Misdirected posts Re: McWhorter....

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 20 14:51:32 UTC 2010

After laboring over these two posts four days ago, I see that they went only
to Sali who, being as trusting as I am, may not have noticed that they were
inadvertently addressed solely to him. My apologies.


Salikoko's point is one reason why _WASP_ is no longer common in
sociocultural discourse.

I can recall it said in the late '60s - though not in class - that LBJ's
dialect proved he was a "racist cracker."  It was also said about George
Wallace's speech.

Other evidence aside, their dialects proved nothing.  Johnson's politics
weren't constrained by his diction. Crudely racist in some ways
and additionally obnoxious others, he nevertheless pushed the 1964 Civil
Rights Act and urged, perhaps emptily, a "Great Society."

But the media issue is not Obama's dialect or idiolect or code-switching or
skin color. The twofold issue is

A. whether Reid personally is a racist and should therefore resign, and

B. were Reid words, regardless of his intention, likely to instill or
encourage racist attitudes and actions?

A  is not a linguistic question and analyzing the quoted words won't answer
it. B, however, is a sociolinguistic question involving social relations,
reception theory, and issues of semantic "essentialism."  The best answer,
it seems to me, is "probably not," but I could be wrong. Short of stratified
random sampling, with due regard for underreporting by racists, I'm not sure
that the question can be answered.

"Should" people have taken offense?  Sure, if the remarks were meant to be
offensive. Possibly, even if they weren't.  FWIW, a good number of
African-Americans interviewed on CNN seemed to think the words were more or
less harmless:  some seemed most irked by the word "dialect." Most academic
objections, it seemed to me, were not directed against the words or even
Reid's political cynicism so much, as they were against the idea that
Obama's election proved racism is over.  That warning, though, had nothing
much to do with the basis for Reid's statement - except indirectly to
confirm it. (They and Reid agreed that in 2008 racism was a potentially very
significant factor.)  Anchor Soledad O'Brien (fortyish) said she found
the words irritating, but that Reid's intention was that "He was loving
Obama." She went on to say that racism is alive and well if you're not the
President of the United States, and maybe even if you are.

A viewer suggested by e-mail that if Reid had uttered the same words "in a
corporate setting," he would have been "fired immediately" and "subject to a
law suit by the target."  Maybe so, but Obama was not a "target." On the
contrary, Reid was asserting that he could be elected in spite of white
racism. And he was right.

Of course, if Reid had coupled the "N-word" with "dialect,"  that phrase
would clearly have been racist because the "N-word" is recognized as a
racist term per se. That purely hypothetical remark would have meant also
that speakers of that presumably undifferentiated dialect, including the
Senator from Illinois, were "N-words" for using it.

But that's not at all what Reid said.  I believe that Obama was correct to
accept Reid's apology with the observation that the words were "inartful."




If Tom meant to be ironic, his technique needs polishing.

What, precisely, was the focus of the irony?

"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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