It was at once the most unnerving and most liberating moment I’ve had as a college professor. Near the end of a three-hour freshman writing class several years ago, the discussion veered towards the differences between American and British English, so I wrote the word “queue” on the blackboard — which none of the students recognized as an English synonym for “line.” Next came “lift” for “elevator,” then “bobby” for “policeman.” I asked for more examples. One young woman, Renee, who’d spent a summer in London, called out “Bangers!” The class was amused to learn that the word meant “sausages” in England — especially since, in American hip-hop slang, “bangers” meant “gang members.”
I asked Renee if she knew any others.
She thought for a moment, then shouted: “Niggers!”
There was an audible gasp from the class — a racially mixed group of 18 students. My heart raced. Renee, meanwhile, was glancing back and forth, still smiling, trying to figure out why a sudden hush had followed her remark.
Finally, she turned to me and asked, “What?”
I managed, “Renee, we don’t use that word here.”
“I know. We say ‘underwear.’“
Several seconds passed before I got it. “Oh, you mean knickers.”
By the time I’d written the k-n-i-c-k on the blackboard, the students were roaring with laughter. As the black girl sitting beside Renee clued her in, Renee blushed beet red. “I’d never . . . I mean, I’d never . . . “ That elicited even more laughter. I wound up ending the class ten minutes early because every time I tried to talk, the students began to crack up again.
I recall that moment now in relation to the Don Imus controversy. The disgraced radio talk show host, who lost his job last April when he referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s,” has just reached a contract settlement with his former employer, CBS, reportedly for $20,000,000, and is currently negotiating with several stations to return to the airwaves. I’ve previously steered clear of the subject of Imus for three reasons: First, because the black community, about which I’ve written critically on many occasions, has far more serious problems than the wisecracking of a radio clown; second, because Imus is such a spectacularly loathsome figure that defending him doesn’t seem worth the effort; and third, because I myself have used a close variation of the very phrase that got Imus canned . . . if you’re curious, you’ll find it on page 37 of my novel Africa Speaks.
Still, it strikes me that the Imus imbroglio is significant, if not quite a watershed moment in racial consciousness. Of course, every discussion about “race” should begin with the observation that it’s fundamentally a perceptual category, not a biological one. There’s more genetic variation within the most common racial groupings than between them. Even the narrower term “ethnicity” is ill-defined, based on long-forgotten tribal relations; sorting hundreds of ethnicities into arbitrarily drawn color-coded umbrella groups like “white” or “black” or “brown” or “yellow” is, to say the least, anthropologically dubious.
That said, it’s also undeniable that perceptions of race have exerted a profound influence on the history and institutions of American life. There was a time in living memory when black people were matter-of-factly thought of as a distinct classification of human beings with distinctly inferior intellectual and moral characteristics. Under such circumstances, it was natural that people who were perceived, and who perceived themselves, as black would share a broad range socio-economic interests. If you’re being victimized on the basis of a racial categorization, it makes sense to throw in your lot with other victims in order to work towards a more just society.
With time however, and with the disintegration of the barriers to black equality, those common interests have faded. That’s the reality, despite the tired rhetoric of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson — the predictable ringleaders of the Imus lynch mob. “The interests of black people” is no longer a meaningful concept because nothing remains to differentiate such interests, in 2007, from the greater good. On the contrary, since it’s unquestionably the case that the overwhelming majority of black people are honest, hardworking, law-abiding citizens, their natural constituency should consist of other honest, hardworking, law-abiding citizens — in other words, people who share their socio-economic interests. But black people have been brainwashed, browbeaten and culturally cowed by the likes of Sharpton and Jackson into believing that their natural constituency is made up not of their socioeconomic peers but of a ragtag minority of sociopaths who superficially resemble them. Thus, for example, black people overwhelmingly want to repeal drug laws that land a disproportionate number of young black men in prison — despite the fact that returning them to their inner city neighborhoods guarantees more black-on-black street crime.
It serves the purpose of Sharpton and Jackson to beat the drum of black solidarity because their shtick — I honestly don’t know what else to call it at this point — depends on the continued perception by black people of their own persecution. To be black, according to those who recognize Sharpton and Jackson as legitimate leaders, including perhaps a majority of black people, is to be perpetually victimized; more than skin color, the belief in ongoing black victimization is now the unifying element of black culture. If black people ever cease to define themselves first and foremost as racial victims, then neither Sharpton nor Jackson has a following.