Andrew Young unwittingly ended his brief tenure as Wal-Mart's ambassador to U.S. cities this month with his remarks about the nation's urban mom and pop shops:

"Those are the people who have been overcharging us -- selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables," he told the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African American weekly. "First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it's Arabs," he added. "Very few black folks own these stores."

Young was hammered so quickly in the national media -- the Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page even suggested that he qualified for a Mel Gibson Sensitivity Prize -- that he immediately stepped down from Wal-Mart and issued mea culpas to the New York Times, CNN and the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

But he apologized too soon. The controversy surrounding his comments -- coming on the heels of Gibsongate, Sen. George Allen's "macaca" fiasco and now the news that the "Survivor" television show will pit different ethnic groups against one another -- only reveals that the civil rights revolution Young once helped lead has taken a detour. Today, when it comes to serious racial issues, political theater has replaced civic engagement.

If Mel Gibson stumbles out of his car and offers a drunken rant about warmongering Jews, we can confidently label him a bigot and use the incident as a reminder of the attitudes the country hopes to leave behind. But Young's case is different. Indeed, "sensitivity" has penetrated the culture so deeply that now everyone is on the hate-speech patrol. As a result, people such as Young are suffering needlessly for making innocent statements. His crime was not his choice of words -- it was his failure to recognize the changing environment in which he uttered them.

The mainstream media have ignored (or remain unaware of) an interesting point concerning Young's allegedly racist comments: His views are in fact common coin among inner-city black people -- the very people the hate-speech patrol so ardently hopes to protect. The notion that non-black owners of corner stores are "interlopers" in African American communities is a staple of black nationalist politics and black talk radio. Young's statement played right into the Sentinel's motto: "The Voice of Our Community Speaking for Itself."

Of course, this decades-old community talking point has its downside. Among less reflective sorts, it encourages an anti-Semitic strain that is indefensible, given how many Jewish people stood alongside blacks during the bloodiest phases of the struggle for civil rights. Jewish civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were dragged from their car, shot dead and left to rot under a Mississippi dam in 1964 -- and 20 years later, Jesse Jackson still called New York City "Hymietown."

But Young is hardly unreflective. He was addressing a real problem: Too many poor blacks have easy access only to corner stores where merchandise is, in fact, stale, bad and wilted. In the small, all-black New Jersey town of Lawnside where I spent part of my childhood, a few such stores still remained, and I will never forget buying a bag of potato chips with an expiration date of 1978 -- in 1983! The shopkeeper in this case was black, however, and Young mentioned in the interview that black shopkeepers have charged their communities high prices as well.

So why did Young raise the ethnicity of the shopkeepers at all? I suspect he did so to reinforce a sense of group solidarity; after all, the interview was with a black newspaper, not National Public Radio. As a friend of mine once put it, the black community would be better off if we owned more of our own stuff (though he used a different word beginning with "s"). To me, listing the shopkeepers' ethnicities is less about xenophobia than about stressing self-sufficiency -- something even those obsessed with policing hate speech should cheer.

Perhaps unaware that his Sentinel interview would travel so widely through the blogosphere and the national media, Young was, in his own way, using black America's private language rather than its public one. In that private language, the shopkeeper issue implies a positive vision of old black communities, where African Americans both owned and shopped in such stores.

Moreover, Young has always labored under the sneaking suspicion that he may not really be "one of us." In 1961, he had to be reminded to eat a brown-bag lunch with poor, uneducated black activist trainees rather than consume a more elegant meal by himself. Helping to supervise marches and protests in the 1960s against bigots with attack dogs and guns, Young was often the one tamping down what he once called "misguided enthusiasm and impetuosity" -- the hard-core militancy that has such currency in black culture today. Is it really so hard to understand, then, why he would flag the shopkeepers' non-blackness when talking to a black newspaper?

The rebukes of Young have been almost cartoonishly excessive given the nature of his alleged offense. It seems that the self-righteousness of "outing" Young is a motivation in itself, surpassing any genuine feeling that real social harm has been done.

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).