Oh, why are people so confused?
This week, Robert Copeland, the 82-year-old police commissioner in Wolfeboro, N.H., resignedl under pressure after publicly and loudly using the N-word to describe President Obama. He not only admitted to doing so and refused to apologize, but
. "For this, I do not apologize -- [Obama] meets and exceeds my criteria for such."
I have known all my life that know there are racists in lily-white New Hampshire. I grew up among them. Jokes about blacks were a staple of one branch of my extended family. I have a cousin who loves n*gger jokes; he actually told one to me at the collation after my mother's funeral in 2002. Maybe he thought it would cheer me up. Shame on me, but I smiled politely, not wanting to cause a fuss. We haven't spoken since. I also had a grand uncle who didn't understand what the big deal about the N-word was about. Speaking about a black coworker from the 1930s or 1940s, he said, "Yeah, we had a guy we called 'N*gger Charlie,' and it didn't bother him." Thanks for the civics lesson, Uncle Al. Blacks in that era who objected to their treatment were listened to politely, right?
Anyway, there are several responses to the Wolfeboro story. One is outrage. It can seem a bit mindless, and consists of people upset, on principle, about any use of the N-word. Not having grown up among blacks, they know its a bad word used by bad people. Hence it's verboten. It's a well-meaning response, but a little shallow and scary since it has so little thinking or experience to back it up.
But other varieties of responses go into the weeds. I have run into those who won't deal with what Copeland said, but demand that his detractors address racist language used by Copeland's foes. "How about Al Sharpton, huh? He said racist things and the liberals didn't call for him to resign." That's pretty pathetic reasoning. These folks obviously didn't pay attention when their moms told them that "two wrongs don't make a right." But they aren't really interested in justice for all sides. Intentionally or not, they end up defending people like Copeland, since they have a bottomless well of perceived slights that must be addressed before they would consider admit wrongdoing. And who knows whether they would apologize even after their wounds have been completely healed? People like this have a permanent sense of grievance that no amount of apologizing will assuage. They like to be victims. They enjoy feeling persecuted. It gives them a sense virtue to be harassed by the mob -- like Christians in the arena. Problem is, their cause is not very Christian. And it's not very convincing to sit in a culturally privileged position and think you're being persecuted.
But then there is the curse-on-both-your-houses group that might be unhappy with Copeland's use of the N-word, but think that outrage against him is also silly. They argue that outrage against using the N-word is itself a crime against the First Amendment, and is just a form of political correctness.Whatever happened to "Sticks and stones my break my bones, but words will never hurt me"? This shows appalling ignorance of a period in living memory (I would argue that it is happening today) when mere names gave rise to laws and cultures that promoted segregation and violence against blacks.Throughout history, the N-word has served as a potent means of denigrating blacks and denying them their civil rights, often with the complicity of the police themselves. Using the word has social, political and economic weight that makes it especially fraught. Avoiding a word that was used to harass, intimidate and disenfranchise an entire class of human beings is not a matter of liberal oversensitivity. It's a matter of civics and American values.
If our society is to stand for fairness and equality under the law, we should expect that the people charged with enforcing those laws to do so with fairness and equality. Any suggestion that they might favor one group over another should be challenged. In the conflict between speech rights and civil rights, the free use of the N-word has to be limited. Tell your idiot friends all the black jokes that you want to. But when you are charged with protecting the public -- all of the public -- at least have the brains to keep your bigoted opinions to yourself.
Sticks and stones aside, words do hurt, because they communicate how worthy or worthless we are in others' eyes. Words (and the social constructs behind them) affect the places we are allowed to live, the banks that will serve us, the schools that will educate us and the jobs that will sustain us. Words haunt our past, bedevil our present and shape our future
I'm glad that Robert Copeland had the brains to resign. It would have been better if he had the heart to see his mistake and to apologize too. But if he thought his words would have found a better reception, he was wrong. For that, and for the citizens of Wolfeboro who demanded his ouster, I give thanks. The fight for civil rights and a civil society is not something that happened in the 1960s and has been settled. We are not yet in a post-racial society. Not by a long shot. The fight for justice will continue to be fought as long as there are people who seek to vest only those like themselves (whether by race, religion or gender) with more civil power than is afforded to others.