Not every unkind comment is hateful or racist
Brent Staples, an African-American columnist for The New York Times, wants to see the word “racist” used more freely.
A few days before the election, in a column with the headline “The Election That Obliterated Euphemisms” Mr. Staples, expressed his pleasure that the media, or at least the print media, had finally gotten it right. To Mr. Staples, it was progress that Donald Trump was finally being called by a name that he said accurately described him: racist. In saying this, Mr. Staples was doing a disservice to truth and intelligent discourse.
Mr. Staples implied that “political journalists” as a group had been cowardly by using euphemisms — softer words — in describing Mr. Trump. Journalists should not have been afraid to label with “racism” or “racist” anyone involved in the election who said things critical of African Americans or any minority.
To Mr. Staples, terms like “racially inflammatory” or “racially insensitive” were euphemisms. Journalists should have had the guts to be inflammatory themselves and not worry about their own insensitivity. They should have done what was being done on social media: Use a broad brush. Social media, Mr. Staples said, had helped “push frank racial discussions to the fore.”
But being truthful requires fine distinctions, an awareness of degree. Journalists — and all people with opinions — should not be afraid to hold back and ask themselves whether a person has really shown himself to be hateful or crass or simply careless. Making an unflattering comment is not necessarily a mark of hatefulness.
In the history of this country, there have been times when epithets were freely thrown about. But we’ve come a long way from slavery, the Jim Crow years, the years of contempt for the Irish and, later, other immigrant groups. Those were years when everyone of a low social standing was considered equally unworthy. No individ- ual distinctions were made. A nasty name applied to everyone of the tribe, nationality or race. We’re beyond that now.
But unfortunately we have smart people today who are too ready to call their opponents names, too ready to use labels like anti-Semitic or misogynistic or xenophobic — or racist. Some people use the maximum label for the cheers it will bring. To zealots, “insensitive” or “inflammatory” are words used by sissies. It is more manly to use the broad brush, to equate the police shooter of a fleeing suspect with the shooter in the Charleston church massacre. Both racists. No significant differences. That’s that.
In the law, the killing of a human being is not simply murder. There is also manslaughter or killing without malice. Taken into account also are such considerations as reasonable provocation or diminished capacity. Call someone simply a murderer and you may be leaving out an important aspect of what happened.
South Africa is a country of mixed populations. There are the indigenous Africans but also significant numbers of people of Dutch and English ancestry and also Jews whose ancestors fled persecution in Eastern Europe. During the years of the brutal apartheid regime, it was tempting to call all white people racists. But there were white people in South Africa then who were important in bringing about the end of apartheid — among them the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Nadine Gordimer. How truthful would it be to refer to all white people who lived in apartheid South Africa as racists? Was every German or Italian alive during the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini a fascist?
In Baltimore, relatively few white people ride the public buses. Sometimes they may intensely dislike behaviors they witness. At other times they may feel great admiration for what they hear or see. If they told a friend about the bad side of riding the bus, would that make the white person a racist?