A Poor Choice of Words

By Jabari Asim
Monday, October 2, 2006; 11:32 AM

WASHINGTON -- Few electoral races have wandered so far into sitcom territory as the Senate contest in Virginia. In recent weeks the battle between Republican incumbent George Allen and Democratic challenger James Webb has heated up considerably while the men go toe-to-toe -- or slur-to-slur, depending on whom you believe. The unsightly clash got uglier following Allen's videotaped ridiculing of an Indian-American Webb supporter as a "macaca" which, as lots of folks now know, can be an insult aimed at dark-skinned people.

Since the macaca mess, figures from both candidates' pasts have emerged to accuse them of using the N-word when discussing African-Americans. Allen vehemently denies ever using the word. Webb also denies having spoken it, although at first he appeared to sidestep the issue. "I don't think that there's anyone who grew up around the South that hasn't had the word pass through their lips at one time in their life," he initially said. But his aides quickly rushed forward to clean that up.

If Southerners feel particularly picked on by Webb's waffling, they have a point. After all, the epithet has passed through quite a few Northern, Western and Midwestern lips as well. It's an all-American insult and, despite the efforts of some to "disempower" the word, it still exudes an eye-watering stench.

Just ask Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the long-serving former Klansman from West Virginia who got in trouble five years ago for using the word during a televised interview. He quickly apologized and suggested that all the ado was overdone. "We talk about race too much," he observed. "I think those problems are largely behind us."

Largely, yes, but not so completely that rumors of political figures using the N-word can be easily brushed aside. Our nation's history of racist beliefs and practices stick so tenaciously to the epithet that even quoting it in a news column risks turning off readers. Tiptoeing around it sometimes causes more problems than it prevents, however. If I may paraphrase Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin, if one is not willing to expose racist language, how can one effectively critique racism?

Imagine trying, as I am now, to write about the intimate relationship between this very controversial slur and the American political tradition -- and my editors won't even allow me to use the slur. Let's say I want to discuss Sen. Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman of South Carolina, who was notably dismayed when Booker T. Washington met with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. The event, he said, would "necessitate our killing a thousand (N-words) in the South before they will learn their place again."

Or George Wallace who, after losing the Alabama governor's race in 1958, told Barbour County District Attorney Seymore Trammell, "I was out-(N-worded) by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be out-(N-worded) again."

Or the Southern legislator who in 1963 reportedly asked freshman Sen. Daniel Inouye why "the N-words" couldn't be more like the Asians.

Doesn't quite have the same sting, does it?

Although, if I'm lucky, you'll note that 100 years passed between Tillman's remark and Byrd's, with the N-word retaining its power to provoke and offend.

Meanwhile, back in the Old Dominion, both the Allen and Webb camps say they want to move beyond the slur-slinging and get back to the "real" issues. Not so fast, fellows. Whether or not one uses the N-word isn't one of those "distraction" issues like flag burning; it's a character issue. While it is true that a politician who indulges in racist rhetoric can be capable of practicing an entirely different kind of politics (see LBJ), choosing to demean African-Americans in such an ugly fashion raises reasonable questions about not just one's political judgment but also one's common sense.

It suggests an emotional investment in what social scientist Gunnar Myrdal called a set of false beliefs with a purpose. Like a fondness for nooses and Confederate flags, it reflects a misplaced nostalgia that should rightly raise alarms among wary voters. If either candidate is found to have uttered the word, he should own up to it and testify that he has since found enlightenment. What did Trent Lott call his woeful song of praise to segregation a few years back? "A poor choice of words." Yeah, that would work.

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