That's Not What They Said, Part 2

Bloggified by Jake on Saturday, January 16, 2010

Many Republicans are calling for Harry Reid's ouster from his leadership position because of the precedent set by then-Senate minority leader Trent Lott, who came under fire in 2002 for saying the country "wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" if Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. Lott was accused of embracing and endorsing Thurmond's vicious, segregationist platform.

Based on Lott's resignation from his leadership position, I agree there is reason to call for Reid to do the same. But, rather, I think this incident is a reminder of why Lott's comments were so thoroughly blown out of proportion. Consider the situation. Lott, as the most powerful Republican in the Senate, was asked to say a few words about Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party. I think we can all agree that a birthday party is one occasion where we gloss over a guest of honor's negative qualities. If Bruce Willis lives to be 100, no one is going to bring up Hudson Hawk or Color of Night during a toast.

Trent Lott was given the task of going up and saying some nice things about a guy who'd managed to outlive a lot of the ideas he represented early in his career. He chose not to go into Thurmond's judicial history where he refused to seat any blacks on a jury for a black defendant who'd killed a white man in self-defense, then neglected to instruct the jury to consider self-defense, and ultimately sentenced the man to death. Lott left out the part where Strom Thurmond set the Senate record for the longest filibuster ever to prevent the Civil Rights Act of 1957 from being considered. He failed to bring up Thurmond's rallying cry during the 1948 election that "there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters and swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.”

And who can blame him?

My grandmother distrusted Jews, but at her funeral, we left that out of the eulogy. My other grandmother refers to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James as "those black boys who play the basketball," but I don't bother to correct her. My uncle claimed the White House killed my grandfather and was responsible for cloudy days, but at his 50th birthday party, neither topic was mentioned before we cut the cake.

Lott's error seems to lie in politeness and political glad-handing. Reid's appears born of ignorance. Lott's desire to be nice to an extremely old man led him to tacitly endorse segregation. Reid somehow has risen to a position of power in a political party that has built it's reputation for the last 50 years on a basis of civil rights without learning that "Negro" is an antiquated term. But concluding that either is a racist is unfounded.

In 2007, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle accused head linesman Phil McKinnely for calling him "boy" during a game. First off, it should be noted that McKinnely is also black. Second, the context of McKinnely's statement was that Rolle was complaining about a call when McKinnely told him "Just play, boy." McKinnely, it was noted, had kids about the same age as Rolle and the other players he shared the field with every Sunday, and saying somethings like, "Come on, boys, play's over. Get back to your huddles," was more about age than respect or social status.

When I heard this story, I remember being shocked. "You mean there are still people who consider 'boy' an insult?" I said. I understand that in the 1960's and into the 70's it was a big deal. Bear in mind that my entire understanding of this era is based on movies of the era where portly, self-important Southern sheriffs would call a confident black man "boy" with a condescending tone meant to put the black man in his place and establish a social hierarchy where the Man was superior to the Boy. Of course, this would lead to a confrontation where the insulted black man would stand up to the fat racist (whether consciously or subconsciously) sheriff and demand to be called by name or "sir" or would suggest "Boy? Boy lives in the jungle with Tarzan, man!"

Has anyone truly used the term "boy" as an insult since 1980? Shouldn't phrases have some kind of statue of limitations after which they stop mattering? I understand "nigger" has some staying power, but, seriously, if you heard someone say "jungle bunny" in anything but an ironic fashion, you'd feel more pity than insult. "Oh, dear... does he think that phrase has any weight to it? How sad." However, unlike those previous examples, the word "boy" is a common word used in every day conversation. Millions of people refer to boys every day without intending any insult at all.

If Phil McKinnely had said, "Quit complaining about the call and just play the game, you spearchucker," there would be no question of the intent. If Trent Lott had said, "If only Strom Thurmond had been elected, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years... with darkies using the same public restrooms I do," we'd have a smoking gun. If Harry Reid had said, "Barack Obama is electable because he doesn't sound like a coon," there would be no question that he had to step down. But none of them said any of those things. And more importantly, none of them meant those things.

1 sarcastic replies:

::c:: said...

Great points! I wish the media would read this and "get it."

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