We seem to be having one of those moments when a series of controversies come in rapid succession and make everyone newly aware of the relationship between language, ideas, and actions. And naturally, it revolves around our eternal national wound of race.
Nevertheless, it's nice to see that in a few of these controversies, we aren't actually arguing about what words mean. This is often a focus of disagreement when somebody says something that other people take offense at; for instance, when Paul Ryan said a few weeks ago that "[w]e have got this tailspin of culture in our inner cities, in particular, of men not working, and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value of the culture of work," conservatives believed he was being unfairly tagged as racist for using a common phrase, while liberals objected to the connection between the word and the idea that followed. There's nothing racist about the term "inner city" in and of itself, but when people say it they are usually referring to urban areas where black people are concentrated, and when you then describe a pathological laziness that is supposedly prevalent there, then you've said something problematic.
But when Cliven Bundy offered his fascinating thoughts on the state of black America, people weren't appalled because of his use of the outdated term "Negro" in "Let me tell you another thing about the Negro." It was what came afterward. He could have said "Let me tell you another thing about the African-American," and it would have been just as bad, and not only because he was about to paint all members of a race with the same ugly brush. (Cliven, it's safe to surmise, would never say "Let me tell you another thing about the white," because the idea that all white people are the same in some fundamental way would be ridiculous to him.) To conservatives' credit, they got this immediately and ran away from Bundy as fast as they could, even if there was still plenty to criticize about the fact that they embraced him in the first place.
And then there's Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who has apparently been caught on tape telling his "girlfriend" (I put that in quotes because there's just no way to even think of a relationship between an 81-year-old billionaire and a 31-year-old model type without being seriously repulsed) that he doesn't want her publicly associating with black people, putting pictures of her with black people, or bringing black people to his games, despite the fact that we're talking about an NBA team here. Even weirder is that the black person in question is Magic Johnson, one of the most revered and beloved sports heroes of the last half-century or so.
A statement released by the Clippers said: "Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life." Which is the kind of thing you say when there's a dispute over the interpretation of a word or phrase. We all say things we don't exactly mean sometimes, or say something in a way that can be misinterpreted. But when you go on and on about how you don't want people to know that your "girlfriend" hangs out with black people, that's hard to misinterpret. And so, no one is defending Sterling. Some ridiculous conservatives have tried to make the case that since he donated money to a couple of Democrats a couple of decades ago that this is yet more evidence that Democrats are The Real Racists (Michael Tomasky vivisects that here), but not even many of their compatriots are going to bother with that.
As Jay Smooth points out, it's interesting that Sterling's longstanding and widely known record of racist actions, like trying to keep blacks and Hispanics out of rental buildings he owns, weren't enough to generate calls for him to get booted from the NBA, but some racists words were. Despite all our arguments about the ambiguities of language, it's his language—or, more properly, his ideas expressed through language—that everyone can agree on. And there wasn't a racial slur in his conversation, as though he knows which words are OK to use and which ones aren't, but he still thinks it's OK to express racism toward black people, so long as you just call them "black people."
Which brings us back to Paul Ryan. McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed has a piece out today about Ryan that features this exchange:
At one point, as he tells me about his efforts during the presidential race to get the Romney campaign to spend more time in urban areas, he says, "I wanted to do these inner-city tours—" then he stops abruptly and corrects himself. "I guess we’re not supposed to use that."
His eyes dart back and forth for a moment as he searches for words that won’t rain down more charges of racism. "These…these…"
I suggest that the term is appropriate in this context, since it is obviously intended as an innocuous description of place. He’s unconvinced, and eventually settles on a retreat to imprecision: "I mean, I wanted to take our ideas and principles everywhere, and try for everybody’s vote. I just thought, morally speaking, it was important to ask everyone for their support."
Ryan is laboring under the misimpression that all he did wrong before was use the term "inner city," and if he banishes that term and any other dangerous ones from his vocabulary, then everything will be cool. Sorry, Congressman—it's not so easy.