Sometimes we are so anxious as a society to present ourselves as paragons of tolerance, free of all racial prejudice, that we lose our sense of reasonableness and justice, shamelessly sacrificing innocent people -- and our integrity.
We can act all high and mighty, but our willingness to punish people for acts of bigotry they didn't commit doesn't demonstrate our virtuousness but our cowardice.
To what am I referring? Well, do you remember the incident in Washington D.C., in 1999, when David Howard, an aide to the mayor, was pressured to resign because he innocuously uttered the word "niggardly" to describe a fund he was administering? People chose to be offended by the word's phonetic resemblance to the "N Word," despite Howard's insistence that he "would never think of making a racist remark."
The word's meaning is light years from the one denoting a racial slur. "Niggardly" means "grudgingly mean about spending or granting," or "stingy." The N word is a pejorative to describe blacks. Any dictionary of etymology further reveals there is no connection between the historical evolution of the two words.
Yet D.C.'s Mayor Anthony Williams accepted Howard's resignation, telling reporters "I don't think that the use of this term showed the kind of judgment that I like to see in our top management." Williams added that he was "committed to representing all of the people of our city and making sure my administration truly reflects the city's diversity."
Can someone please tell me how the correct and harmless use of a word that happens to sound like a racial epithet shows poor judgment or reflects poorly on the administration's attitude toward diversity?
If you ask me, Howard's use of the term without any inkling that it would cause offense is more an indication that racism wasn't in his heart than that it was. He obviously gives blacks more credit than to presume they will be offended by a word having nothing remotely to do with race. Besides, unless his goal was to get fired, do you think he would be stupid enough deliberately to insult African-Americans, when not only was his boss black, but so were roughly two thirds of the city's residents?
Shame on the mayor for lacking the courage to refuse Howard's resignation, and shame on our society -- apart from a few commentators -- for not questioning it.
Unfortunately, "niggardly" is about to claim another innocent victim. Stephanie Bell, a fourth-grade teacher in Wilmington, N.C., taught it to her students as a new vocabulary word when seeking a synonym for "stingy." She picked "niggardly" because the children's dictionary offered "self-centered," which she figured the students already knew.
This apparently infuriated a parent of one student, who wrote Ms. Bell a letter saying the word was not allowed in her house, regardless of its meaning. "Common sense tells you not to put a word like that on the board," she said.
After a meeting between the parent, teacher and principal, the student was moved to another class. The school also sent a letter of apology to the parent, and Ms. Bell agreed not to use the word in her class anymore.
But these unwarranted expressions of contrition weren't enough for the parent. She's demanding that Ms. Bell be fired. The school district's deputy superintendent regrettably remarked, "Our position is that it was an inappropriate action in terms of using that word at that grade level, in that context. It was a bad choice."
How noble of this administrator to admit guilt on behalf of a teacher who was clearly innocent. Ms. Bell, to her credit, though saying she was sorry for offending anyone, defended her use of the word as "appropriate." Good for her.
"If these children read it," said Bell, "they are going to need to know what they are reading. ... What word do we take out next?" Exactly.
In both the Washington, D.C. and Wilmington, N.C., cases people's jobs were placed in jeopardy because they harmlessly and accurately used a word others may not have understood. Instead of erring on the side of factual correctness, we defer to political correctness.
When we succumb to this kind of bullying because we lack the fortitude to stand up for truth and principle we damage our society and do nothing to abate racism.
To scapegoat innocent people on the altar of our insatiable quest for approval by polite society cheapens real acts of racism truly worthy of our condemnation. If Ms. Bell's superiors fire her they will not be exhibiting their sensitivity and tolerance for minorities, but their lack of courage and integrity.