The Pursuit of Racial Sensitivity Keeps Tripping Over Words

By Trevor W. Coleman, Editorial Page Writer
Detroit Free Press, Thursday, February 4, 1999
� Copyright 1999 Detroit Free Press

I once attended a party at which I was the only black person. I remembered it as I heard about America's latest flap over racial politics, language and sensitivity -- the forced resignation of a white Washington, D.C., city official who was called on the carpet for using the word "niggardly" in a conversation with two black city employees.

The party I attended was actually a small gathering of struggling young poets. (OK, I admit it. I'm a closet poet.) The host was an elegant older woman with a soft Southern accent. As I recall, her name was Carol.

Carol was the publisher of a small poetry magazine that circulated in mid-Ohio and gave all of us dreamers a shot at being published and maybe winning a little money to boot.

At some point late in the evening, with everyone feeling rather cheery from a few too many drinks, Carol jokingly accused one of the guests of reneging on a deal.

"You know what that makes you?" she blared to the person across the room. "A reneger! That's right, you're just an ole reneger."

The room fell silent, save for a few self-conscious chuckles.

I could sense nervous eyes darting in my direction. Tension was rising.

Somewhere in the middle of the room, Carol's eyes locked on mine. She looked like a deer in the headlights.

Now, of course I knew exactly what it meant to renege. I knew what Carol was trying to say. I had no sense that she was particularly racist or even insensitive to racial issues.

But at that frozen moment in time, I had to wonder, was that phrase really necessary? I stared at her, slowly shaking my head. She said nothing. I didn't either, just letting her feel the discomfort.

The incident revealed the peculiar kind of madness to being black in America today, where racial minorities often have hair-trigger racial sensibilities and whites profoundly underestimate the depth of the psychic damage that racist behavior has done to our society.

This type of madness most recently expressed itself in all its outrageous glory by the ridiculous overreaction to the unfortunate choice of words by David Howard, director of the District of Columbia's Office of the Public Advocate.

It was also manifested in the suspiciously hysterical reaction by so many white talking heads to his ouster.

Howard was let go by the city's new mayor, Anthony Williams, who is black, about two weeks ago. Howard was talking with three of his aides during a budget review, stressing the need to pinch pennies to help D.C. residents in emergencies. He said the city will have to be "niggardly with this fund because it's not going to be a lot of money."

Two of the aides were terribly offended and filed a complaint with the mayor over a perceived racial slur. Howard, who realized he had made a faux pas -- even if he was technically correct to use a word that means miserly but sounds like something else -- apologized and tendered his resignation, which Mayor Williams accepted.

No sooner had the story broken than out from the shadows came all the conservative commentators screeching about those hypersensitive and subliterate Negroes, who have just gone too far.

George Will, Tony Snow and others appeared to be on the verge of apoplectic convulsions, their indignation boiling over into rage against what they perceived not only as that constant pain -- political correctness -- but black racism, too.

These priests of the right -- and stewards of the King's English -- would be a lot more convincing if they ever showed even a modicum of concern about the seemingly endless acts of racial ignorance or even hostility that comes from their side of this nation's great racial divide.

I have yet to see or hear Will, Snow, editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal or any other conservative commentator call on their cronies to denounce and repudiate Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., for their ties to the notoriously racist and anti-Semitic Council of Conservative Citizens.

I know I'm not the only person to have noticed this. But I have yet to see any of them write an intellectually honest or even reasonably thoughtful piece explaining their niggardly views on racial justice.

Instead, what you get are sophomoric arguments in silly columns and commentaries filled with platitudes about color-blindness and the evils of so-called reverse discrimination. Their writings reveal not a hint of understanding about the complexities of America's racial quagmire.

Howard's choice of words -- given the climate where he worked -- was, well, weird. If I worked in an institution dominated by women, I would never use the word bitch to refer to a female dog -- even though I would be grammatically correct.

But Mayor Williams should have never accepted Howard's resignation (a decision he rescinded Wednesday).

He should have simply told him to be a bit more thoughtful in his choice of words. Case closed. Now go back to work.

He should have told the aides to lighten up.

The entire episode, like the one I experienced at the party, was just another racial Rorschach test that we screwed up.

Like the emotionally, spiritually and morally wounded people that we are, both sides continue to see and hear things that are not really there.