Crimes of Speech

I remember when the president of Rutgers University, Francis L. Lawrence, made that infamous statement about how disadvantaged African-American students lack the "genetic hereditary background to have a higher average" on standardized tests. The year was 1994; I was a junior in high school in the midst of applying for colleges. Following this comment, protests rocked the Rutgers University campus and many groups called for Lawrence to resign. He did not resign and hung on to an embattled presidency until 2002. I recall being struck by the idea that one comment could flush a well-respected career, which by many measures Lawrence's was not, down the toilet. I just remember thinking that he should not have said that I wish I had probed further and come to the realization: He should not have even thought that.

This year, we learned a great deal about what Senator George Allen (R-VA) thought the face of America looked like (or what it didn't look like) when he notoriously referred to an Indian-American college student as macaca, which, any way you cut it, sounds an awful lot like a racial slur. Some would say this one word cost the Republicans control of Congress. Senator Allen's statement, in case you missed it, was this: "This fellow here," pointing to S.R. Sidharth, an Indian-American Virginia resident and college student, "over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great… Let's give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia." You will note that the word macaca was actually used twice. For the record, Sidharth had been born and raised in Virginia. Allen had also foolishly singled out the guy with the camera and the whole encounter was caught on tape. As Allen noted, Sidharth was filming the senator on the campaign trail for the other camp, Democratic contender, Jim Webb. The video was strategically leaked to the media to see if the media saw anything newsworthy in it. However, the story really spread through channels such as Youtube, where viewers were able to share the video and their outrage.

There was much conjecturing: What exactly Allen did mean by macaca? Some analysts linked the word back to the genus name of monkeys. Others noted that Allen's own mother is of French-Tunisian descent and could have picked the word up from the French in the Congo who commonly (and rather atrociously) referred to the native population as macaca. Allen's spin doctors tried to repair the damage by saying the word was a neologism, a word Allen made up on the spot, or wait, this sounds better, it was a creative pronunciation of the word, "Mohawk," and Allen had been referring to Sidharth's funky haircut (which Sidharth noted, for the record, was actually meant to be a mullet).

Whatever. Was there any doubt what Allen meant—"Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia?" Allen showed us that in his mind, his America is still a homogenous nation without minorities, never mind that it has been at least 25 years since most first generation Indians arrived here and there is a sizeable population of second generation Indian-Americans, like Sidharth, in this country. Knowing a little about Allen's fondness for Confederate flags and history, do we really have any reason to give Allen the benefit of the doubt? While opposing recognizing Martin Luther King, Jr., Day as a state holiday, Allen has thrice proclaimed April as "Confederate History and Heritage Month" in Virginia. Can we say that macaca doesn't stand alone?

I watched the Virginia Senate race closely this November, not for its implications for which party would control Congress, but to find out what is America's tolerance for blatant racism in its leaders? With a heavy heart, I noted it was still a close race late into the night. Webb ultimately won, but by only 9,000 votes out of the 2.4 million cast. After the election, an editorial appeared by Sidharth in the Washington Post, humorously titled, "I Am Macaca." He stated with an optimism that I hope follows him out of college, "The politics of division just don't work anymore."

But I want to also note that while Allen was losing the race in Virginia, Trent Lott (R-MS) was also winning re-election in Mississippi. In 2002, Lott made his own gaffe that exploded into notoriety. On the occasion of the 100th birthday of Strom Thurmond, Lott said, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years either." It was a seemingly innocuous comment, the "all these problems over the years" aside, that one alert ABC junior reporter, Ed O'Keefe, was quick enough to catch. Wait a second—wasn't Strom Thurmond's bid for president based on the platform of segregation? O'Keefe's supervisors were still not convinced that this was a soundbyte fit for the ABC evening news, but the reporter managed to get the story into ABC's online site. The story caught the eye of The Washington Post's Thomas Edsall, who had reported on Lott's affiliation with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a "racialist" group that clung to whatever notions of segregation it could maintain in this day and age.

From this point on, the story gained speed like a hurricane and Lott was forced to publicly defend his words. "I grew up in an environment that condoned policies and views that we now know were wrong and immoral, and I repudiate them," Lott said in a public address on December 13, 2002. In the same speech, he said, "I've asked and I'm asking for forbearance and forgiveness as I continue to learn from my own mistakes, and as I continue to grow and get older. But, as you get older, you hopefully grow in your views and your acceptance of everybody, both as a person and certainly as a leader." In the end, Lott was pressured by the Bush administration and other GOP heads to step down as majority leader, the first in history to do so. But, don't be too quick to applaud the GOP for doing something right—it was almost certainly other internal politics at work. You can read Trent Lott's autobiography for the details. Can a politician undo those years of ignorance? Sure, but Lott? I wouldn't hold my breath. More recently, in September of 2006, Lott was quoted as saying, "It's hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what's wrong with all these people." Presumably, he was referring to the Sunnis and the Shiite Muslims in Iraq because that was the context of the discussion, though I'm not sure because his next comment went as follows: "Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion? Why do they hate Israelis and despise their right to exist? Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me." [Italics added for emphasis.] Do you trust this guy to work out a budget for the war on Iraq? Two months later, Mississippi re-elected Lott to the Senate and the GOP put him back at the helm as the minority whip, the second in command.

