On Ann Coulter, “Our Blacks,” and Political Correctness
November 2, 2011 23 Comments
So quickly on the heels of condemning outrageous leftist condescension toward the candidacy of Herman Cain — now sprinkled with Clarence Thomas-style double standards regarding race and sexual harassment (depending on whether you’re liberal or conservative) — I’m obliged (in that whipsaw fashion of current events) to note a grievous misstatement by conservative attack-dog Ann Coulter.
Speaking with Sean Hannity yesterday, Ann Coulter came to the vigorous and persuasive defense of Herman Cain, and had this to say on the “liberal establishment’s” attacks on Herman Cain:
All they see is ‘conservative black man.’ Look at how they go after AllenWest. Look at how they go after Michael Steele. All of them have wonderful qualities. That’s why our blacks are so much better than their blacks. To become a black Republican, you don’t just roll into it. You’re not just ‘going with the flow.’ You have fought against probably your family members, probably your neighbors, you have thought everything out, and that’s why we have very impressive blacks in our party.”
I agree with the point she was making, and have made the same essential point about the courage of black conservatives myself. I disagree profoundly with her choice of words when she said, “That’s why our blacks are so much better than their blacks.”
To speak of “our blacks” in any context is a semantic minefield. The pronoun “our” can signify associations — that is, friends or supporters, or even standard-bearers — but it can also signify ownership — as Robert Pierre at The Root aptly notes. Any hint of ownership of blacks, given this country’s slavery history, is bound to be incendiary. And it is frankly stupid in political discourse ever to trip into that minefield. Ann Coulter should own up to this misstep and apologize — not because she intended a slavery subtext (she plainly did not), but because she used language in a sloppy way, and a person of her authorial credentials whose very currency is language should own up to missteps in the use of language.
The more precise framing would have been “that’s why black Republicans are better than black Democrats.” That’s still a combustible and contestable proposition — in the Ann Coulter style — but it doesn’t use language sloppily in a way that dredges up actual ownership of blacks in the history of this country.
This is not mere “political correctness” — with all the baggage that term conveys. I join with some of my liberal friends in defending, at times, what has come to be known as “political correctness.” I do so because much of what gets characterized as “political correctness” is actually semantic precision. It’s using words carefully and it’s urging greater awareness of how particular words and phrases are heard by others.
When Bubba says, “well heck I think Negroes are just as good as anyone else, and they’re a damn sight better at basketball,” Bubba thinks he’s issuing an enlightened complimentary pronouncement — and he and his defenders don’t get the backlash, and consign the backlash dismissively to “political correctness.” Well, no, Bubba may well be a candidate for good will in racial relations — but he’s using language in a horrible way. “Political correctness” intervenes to say, first, Bubba, we don’t use the term “Negroes” anymore, and second, we don’t highlight anymore that people of different races are “just as good as anyone else” because that’s a given, and third, we don’t compliment blacks, as a race, for their athletic skills, because to do so invites the very kind of racial stereotyping we’re committed to overcoming.
I care enormously about language. In the political context, particularly in a democracy, language is probably the most powerful, and potentially horrible, weapon at the disposal of competing factions. Use of language matters enormously. “Political correctness,” while given to preposterous abuses at times, correctly identifies language as the culprit in frequent needless misunderstandings, needless polarities, and needless squandering of opportunities for what could have been respectful connections.