it, including the photo above in which Uncle Mack is prominently featured.  A trailer for the film is due in the near future, and I’ll post it when I see it.

The Orangeburg Massacre is the name given to the incident in which South Carolina Highway Patrolmen opened fire on students at South Carolina State College, who had been protesting in an effort to achieve desegregation of a bowling alley.  Three African-American students were killed and and 27 people were wounded in the shooting, which occurred on February 8, 1968 — more than three years before the much more well known Kent State shootings.  Does anyone doubt that the relative notoriety of the two incidents has at least some relationship to the race of the students who were victims?  It is wonderful that a film is being made about the Orangeburg Massacre, 45 years later.

Some people retire and do nothing except work on their tans and frequent Early Bird specials at local restaurants; others use their newfound free time to explore new interests and expand their horizons.  Uncle Mack is squarely in the latter camp, and I think what he is doing is pretty cool. I don’t know anything about the movie or his role, but I am proud of his willingness to tackle it and, we can hope, contribute to greater awareness of a shameful, racist chapter in American history.

The President Speaks About Race

Today President Obama made an unscheduled appearance in the White House Briefing Room, in order to talk about race and the Trayvon Martin shooting.  The transcript of his remarks, which were extensive, is here.

It’s tough to talk about race in America — even if you are the nation’s first African-American President.  The social and cultural elements of America’s terrible and sordid racial past have made the topic virtually taboo.  We’ve all been in situations where people have tried to talk about race and have said things that, intentionally or inadvertently, cause everyone to cringe.  When that happens often enough, the default option is to not talk at all.  And when people don’t talk about an issue, often it just becomes magnified and increasingly difficult to address.

I believe the President is cautiously trying to encourage a national conversation about race — a conversation, not people shouting at each other, or talking past each other, or limiting their comments to people who they know already agree with them.  As a big believer in free speech, I think that is a very worthy endeavor.  I welcome the President’s comments, which I think were a thoughtful attempt to address an important national issue.  The President walks a fine line when he talks about an individual criminal case and state law issues.  I think the President recognized that fact and gave remarks that were the product of careful deliberation.  If people disagree with him, they should do what the First Amendment contemplates:  respond to speech with more speech.

I had two reactions to the President’s comments after I read the transcript linked above and reflected on his thoughts.  First, I think it is immensely valuable for the President to raise the issue of context, because it helps people like me — an aging white male — to dimly understand what I’ve never personally experienced.  I’ve never had a taxi ignore my outstretched arm for no good reason, or heard car doors lock as I walk by, or shared an elevator with a nervous woman who clutches her purse tighter and avoids eye contact when I walk in.  Understanding context is important, and when the man describing those unfortunate scenarios that are all-too-common for African-American men and boys is the President of the United States, it helps to demonstrate the incongruousness of a knee-jerk racial reaction.  We trust this man with every secret we have and invest him with the authority to act as Commander-in-Chief of all of our armed forces and weaponry, and yet someone didn’t trust him to walk through a store without shoplifting?

The context helps to explain why the Trayvon Martin shooting strikes so deeply for African-Americans.  I am sure that some people will object that the President has personalized the Trayvon Martin shooting — saying previously that Trayvon Martin could have been his son, and today that Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago — but I think it is important for the President to give voice to such feelings.  In order to address the issue in a meaningful way, isn’t it important to understand the intensely personal nature of such reactions?

Second, I do think things are getting better, and that the young people of America are leading the way.  The President thinks, and I agree, that over time race will become less of an issue.  Our challenge is to not get in the way of that cycling-down process.   Angry voices and accusations don’t help.  The President’s comments today were meaningful, but measured.  I hope that those people who disagree with him will be equally thoughtful when they express their views.

Drip, Drip, Drip

Any public relations professional worth her salt will tell you: when you are dealing with an unfavorable news story — one that you know is going to have a negative impact — the best approach is to get ahead of the story, get all of the information out, and at least avoid the possibility that the story becomes a running, multi-day issue.  Lance the boil, drain the pus, and move on.

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign must not employ a public relations person.  If it does, she isn’t very good at her job — because the story of Warren’s alleged Cherokee ancestry has become a never-ending story in Warren’s campaign for election to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts.  Every day, seemingly, there is some new revelation that puts Warren on the defensive, interferes with her intended “message,” and distracts from the issues she thinks are important.

On Wednesday, for example, Warren acknowledged for the first time that two law schools that identified her as Native American did so because she identified herself as such, based on her understanding of “family lore.”  Her admission is just the latest in a series of statements about the issue — some of which arguably are inconsistent — that have just encouraged the press to dig ever deeper into the history of Warren’s employment, whether she identified herself as Native American, and whether there is any proof of actual Cherokee ancestry in her family tree.

I don’t think a candidate’s race, or self-reported minority status, has anything to do with fitness to serve as a U.S. Senator.  On the other hand, I think a candidate’s truthfulness, credibility, and ability to deal with a crisis are relevant — and Warren seems to be falling short in all of those categories.  The Native American story has  dominated the headlines for a month now, and for that Warren has only herself to blame.  Her statements and partial disclosures have a whiff of embarrassed shiftiness about them that have made a minor issue into a major one and, at the same time, made her look evasive and inept.  Although her race shouldn’t affect a voter’s decision about her, her apparent inability to give a satisfactory explanation of her actions reasonably could.

