Thursday, March 27, 2008

Three Strikes, You're A Racist!

There has been an awful lot of talk lately, but not much discussion, regarding racial issues in America, sparked in part by remarks made by Senator Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and further expanded by Barry’s speech in response to the uproar caused by his pastor’s remarks.

We can hardy open a newspaper or go to a politically oriented website without reading charges of racism – coming from both black and white commentators and aimed at both black and white targets. This has got to stop.

What bothers me the most, or at least in my top 10 list of bothers, is the rampant misuse of the words that describe some of these racial issues.

A fine writer and friend of mine once compared written words and phrases to a baseball and its pitcher. My friend wrote, “Baseball players, pitchers, gloves clamped in their armpits, always work the slickness from new baseballs before they throw them. They use their naked hands and do it with some intensity. Words are best done that way, too—rubbed, and understood, measured for fit and feel and balance. You never want to throw a word until it’s ready. Believe me, I’ve done it. They nearly always miss their mark and ricochet into the stands.”

As bloggers go, I’m this really ancient dude with an unmanageable mustache and hair that is not cut often enough. Fair enough. But like my friend the writer, (an ex-blogger who is roughly the same age as me, but with much better hair and no mustache), I too, love words.

Again, my friend from up on the mountain described us both when he wrote; “A love of words came to me as a child—spoken words. I didn’t grow up in a household with a lot of books—but I did grow up around extraordinary talkers—gifted talkers, a gallery of them—artists who painted with spoken words, with language. Words and their clever usage were the coin of value in my house—finding new ones akin to putting jingle in my pocket. It still is. The use of them, though, was not a frivolous thing, not a lightly taken exercise for me.”

Like my friend, I believe words have meaning. And I like for a word’s meaning to stand still. Don’t go using a word to mean something it doesn’t or you run the risk of changing the meaning of that word. It happens. Over time it’s happened with many words in the English language. It’s happened with at least one of the words I’m about to discuss. And it has cheapened the meaning of that word.

Now, let’s work the slickness off a couple or three words that I believe are routinely thrown around recklessly, sometimes merely missing their mark, more often hitting the batter with painful results. Two of these words are seriously underused, while the third is too often tossed in their place. Way too often.

The era in which I grew up was populated with many people who held a deep racial bias. Many of these people were in my own family. Many of these people were in your family. Let’s look back now at some of those people and the words that describes them while we work those words into our naked hands and take the shine off them.

Our first word is prejudice. This is a word that we can all identify with, a word that has changed little in definition over the years. It’s a word that in many ways describes us all. We’ve all done it. What I call "jumping to confusions". When a situation has been described to us we immediately form a mental image that in many cases is incorrect. The situation does not necessarily need to involve race. It simply means that we automatically ascribe a social context to the situation we’ve just heard described.

For example, in Martinsville last week there was a shootout in a local shopping center parking lot. Not a terribly uncommon occurrence here, I’m sorry to report. I’m sure there were many here who, upon hearing of the event, thought something along the lines of, “OK, another drug related shooting by a couple of black guys”. Well, that was not the case. The shooter, as identified and arrested by the Sheriff’s Department, was a young white guy. Drug related it may be, but it was not the black on black crime that unfortunately is too common in Martinsville.

Jumping to confusions of that sort is a classic definition of PREJUDICE. Let’s face it guys, in many situations, we are all prejudiced.

Next up is the word “BIGOT”

A bigot is someone who, through prejudice or otherwise, refuses to associate with someone who is different in one way or another with oneself.

Right now we are in the middle of the basketball playoffs. March Madness, I think it’s called. I hate basketball. I’m no good at it. I don’t fully understand it, and I just don’t like to watch it. Just 10 guys in squeaky shoes as far as I’m concerned. Let’s suppose for a moment that one of the reasons I refuse to attend a March Madness game is that I simply do not want to sit among a bunch of guys that do “get it” regarding basketball. I would then be a BIGOT.

Or let’s suppose you can’t abide the thought of joining a few thousand rednecks at a NASCAR event like this weekend’s race in Martinsville. If that’s the case, we would both be bigots, but the DNA of those we choose not to associate with is never considered when making that choice.

Once again, we are all, to some degree, bigots.

Now, let’s move on to the most misused word in this triumvirate of misused words. Racism and its cousin, racist.

In my library there is an old edition of the Funk and Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary. It sits on my desk as a ready reference when needed, even though I can easily access Back when I was a younger man, admittedly a long time ago, racism and racist had a very constricted definition;

Ra-cism (ra siz-em) 1:An irrational belief in or advocacy of the superiority of a given group, people, or nation - usually one's own - on the basis of racial differences having no scientific validity. 2: Social action or government policy based upon such assumed differences.

Funk and Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary, 1979 edition, copyright 1976.

(In an interesting side note, badrose was kind enough to check her Websters New International Dictionary, 2nd edition, abridged. copyright 1954. Apparently the word did not exist in 1954. "Racialism" and "racialist" carried the same meaning at that time.)

The terms “racism” and “racist” have been too loosely thrown about lately. Much too loosely. Today, one can be labeled a racist on the basis of something as benign as a poorly phrased sentence. Or a politically incorrect thought expressed in public.

Any one of us over a certain age know first-hand of racists. Most of us know few, if any, real-world racists alive and active today.

Today, finding someone who truly believes in the genetic superiority of any given group is very difficult, if not impossible. Those that do believe such are typically old and impotent, or a member of certain religious factions. Of the dozens of friends that I can describe as bigoted or prejudicial, I can’t think of a single one that is a racist.

Whether you are writing or speaking, remember to always work those words over. Be sure that it fits and all the slickness has been rubbed out. That it truly is the word you want to throw, or you may be faced with a line drive that can't be fielded.

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