The last plantation

The "niggardly" scandal should teach whites to watch their language, and blacks to toughen up.

By Debra Dickerson
Published February 5, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- Mayor Anthony Williams and the "niggardly" scandal may be easily dismissed on the op-ed pages of our nation's newspapers, especially now that Williams has reversed himself and hired David Howard back into his administration. But on the streets and in the living rooms of Washington, it's been taken quite seriously. It matters here that anyone like Howard, involved in D.C. politics and putatively well-intentioned toward blacks, would use an obscure word that incorporates the hated slur, rather than one of its many synonyms. Would the openly gay Howard not flinch, not even a little, if a superior found a reason to mention tossing a "faggot" on the fire or going outside to smoke a "fag"? Two more perfectly harmless and obscure words -- but why go there?

Regardless of what SAT prep guides say about the derivation of the archaic word, to many Americans, "niggardly" quacks like a duck. Keith Watters, an attorney, told the New York Times, "Do we really know where the Norwegians got the [14th century] word?" You can roll your eyes at that -- and I admit, I did -- or you can accept the depth and severity of black hatred of the N-word. For the last several days I made a point of discussing the "niggardly" controversy with black Washington residents every chance I got. And repeatedly, in response to my unscientific street corner surveys, they were bothered by Howard's use of the word. They dismissed the notion that he had no idea it might offend. They differed on what the response should have been, but not on whether the word was loaded. Howard, a new minority in a majority-black world, just learned the hard way the bilingualism of blacks like me, who operate in a majority-white world. Even I was surprised by the depth and unanimity of black concern about Howard's unfortunate word choice -- but I shouldn't have been.

It is a staple of black stand-up comedy that whites long to use the N-word and will go to great lengths to find an excuse to do so. As one resident put it, "Do you really think [Howard] didn't notice he had to pass 'nigger' before he could get to the 'dly'?" Others pointed out that you needn't be a Klansman to get a kick out of using the N-word, especially if you thought you had cover. (Salon's own James Poniewozik noted this week how gleefully racists and black critics have used the word "niggardly" since the scandal broke.) It is interesting that conservatives, the champions of a "return to civility," scoff at the notion that whites can avoid useless conflict by simply being careful with their language. But make a comment that can be construed, however torturously, to be anti-religious -- well, you might as well change your name to Torquemada. A co-worker once tried to have me reprimanded for putting up a sign publicizing the office "Xmas" party. Hellion that I was, I was trying to take the Christ out of Christmas and thereby interfering with his free exercise of religion. Would those now scoffing at Howard's black critics have scoffed at him? (I thought he was full of it, but I have taken care since to spell out the word. Why offend?) I have a friend who bridles at being referred to as a "fundamentalist"; he prefers "evangelical." I do what I can to make him happy.

Having said all that, however, the fact remains that I think Williams failed his first test as D.C.'s much needed new mayor, after these long years of Marion Barry. He should never have accepted Howard's honorable resignation. He should have acknowledged the incident for the legitimate controversy that it was (maybe not to me or you, but to lots of other folks) and ended it with a gentle reminder to Howard that language matters and a firm "that's enough" to his attackers. Instead, Williams buckled. Quickly. But his was not the only failure. Too many D.C. blacks are still too willing to act like petulant children, holding their breath till they turn blue over a broken toy -- and then be mollified by an extra scoop of high-fat, high-cholesterol ice cream instead of dinner. They prefer symbolic skirmishes with white America, and white racism, to the hard work of radically overhauling this troubled city, the stronghold of black America.

Mayor Williams was supposed to change all that. His victory was supposed to shovel dirt on the coffin of everything Barry; it was supposed to convert all those who thought it was better to have a mayor who ticked whites off than to have one focused on making D.C. the chocolate-covered diamond it should be. Williams' election was supposed to mean no more flamboyance over substance. No more crudity masquerading as defiance. No more weakness and failure dressed up as authenticity. Williams was supposed to lead, not pander to the lowest level of political maturity. He was supposed to end the self-hating habit of seeing just how bad things could get in D.C., so blacks (up to their knees in unplowed snow or stomach-cramped from non-potable water) could nyah-nyah their white congressional overlords. I'm reminded of a favorite joke of my father's from my 1960s childhood that exemplifies this zero-sum attitude perfectly: A white man flicks a huge cockroach off a black man's jacket. The black man sneers at him and says, "Y'all just don't want us to have nothing, do you?"

This debacle shows us that too many D.C. blacks are more concerned with making a mayor dance to their tune than in bettering their tumbledown home. They complain Ken Starr is wasting precious time and money on Monicagate, but treat this like the Dred Scott case. Blacks need to toughen up and forego easy targets like this for the tougher task of getting to the bottom of why we're disproportionately poor, jailed, underachieving and sloppily educated -- and it's not because we're bell-curved for failure or don't try hard enough. Those who wax heartbroken over the condition of the many black D.C. residents who are poor, underserved and marginalized are the same ones demanding that the mayor spend his limited time trying to mind-meld with his white workers and ferret out their Inner Racist. They're the kind of brainiacs who spend $25 winning a 75-cent kewpie doll at the carnival and think they've beaten the house.

As chief financial officer last year, Williams had the vertebrae to fire 165 black city workers (there are few of any other kind here) left over from Barry's bloated bureaucracy. It was a shocking act and a sobering one -- district government is the backbone of local black employment. It was that act that sold me on Williams. I sincerely feel for those fired workers, but there's no way to fix the district's ills without making the hard choices -- something Barry refused to do. Something Williams promised to do.

That political courage was the source of the complaints that Williams "isn't black enough," more than his Poindexter image and ever-present bow tie (nobody questions Louis Farrakhan's blackness, bow tie or not). By all means, let's dispense with this one quickly. Once again, I invoke my father. Mayor Williams: If you argue with a fool, what does that make you? Don't dignify the question with an answer. The blacks who should be in reeducation camps are the ones who think it's the lack of bow ties, Ivy League education, mainstream diction and demonstrated competence that constitute "true" blackness. If whites tried to impose such limits on us, we'd be marching around the clock, singing "We Shall Overcome" till we were hoarse. When will we put this crap away and stop doing the oppressor's job for him? This self-limiting obsession with what makes someone "black enough" is truly the last plantation and we need to emancipate ourselves from it. The only way for Williams to survive this question -- which, like blackmail, never goes away if you once give in -- is to ignore it.

Mayor Williams, you are the company you keep. Ignore the gloom-and-doomers and do your job for the good of the entire district. Your self-image is your own and I leave you to it. Howard is making it easy for you: He's accepted your offer to rejoin district government and isn't demanding the apology he deserves. You are hereby granted a "do-over" -- or a mulligan, as the white boys say when golfing.

And remember, the bullies will take your lunch money every day if you let them. Don't be a Barry. Just say no.

Debra Dickerson


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