Rep. Charlie Rangel, someone I deeply respect for his long commitment to racial and social justice, recently used the term "white cracker" in a comment likening the Tea Party to the Southern white racists who inflicted violence on those folks non-violently and peacefully demonstrating for the rights guaranteed everyone by our Constitution. I don't think I need to spell out further which side I believe was the right one in that conflict. Here's what Rangel said about the Tea Party:
“It is the same group we faced in the South with those white crackers and the dogs and the police. They didn’t care about how they looked. It was just fierce indifference to human life that caused America to say enough is enough. ‘I don’t want to see it and I am not a part of it.’ What the hell! If you have to bomb little kids and send dogs out against human beings, give me a break.”Rangel was, of course, totally justified in condemning what happened to the Civil Rights protesters. His fury is righteous, of that there is no question. Regarding his use of the term "white cracker," there's been, apparently, some outrage on the right about this. That's politically motivated bunk, and, frankly, interests me very little. The last thing I intend here is to provide some kind of support for those crocodile tears. I have a more substantive, philosophical argument to make about tolerating the use of derogatory terms for a group of people.
Let's be clear about some things. Rangel's use of the term "white cracker" is, if we're going to compare, nowhere near as disturbing or hurtful an insult as the use of the n-word, by a white person, aimed at black people. That is obvious to anyone conversant with and honest about the history of the term, the history of racism and oppression white people and America as a whole have imposed on black Americans. It's very important to state that up front.
Having said that, I can't accept that it is somehow "right" for Rangel -- in particular given his position as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives -- to have used that term from a moral perspective. It is certainly less "wrong" than calling a black person the n-word. But it is, nonetheless, wrong. There's a discussion on the rec list (I mistakenly wrote "front page" originally, sorry) right now in which the poster, someone I also have a lot of respect for, and whose posts I follow with interest, expresses a different opinion. That poster focuses on the accuracy of the term "white cracker," which he defines as an acceptable synonym for white racist, and thus argues that Rangel was "right" to use that term. That post inspired me to write this one.
We anti-racists have argued for years that the decision about whether a term is offensive or not belongs to the party at whom the term is aimed. We've rightly not tolerated, in the best known example, non-black people claiming that they aren't using the n-word to refer to black people in general, just to the "bad" ones (criminals, etc.). We tell such people that they don't get to decide that their particular use of a slur is not offensive, it's simply not up to them.
Intellectually, philosophically, morally, and politically, it is untenable to say that the rules of deciding what is offensive are one thing for terms aimed at whites in America, and something else for terms aimed at groups who have traditionally faced discrimination. The same goes, obviously, for other kinds of slurs, those aimed at groups defined by religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Men don't get to say, "I don't mean all women when I say c*^t." And gay people DO get to decide that they want to use the word "queer" as a term of empowerment.
We who reject bigotry argue that the term belongs to the ones targeted. That argument rests on strong moral grounds, and those moral grounds must apply universally. If we undercut the universality of that argument, we undercut our ability to fight hate. And applying that argument universally gives us the moral high ground when it matters most, namely when we seek to combat bigotry aimed at historically oppressed groups.
It's simply wrong to use an ethnic slur, and cracker has been determined to be a slur by the people it's aimed at, in it's most widespread, accepted definition, namely as a synonym for redneck, or white trash Southerner. Here's the definition from Merriam Webster:
(usually disparaging): a poor usually Southern white
Some whites have sought to "reclaim" it and use it on their own terms, as has been done with other slurs. That fact does not alter my argument.
When used by anyone other than a Southern white, it is an ethnic/regional slur. And if we are going to build a better world, a world with less animosity and hate across group lines, we have to clearly proclaim that certain things are wrong, and not just wrong because they are done to people who have been deeply wronged in the past. Saying it's ok to insult white people because they are white destroys our credibility, period.
This is not about whether white racism is rampant in the Tea Party. It is. I've written about Tea Party racism, the slurs aimed at Barack Obama, and at African Americans in general. It's real, serious and widespread. But that's not the point.
If Charlie Rangel wanted to say that the Tea Party consists of a bunch of white racists who remind him of Bull Connor, George Wallace, et. al., then he should have used the word "white racists" instead of "white crackers." And, as academic studies have shown, he'd have been right.
P.S.—Please check out my new book Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, published by Potomac Books, where I discuss Barack Obama's ideas on racial, ethnic, and national identity in detail, and contrast his inclusive vision to language coming from Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh and (some) others on the right. You can read a review by Daily Kos's own Greg Dworkin here.