The relationship between racism, racists, vulgarity, and political correctness
Wednesday was a sad day for me. My alma mater was in the news, and it wasn’t good news. The president of the high school announced that the principal had “retired” after the school was made aware of a short video clip of the principal which included racial and anti-Semitic slurs.
The principal was videotaped saying, “That way, I could take care of the [slur for African-Americans] and the [slur for Jewish people].” The video clip was apparently edited, with no content before or after that sentence.
The school president released a statement, “We recently were made aware of a six-second video-clip from the past with a statement which includes inflammatory language. The video clip, which is under review, has no context and was being secretly recorded, but clearly, the language is inappropriate. We will not tolerate inflammatory language in any context.”
The president of the local branch of the NAACP, called the language in the video “unacceptable…. I just don’t think a person of that authority should be talking like that. No matter where. No matter when. It hurts. It’s painful. It conjures up a past that was horrific for people both in the black and the Jewish community.”
The very next day, in Washington, DC, Carl Higbie resigned on Thursday as chief of external affairs for AmeriCorps after racist, sexist, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT comments he made on the radio came to light.
Across the border to the north, one of our neighbor’s Kristine Eidsvik, a justice on the Court of Queen’s Bench, was quoted as saying that she often feels uncomfortable having to walk into a room “full of big dark people” during judicial dispute resolutions, and that she was used to being in an “ivory tower,” where she’s “removed from the riff-raff.” Earlier this week, Justice Eidsvik resigned.
And last November, Rev. Jamie Johnson, head of the Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Homeland Security, has resigned after a CNN report revealing racist comments he made towards black communities and Islam. What is going on? Is this journalistic gotchism?
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Obviously, the principal of my high school made a colossal error in judgment. Period. Having known the principal, my first thoughts were of sadness for him and the inevitable sentiment, “I know he’s not like that” and “he’s actually such a good guy.” I am ashamed that I didn’t first think of the African-American and Jewish students, alums, and parents. I can’t imagine the sense of betrayal that Jewish and African-American stakeholders must feel. And the faith perspective: for a leader in a community with a clearly espoused belief system of respect for all God’s children, for that leader to use words that contradict the school mission. And the financial consideration: to pay thousands of dollars in tuition and hear a leader of the school speak in slurs to describe members of the community so derogatively.
But I know the former principal. And I think he’s a good guy. I think it was “just locker room talk” and he was probably “just being funny.” But it’s not funny. Such language may have been accepted by society years ago, but it was never funny. I know men, both in the school community as well as in my own family, who are older and would never use such terminology. Perhaps it is a reflection of locker room culture? After all, the former principal was also a coach for years at the school. But, on the other hand, we have seen this past year a heightened understanding about the nexus between sports and race in America. Whatever one’s personal feeling is about Colin Kaepernick and the so-called kneelers, no one can feign ignorance that racial justice is on the mind of many Americans. Kaepernick… Trump… Charlottesville, Virginia… the AMC television show Mad Men… statues of Confederate soldiers… race has never been far from the news recently (if ever).
There is no doubt in my mind that, in his public capacity as a school administrator, the former principal would have swiftly and firmly dealt with any student who uttered such language. But then, why such a disconnect between public policy and personal use of language? Is it because he “has Jewish friends”? In December, we were all told by the wife of Senate-candidate Roy Moore that her husband could not possibly be anti-Semitic because “one of our attorneys is a Jew” (although it later turned out Richard Jaffe is Christian). There is definitely a feeling of inoculation among many Caucasian-male-Christians that proximity to, or friendship, with minorities is somehow a public vaccination of being racist.
Of course, by that argument, I could never be sexist, because I have a mother, a wife, and a daughter. But I am. I’m both sexist and racist. In the Broadway hit Avenue Q (2003), the characters Princeton, Kate, Gary, Brian, and Christmas Eve sign a musical number “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and there is a certain truth to that I think. I think we are all a “little bit racist” and a little bit sexist. I’m a Caucasian-male-heterosexual. I have lived a life of White Privilege and benefited from male social dominance as well. Don’t believe me? Then why was my initial reaction to the words of my high school’s principal concern for him, and not empathy for stakeholders who were hurt by his words? Why, recently, did I use the word “Euro” around a person of color and make an inappropriate play on words about the #Metoo movement on social media? Because “I thought it was funny” and I was “just kidding.”
People in positions of power, whether that be organizational leadership or social dominance, have a higher bar of responsibility. I said what I said. The former principal of my high school said what he said. No one put the words in our mouths. Indeed, that language can’t come out of our mouths or our keyboards unless they’re already in our thoughts. Was the former principal “set-up”? Undoubtedly. And the school president acknowledged that in a press release on Wednesday, “The video clip… has no context and… was being secretly recorded, but clearly the language is inappropriate.”
As I said, one of my first thoughts was, “Wow, he was set up, but then I thought, no one made him say it. The language isn’t acceptable regardless… it’s not even something that can be “taken out of context.” A friend of mine who is also an alumnus of my high school said, “Short of him paraphrasing what someone else said or rehearsing lines there is no justification and it’s sad.”
A 40-year career or so reduced to a 6-second videotape.
Is the former principal a racist? I don’t think so. Did he use racist language? Absolutely.
My friend continued, “At the same time, I don’t think his 40 years or however long his tenure at Hendricken has been should be judged on 6 seconds. He should have resigned and should apologize because he knows better. Hendricken today appears far more diverse than it was back in 1991 when we were there and I would like to think he had something to do with that as principal. All of us know that our school is a big family and we accept and welcome people from all walks of life. The former principal is a part of that family and I’m sure he will regret his comments for the rest of his life. I’m not trying to minimize the comments, I just feel we all make mistakes and we hopefully learn from them. We can be angry, we can be disappointed, but hopefully, it will eventually lead to forgiveness.”
It is not an issue of “political correctness gone awry.” In fact, I’m not sure if it’s possible for respecting the dignity of people, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, creed, nation of origin, disability, age, or sexual orientation to ever go “too far.” The unfolding understanding of justice and the understanding of dignity for all is the history of America. It is the history of the human race. Theodore Parker once said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” Whether Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King, Jr. (who famously paraphrased Parker) are correct that the moral universe is an arc, or perhaps it is a pendulum, the current climate in civil discourse has been tainted by the 24-hour news cycle and the tone out of Washington. We are better. While the eyes may be windows to the soul, we are judged by our words and actions. Words matter. Language is a neutral reality; it can be used to hurt or to mend, to shame or to love, to tear down or to raise up. Words matter. Slurs have no place in discourse, publicly or privately.
We are collectively and individually responsible for the language we use and the language we tolerate from others. Silence is complicity. Yes, we could all probably use a little bit of forgiveness in our lives, but forgiveness is not mutually exclusive of accountability.
Once upon a time (specifically June 9, 1954), a man -just one person- asked a question. A simple question. Joseph Welch, special counsel for the United States Army, spoke out at Senator Joseph McCarthy during Senate hearings, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” And McCarthyism ended…
Let’s end bigotry at home and at work, in Washington and across the nation, but most importantly, in our own thoughts and words. Lord, let there be peace, and let it begin with me.