Politicians like Lott and Allen obviously don't exist in a vacuum. We can use their popularity or the tolerance for some of the ignorant positions they take to gauge what the public they represent is willing to accept. It can be discouraging to see how unenlightened that position can be, but what about those who lead our supposedly enlightened institutions of higher learning? Reflecting on Lawrence's offensive remark on the innate aptitude of African-Americans in test-taking, I couldn't help recalling the theories pushed by The Bell Curve, the controversial book by two Harvard professors, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. I went back and checked the copyright and sure enough, the book had come out earlier that year. In their magnum opus, Herrnstein and Murray make the claim that they had gathered statistical evidence to show that there were racial disparities in cognitive abilities and IQ. I suspect that Lawrence had thought the time was ripe to share his personal thoughts on the matter, because he mistakenly believed that his position was solidly backed by mathematics and academia. He was wrong. The social theory and the statistical claims in the book made for popular discussion then, but they have been actively debated and refuted by many academics, including Nobel-prize winning statistician, James Heckman. Still, the damage has been done. I continue to hear their theory referenced ambiguously by those making the argument against affirmative action as if it were commonly accepted in the field. In a parallel incident last year, Harvard University's former president Lawrence H. Summers used similar specious reasoning to try to explain why women continue to be underrepresented in engineering and the sciences at a speech delivered to the National Bureau for Economic Research in January, 2005. His remarks, in sum, conveyed the idea that innate ability and innate preference for these disciplines could account for much of this disparity. Not long after this statement, the Harvard faculty of the Arts and Sciences passed a motion, 218-185 (with 18 abstentions) for a lack of confidence in his leadership. Summers then resigned as university president in June, 2006. Summers' term as president was embattled for several reasons, but this one speech continues to come up among a laundry list of memorable shortfalls.

That's also the thing about these powerful utterances. Will Bill Clinton ever escape "I did not have sexual relations with that woman?" This October, John Kerry found himself trying to explain that he did not believe that the troops in Iraq were dumb, when he accidentally uttered, "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't you get stuck in Iraq." The speech was supposed to have quipped, "…you end up getting stuck in Iraq. Just ask President Bush." But, who will remember that?

I do want to end up on Siddharth's note of hope. The hope, to the extent that it exists, rests in the response to these utterances. Perhaps, this is the realm where our society has the opportunity to show where we would like to stand, where our heart really lies. Another incident that came out of this year's midterm elections was that Minnesota elected its first African-American, Keith Ellison, to the House of Representatives. Ellison is also the first Muslim ever elected to Congress. In accordance with the personal beliefs by which he was swearing, he indicated that he intended to be sworn in on the Quran, rather than the Bible. The most unsavory challenge to this idea came from another Virginia bigmouth, a fellow by the name of Virgil Goode (R-VA), who stated that this was a threat to the "values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America" and that, "[i]f American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran." Goode wrote these words in a letter to his constituents. He didn't just think them or say the thoughts in a Tourette's moment. In the end, Ellison chose to be sworn in on a copy of the Quran, loaned to him by the rare books collection at the Library of Congress; it had originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Ellison was quoted as saying, "It demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleaned from any number of sources, including the Quran."

That's exactly the thing that I want to say. The issue isn't about getting politicians to talk politically correctly as those who stand accused of such crimes of speech try to say. The words are only a tip of the iceberg. If you really want to be politically correct, you have to mean the politically correct things too. As a politician, you really need to understand this country's varied people and its problems. A superficial understanding for the issues won't do. And it is up to us, the people, to decide whether we can accept what an offensive utterance reveals—once we recognize it. These comments are like the patches where the wallpaper has peeled off, revealing the ugly, stained, chipped, crumbling structure behind it. Sometimes, paint and dry wall will take care of the problem. Clinton charmed his way out of the Lewinsky affair and perhaps we decided we didn't care as much as we thought about his sex life. Lawrence vowed to bring in diversity classes and to do better, but I have now come to realize that he really ought to have resigned for the trust he lost from a significant portion of the Rutgers University student body. It's up to us following the leader to realize when the foundation is rotten to the core and that the problem needs to be removed or it's our society that is going to come crashing down, not just one man's political career.


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