The Uncomfortable, Untenable Weirdness of Discussing A Candidate’s Self-Identified Minority Status

The race for U.S. Senate has taken a weird turn in Massachusetts.  It’s making me very uncomfortable, and I bet I’m not alone in my reaction.

The Democratic candidate is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor.  At times in the past, she identified herself as a minority in a directory of law school professors, and Harvard identified her as native American when it responded to claims that its faculty was non-diverse.  Those matters have now been raised as a campaign issue — had she used her ancestry claim to gain an unfair advantage over other job applicants? — and Warren has been scrambling to substantiate her “family lore” of a native American ancestor.  Genealogists now have concluded that her great-great-great-grandmother, who is therefore responsible for 1/32nd of her genetic makeup, was listed on an Oklahoma marriage certificate as a Cherokee.

I realize that all’s fair in love and political campaigns.  Moreover, I can understand that if a candidate made a bogus claim about her background — by, say, falsely claiming to have served in the military or received a degree from a prestigious school — it would be fair game.  Warren’s story also might cause you to ask what reported diversity statistics really mean, and it might be a topic of conversation in the native American community, as one of the articles linked above suggests.

Still, this story is unsettling.  Whenever people start talking about someone’s “blood” it raises the specter of Nazi racial purity laws or the racial identity statutes enacted long ago in some southern states.  Those are awful, unforgivable chapters in human history, and it’s painful to think about them.

I’ve never thought about my great-great-great-grandmother — whoever she was — but if Warren’s pride in a distant ancestor’s native American heritage caused her to self-identify as native American, too, what difference should that make to a voter?  And if she listed herself as a native American for some other, less salutary reason, can’t we just allow her conscience to do its work without making the matter a political issue?  Can’t we just judge her quality as a candidate based on her positions on the issues, her experience, and other relevant qualities?

The Jarring Questions On The Census Form

Today we filled out the census form for our household.  The form itself is interesting.  You are asked how many people live in your household and whether you own your own home with or without a mortgage, or rent, or “occupy without payment of rent.”  (I guess the latter category refers to people who live in government housing.)  You are asked your telephone number and your name.  And then you are asked a bunch of demographic questions about the members of your household.  What is their gender?  What is their age?  And, most noticeably, are they of “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” and what is their “race” — “white,” “Black, African Am., or Negro,” “Japanese,” or “some other race,” among a number of other options?

The Census Bureau website offers explanations for why each of the questions is asked.  The website states that the Hispanic question (question no. eight) has been asked since 1970 to provide data to federal agencies to use in monitoring compliance with federal anti-discrimination provisions and to state and local agencies to help plan and administer bilingual programs.  With respect to the general “race” question (question no. nine), the website states that “race is key to implementing many federal laws” and that race data are needed to monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, to “assess fairness of employment practices,” to “monitor racial disparities in characteristics such as health and education” and “to plan and obtain funds for public services.”  The website adds that the race-related information also  is used by state and local governments to establish congressional and state voting districts.

The census has a long history of asking demographic and race-related questions.  According to the Census Bureau website, the first U.S. census, which was taken by U.S. marshals in 1790, asked for the name of the head of household and the number of people who fell into various categories — free white males over age 16, free white males under 16, free white females, all other free persons, and slaves.

Nevertheless, you would like to think that by 2010 — decades after our nation’s sordid history of legalized slavery, followed by Jim Crow laws and other forms of legalized bigotry and discrimination, was finally ended by the civil rights movement and the enactment of federal statutes designed to enforce constitutional guarantees of equal protection and to bar discrimination in voting, housing, and employment — we would have gotten past a fixation upon race and counting and categorizing people on racial grounds.  It is jarring, dispiriting, and seemingly inconsistent with the ultimate goal of a color-blind society for a federal government agency to ask people to identify themselves as “black,” “white,” or a member of some other racial group and to say that “race is key to implementing many federal laws.”

Clearly, when it comes to race we haven’t progressed as far or as fast as we might have hoped.  Let’s hope that, when the 2020 census rolls around, the race-related questions are gone and are considered as archaic as the questions asked in 1790.

Not About Race (II)

As the chorus of people claiming that racism is behind the opposition to President Obama’s health care reform proposals grows — including, most recently, former President Carter — it is gratifying to see that the White House is saying that President Obama disagrees with that sentiment. I think the President correctly understands that his proposals, if adopted, would make significant changes to how Americans pay for and use health care and therefore are bound to provoke some strong reactions and disagreements, regardless of the race of the individual who is advocating for those proposals. I very much respect the fact that President Obama is willing to accept the opposition in good faith and at face value and to defend his proposals on their merits, without impugning the opponents as ignorant racists.

As for former President Carter, I think he continues to demonstrate why he was rejected by American voters after serving only one term almost 30 years ago. President Carter was out of touch with the American public when he was President and he has become, if anything, more out of touch in the decades since he left the office. Has President Carter recently spent time with average Americans during breaks in his efforts to mediate various international disputes? What possible factual basis could he have for contending that millions of Americans who now oppose President Obama’s health care reform proposals — including many people who voted for President Obama less than a year ago — are motivated to do so by racial hatred and bigotry?

Comments like those of former President Carter not only harm America’s reputation abroad, they also are terribly destructive of civil political discourse in this country because they demonize, and do not allow for legitimate disagreement on significant issues where there obviously is ample room for legitimate disagreement. Even if President Carter sincerely holds the beliefs he has expressed, and is not merely engaging in cheap political tactics to try to intimidate or embarrass opponents of the President’s health care reforms, he would do the country an enormous service by keeping those beliefs to himself.