Nothing, it seems, quite concentrates the mind nowadays like a little selective outrage — with a dash of blame-shifting thrown in for good measure.
Such is the state of play since it was discovered that Rick Perry, Texas Governor and 2012 presidential candidate, once leased a ranch that featured a rock emblazoned with the n-word. The Perry camp contends the offending stone was eventually bowdlerized back in the early 80s, but that didn’t deter Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) from pushing a resolution on the House floor to condemn Gov. Perry.
Although the measure failed by a wide margin, the controversy has sucked much of the oxygen out of the political news cycle this week.
Rep. Jackson’s inapposite resolution, like the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests currently roiling New York City, is a woefully misguided crusade that strikes the wrong target.
One can certainly argue Gov. Perry’s partial leasing of the property in question reflects poor judgment. That said, it was nearly 30 years ago, and it’s now clearly been excavated for political purposes.
My own self-censorship when using the word reflects our collective cultural skittishness with one of history’s more repulsive insults, and with good reason. But the Rick Perry imbroglio reveals an altogether inconvenient truth: outrage over the n-word’s use connotes a double standard that wilts under scrutiny.
A discussion about the controversy on the daytime talk show The View this week underscores this dynamic. Co-host Sherri Shepherd freely confessed that Whoopi Goldberg’s use of the n-word was permissible; meanwhile, the decidedly Caucasian Barbara Walters’ utterance was offensive to her.
And therein lies the problem. One of the world’s most imprecatory words has over time metamorphosed into, for lack of a better phrase, a term of endearment. Efforts to consign the epithet to the dustbin of linguistic history have consistently fallen short. The reasoning behind that seems simple: the people who often scream the loudest whenever the word is used bear the most guilt for using it in such promiscuous fashion.
The evidence of this double standard abounds. Harvard Law Scholar Randall Kennedy once used the n-word as the title of a thought-provoking book designed to deconstruct our societal restiveness about its use. A much less scholarly effort came via rap artist Nas (one of countless rappers who frequently use the n-word in his music), who famously christened his 2008 CD with the word, only to backtrack and name it the anodyne Untitled.
Meanwhile, comedian Chris Rock once engaged in an infamous riff about the difference between average blacks and those he thought fit the n-word’s vile connotation. And let’s not get started on Paul Mooney and the late Richard Pryor, who in their heyday deployed the word with ruthless efficiency.
Rep. Jackson’s manufactured outrage du jour cuts to what really lies at the heart of this controversy. The use of the n-word, and the sliding scale of judgment for those caught anywhere within a thousand miles of its use, has become Orwellian in its proportion. The word is willfully and regularly exploited by the very group it was meant to wound, only to use it as a cudgel on whites when they follow suit.
Like his cohorts in the Congressional Black Caucus and those currently “occupying” Wall Street, Rep. Jackson appears consumed with finding new ways to divert attention from both the legitimate problems plaguing the country and his own personal and political shortcomings. In the context of intractable joblessness, a stuttering economy, a bloated government and political gridlock, the Congressman’s sound and fury signifies nothing.
Rep. Jackson’s homilectic at Gov. Perry is misdirected at best, and insincere at its very worst. Like columnist Charles Krauthammer once said when he took creative liberty with an old Samuel Johnson quote, accusations of racism are the refuge of a scoundrel.
Until the word is decommissioned altogether (and most people don’t believe it will), Rep. Jackson would be better off lashing out at the rappers and cultural mavens who continue to use the n-word with such unabashed profligacy. Or better still, he ought to direct his efforts at the problems his constituents actually elected him to address.