If you want to get under my skin, I mean, really just go there with me, call me or any other African American man an “Uncle Tom.” As Dexter Mullins wrote in a piece for The Grio a few years ago, “Short of dropping the n-bomb on someone, there are few things more insulting to many African Americans than being called an ‘Uncle Tom.’”
Sure, the n-bomb is a kick in the groin. But being called a “Tom” is a kick in the stomach. Every black man you know, at one time or another, has been branded an “Uncle Tom.” I can’t speak for them, but when it has been hurled at me, it’s devastating because the numbskull hurling the epithet is calling you a traitor to your race and to yourself. As if all African Americans are still enslaved, but into one way of thinking or a uniform way of looking at the world.
Which brings me to Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) As Buzzfeed first reported, the 10-term congressman called Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court’s only African American member, an “Uncle Tom.” Maybe he was playing to his audience since he made the disparaging remark on New Nation of Islam radio. This cousin to the Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan is helmed by someone who calls himself The Son of Man.
Then, when confronted by what he said by Dana Bash of CNN, Thompson said the equivalent of “That’s right! I said it!”
Bash: …Clarence Thomas, saying he was an “Uncle Tom.” What did you mean by that?
Thompson: Well if you look at his decisions on the court, they have been adverse to the minority community. And the people I represent have a real issue with an African American not being sensitive to those issues.
Bash: Calling him an ‘Uncle Tom,’ though. Isn’t that a racially charged term?
Thompson: For some it is, but to others it’s the truth.
Bash: Because looking at that and hearing that kind of language, that certainly wouldn’t be appropriate if it was coming from somebody who was white.
Thompson: But I’m black.
Bash: That makes it okay?
Thompson: I mean, you’re asking me the question, and I’m giving you the response. The people that I represent, for the most part, have a real issue with those decisions–voter ID, affirmative action, the Affordable Care Act–all those issues are very important and for someone in the court who’s African American and not sensitive to that is a real problem.
No, Rep. Thompson, it’s not okay to call anyone an “Uncle Tom.” And being black does not grant him some kind of waiver to use the racially charged word to put down someone with whom he has valid policy differences. On the high court’s Voting Rights decision last June alone, Thompson could hammer Thomas hard on the merits. Instead, Thompson stooped to slave-era name calling that only made him look small, especially when he repeated the offense.
Now, here’s the irony. Thompson’s appearance on New Nation of Islam radio was billed as an interview to discuss “the racists in the government and how President Obama has been treated with more disrespect than any other U.S. President in history.” Let that marinate. Thompson cheapened his differences with Thomas by being equally disrespectful and racially reckless.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj