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In Defense of Andrew Young
Similar insincerity is evident in the reaction to Allen and the macaca episode, in which the Virginia Republican used the word in reference to a U.S.-born Democratic campaign worker of Indian descent. Imagine for a moment that Allen actually knew that a "macaque" is a kind of monkey, or that in French the term is sometimes used as an insult for North Africans (Allen denied having known about either). Who, then, believes that Allen would use the slur against an opposition campaigner aiming a camera straight at him?
The facts of the case would suggest that Allen just made up something silly on the spot -- something especially clear from the video of the incident, in which Allen, as usual, speaks in his jocular backyard-barbecue tone. His erstwhile attitudes toward Confederate memorabilia and Martin Luther King Jr. Day notwithstanding, was calling young S.R. Sidarth "macaca" graceful? Hardly. But racist? Nonsense.
Allen's faux pas is but the latest case of people being damned for uttering racial epithets that few people even regard as such. In recent months, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and White House press secretary Tony Snow have used the term "tar baby" to refer to sticky situations, only to be assailed for employing what is presumably a slur against black people. Yet I'd wager that not even one in 1,000 Americans is aware that tar baby has historically been a racially tinged insult.
An event in which words really mattered took place in 2005 in New York City, when a young white man, Nicholas Minucci, greeted a young black man, Glenn Moore, with a racial epithet and proceeded to beat the daylights out of him with an aluminum baseball bat. In the trial two months ago, Minucci's lawyers argued that their client was using the word as an affectionate term, as some black men do with one another. The jury disagreed, finding Minucci guilty of a hate crime. Last month, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
With such substantial and genuine cases to grapple with, what possible value is there in paying any attention to tar babies, macacas or wilted vegetables? Well, there is some commercial value, perhaps. After all, the plan by CBS to structure its next "Survivor" show around dueling African American, Asian American, Hispanic and white tribes only shows that an eternal battle between whites and various minority groups has become a kind of cops-and-robbers fantasy in which we can all indulge.
Perhaps "Survivor" and Young are proof, in an odd way, of how far we have come toward getting past race in American society. Only after we have achieved a certain peace can we afford the luxury of such staged television conflicts -- and of speculation on whether the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s right-hand man, of all people, is insensitive to the problems of prejudice.
John H. McWhorter, a linguist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is author of "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America" (Gotham Books).