Context Matters II
In his latest editorial, Mark Hyman condemns linguist John McWhorter for being “inconsistent on race” because he authored two articles (in the Washington Post and New York Sun) that defended Andrew Young from charges of racism, while condemning Mel Gibson.
Hyman offers a specious argument, one that makes exactly the mistake McWhorter warns us about in his articles: ignoring context.
Young was criticized for making remarks about how store owners in black neighborhoods are usually not black themselves, and have a history of ripping off their African American clientele, saying, “First it was the Jews, then it was Koreans and now it's Arabs.”
According to Hyman, McWhorter thinks Young “should get a free pass when it comes to race matters. Well, that’s bogus.”
Wrong, Mark. You’re argument is the one that’s bogus.
McWhorter’s argument is that it’s ridiculous to treat every utterance about race that might be controversial or clumsy as de facto proof of racism. He doesn’t say that Young should get a pass for saying racist things; his argument is that one can be reasonably sure that someone who has a lifelong history of involvement in the Civil Rights movement didn’t mean his comments as racist., particularly when they reflected an objective economic truth: many store owners in predominantly black neighborhoods are not black themselves, and these stores have a history of charging high prices for sub-par merchandise.
And before one assumes that McWhorter is simply bending the rules to defend a black civil rights hero, it would help to actually read his articles in their entirety. Hyman doesn’t mention that McWhorter also comes to the defense of Virginia Senator George Allen for calling a campaign worker for his opponent “Macaca” (McWhorter says there’s no evidence Allen meant this as a racial epithet). He also defends White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and Republican Mitt Romney from charges of racism stemming from their use of the phrase “tar baby” (McWhorter notes that very few people are aware of any racial connotations of the phrase).
McWhorter’s argument is that context matters when it comes to charges of racism. Simply using language that *could* be interpreted as racist shouldn’t automatically deserve the same condemnation as truly hateful remarks. That’s where Mel Gibson comes in. McWhorter notes that there’s no getting around the fact that saying “Jews are responsible for all the wars in history” is hateful. Nor is there any doubt that when a young white man in New York called a black man a “nigger” and then beat him nearly to death with a baseball bat, that he wasn’t using the word as a term of affection (as the man’s lawyer actually tried to argue). Being blunt or even insensitive is not the same thing as being hateful.
It’s possible to disagree with McWhorter’s characterization of specific cases (in the context of his past actions, I'm not sure Allen's statement is as innocent as McWhorter thinks it is) , but it’s not reasonable to characterize his argument as a case of being inconsistent or having a double standard. McWhorter argues that context must be taken into account before we cry “wolf” by saying that any comment that *could* be considered racist *is* racist.
This is precisely the mistake Hyman makes. By not taking into account the entire context of McWhorter’s comments, he offers a lame argument that utterly misses the point. It’s more than a little ironic that Hyman is attacking someone who is making an argument that he, being a stalwart opponent of political correctness, should agree with: calling anyone a racist who says something that might be seen as insensitive is unfair.
I tend to agree with McWhorter’s general argument. We should save charges of racism for public statements that can’t be interpreted in any other way than as evidence of the speaker’s prejudice and hatred against the groups mentioned.
Such as if someone equates Mexicans crossing the border in search of work with al-Qaeda terrorists.
Or someone who openly talks about the growing percentage of the Hispanic population of the United States as a bad thing.
Or someone who, contrary to all evidence proving otherwise, suggests that undocumented immigrants are lazy, shiftless bums who are looking for handouts.
Now that’s what I call racism.
And that’s The Counterpoint.
Hyman Index: 2.29