Language lost on today's generation

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Jun 4 12:59:55 UTC 2006

Language lost on todays generation
By Leonard Pitts - Miami Herald

Saturday, June 3, 2006

No transcript is known to survive, but it is reasonable to assume that
when a mob of white men lynched a black man named Sam Hose, cut off his
fingers, ears and genitals and skinned his face in 1899, they used the
N-word. Similarly, though there's no recording of the attack, its likely
that when a pregnant black woman named Mary Turner had her fetus slashed
out of her, then stomped to death by a white mob in 1918, the N-word was

By contrast with Hose and Turner, 23-year-old Glenn Moore got off easy. He
was only beaten with a baseball bat last year in the Howard Beach
neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. His principal attacker, 19-year-old Nicholas
Minucci, admits using the N-word while teeing off on Moore in the dark
hours of a late June morning. The question a jury must decide is: Does
that make this a hate crime? If jurors find the attack was indeed
motivated by bigotry, the law provides that harsher penalties can be
leveled against Minucci.

No such statute existed during the lifetimes of Turner and Hose, but if it
had, its doubtful anyone would have been conflicted over calling their
murders hate crimes. But things have changed since then. It is defense
attorney Albert Gaudelli's rather novel contention that a white man beating
a black one with a bat while using the most noxious of racial epithets is
not prima facie evidence of racial hatred. As he told prospective jurors
when the trial began just over two weeks ago, the N-word is used all the
time in rap music and among young people as a friendly greeting. The word
has changed, he said.

At one time, it had only one meaning, as a pejorative term, but today it
means many things, he told them. And he added, The word in and of itself
does not establish bias. Does everyone agree with that? According to a
reporter, the would-be jurors murmured faint agreement. Tellingly,
Gaudelli never actually uttered this harmless word himself. If you are
looking for angels in this case, by the way, you do so in vain.  The
alleged victim was reportedly in the neighborhood with a group of friends
looking for a car to steal. And the alleged attacker is a real piece of
work: Convicted of shooting paintballs at a group of Sikhs on Sept. 11,
2001, charged in the 2002 stabbing of a Queens teenager.  Unemployed, but
an associate of the notorious Gotti family, he roams the streets of Howard
Beach in a $60,000 Cadillac Escalade.

The neighborhood, of course, is already notorious in racial lore as the
place a black man fled into traffic 20 years ago to escape a racial
attack. He was killed by a car. But if the 1986 incident spoke to the
endurance and intransigence of urban racism, this latest episode speaks
with equal clarity to the harm blacks younger ones in particular have done
their own interests in the last two decades. Not to put too fine a point
on it, but something is profoundly awry when it can be argued with a
straight face that a white man beating a black man with a bat while
calling him the N-word does not constitute racism.

It emphatically does, but the very fact that Gaudelli was not hooted out
of the courtroom is evidence of how muddied the waters have been made by a
generation of black people with little historical memory and, one could
argue, less racial pride. Their argument has always been that for them,
the term no longer means what it once did. As if they can unilaterally
wash clean a word that has been filthy for four centuries. Sam Hose and
Mary Turner would find that hubris hard to swallow, having died with the
N-word in their ears. But then, they were of a generation that understood
language to have meaning and consequence. This generation would have us
believe you can speak poison without any effect. Which is pathetic. But
whats worse is, they're now being taken at their word.

 Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pultizer Prize for commentary, is a
columnist for the Miami Herald.

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