Will Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) face any costly repercussions for comparing House Republican tea party members to “white crackers,” a pejorative term for white Southerners?
When cooking celebrity Paula Deen admitted in a deposition that she had used the “N-word,” the Food Network pulled her show off the air, Smithfield Foods ended its relationship with her as a product endorser, and Wal-Mart announced it would not stock its shelves with her products.
Other corporations dumped her. A book publisher canceled her cookbook.
Neither apology nor contrition could stem the collapse of her business empire.
When football star Riley Cooper used the “N-word” at a concert, he was fined by the Eagles, reportedly required to seek professional help, and took a four-day leave of absence. An apologetic and remorseful Cooper has returned to practice.
So far, an African-American congressman who used a racial slur about white people has not apologized.
In a profanity-laced interview, Rangel said of Tea Party House Republicans: “It is the same group we faced in the South with those white crackers and the dogs and the police.”
The New York congressman appeared to compare tea party members to the segregationists who bombed Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in September 1963, when four girls were killed.
As for the word “cracker,” CNN reporter Tom Foreman wrote that “for plenty of rural, white southerners, ‘cracker’ is a demeaning, bigoted term.”
He pointed out that the genesis of the term “is murky. Some sources suggest it came from overseers who commanded slaves.”
As a native Floridian, I recall the word “Florida cracker” as being interchangeable with “redneck,” a word for poor, uneducated white supporters of segregation.
However, the term appeared to be an acceptable one for poor whites to use about other poor whites, much as some African-Americans say it is acceptable for them to use the “N-word” for other African-Americans.
Yet Rangel didn’t use the term “cracker” that way. He used it in a demeaning way to label a group with a different skin pigmentation than his own.
An example of the use of “cracker” occurred during the George Zimmerman trial. Rachel Jeantel testified that Trayvon Martin told her shortly before he was killed that he was being followed by a “Creepy-a** cracker.”
Can anyone doubt that Martin’s language reflected a derogatory perspective on non-whites?
If it’s wrong for whites to speak derogatorily about blacks, then it is just as wrong for blacks to speak derogatorily about whites. The same holds true for all kinds of other racial and ethnic slurs.
Regrettably, we tend to ignore or excuse derogatory language based on our ideological loyalties. Conservatives are upset that the mainstream media and civil right leaders are giving Rangel a pass. Yet they often have been silent when members of their own tribe spoke badly.
Liberals pointed to Zimmerman’s implied slur about Martin as evidence that Zimmerman was a racist, but skipped over Martin’s language. They, too, have been mute when their fellow travelers launch invectives against others.
So, what do we do? That is, what do goodwill people of faith do about racial slurs?
Recognizing our culture’s double standard – the moral hypocrisy of ignoring the derogatory language of some but condemning the language of others – is a first step, reflective of the Christian practice of discernment.
Striving toward undefiled speech is a positive step, reflective of Christian piety.
Calling out our own side first, rather than only criticizing the other side, is a good step, reflective of the Christian commitment to be our brother’s keeper.
Speaking publicly about out-of-bounds language is a needed step, reflective of the Christian tradition of social justice, which holds a higher standard than partisanship.
Once upon a time, racial jokes accompanied church attendance. Over time, the refusal to reward the joke-teller with a chuckle and the critique of such humor resulted in the disappearance or suppression of that form of communication.
How we respond to language matters. We might not be able to stem the tide of derogative language that floods our culture. Yet we might be able to keep that tide from polluting who we are.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.