Now in his eighth term in the Senate, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia has for years been the custodian of that body's most hallowed traditions: publicity-seeking, hypocrisy, and preening, self-serving, pretend-literary and (above all) interminable oratory. No one who has followed his career would have been terribly surprised by the mix of moral self-regard and intellectual complacency he put on display on Fox News two Sundays ago. Speaking of race relations, Byrd prattled: "My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that. There are white niggers. I have seen a lot of white niggers in my time. I'm going to use that word."
The problem is that contemporary American mores hold "that word" to be the most (perhaps the only) obscene or blasphemous word in the language. Ken Starr's report on the Lewinsky affair made use of a sexual lexicon that would put the Kama Sutra to shame?but he wouldn't use "that word." Ted Turner recently described Catholics returning from Ash Wednesday Mass as "Jesus freaks"?but he wouldn't use "that word," either. In contemporary politics, the only people who feel they can use the word "nigger" are liberal Democrats, who appear to get a frisson out of imputing to their ideological opponents a desire to use it. But the 83-year-old Byrd belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in his youth, and is therefore not just any liberal Democrat.
After the show, following the first rule in the Robert Byrd Code of Personal Conduct (which is: Never use a one-syllable word when a six-syllable one will do), the Senator apologized?not for the word but for the "characterization." Although this was not much of an apology, Byrd's Democratic Senate colleagues, even the most racially "sensitive" among them, were eager to take it as one. Barbara Boxer said, "I'm glad he apologized." Chuck Schumer said, "I'm not going to talk about it." Tom Harkin called it merely an "unfortunate choice of words." Dick Durbin said, "Robert Byrd's reputation in the Senate is still strong." In other words, they exhaled in relief and mumbled the credo of the Clinton-era Democrat: It's time to move on.
That wasn't good enough for Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, who complained that Byrd had "hedged" his mea culpa, and insisted that "a very profound apology" was in order. The senators were wrong. Frank was right.
It is, of course, possible to be too sensitive on this matter. In February, California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante used the word?by accident?while giving a speech in honor of Black History Month to the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in Emeryville, CA. He was running through a history of organized labor in American black life: "Those are the seeds that formed the black labor movement," he began, "that over the years has led to the establishment of the American Negro Labor Committee in 1925?the National Negro Congress in 1936?the National Negro Labor Council in 1951..." Only Bustamante didn't say National Negro Labor Council.
Bustamante is not only not a racist. At a time when there are plenty of Mexican-Americans in California who look at blacks?whom Latinos now outnumber at least four to one statewide?as rivals in a battle for government patronage, Bustamante's strategy has always been to lead his constituents into alliances with blacks. That's why Bustamante, California's highest elected Hispanic, was invited before a powerful black group in the first place.
Any nonblack who's had to discuss racial matters in public knows basically what happened to Bustamante. The etiquette of race language is so strictly policed that no nonblack can read aloud a sentence that contains the word "Negro" a half-dozen times without a jittery feeling. As Bustamante began reciting the history of Negro this, Negro that, thoughts entered his head along the lines of: Wow, just 30 years ago, they used to be called Negroes. And then more thoughts like: Careful you don't repeat the word Negro inadvertently! And then: That's nothing! Before that they were called worse things. And then, finally, other thoughts like: Make sure you don't say nigger. Don't! Don't! Don't say it! And then the inevitable-in-retrospect slip, which on the deepest psychoanalytic level was less a violation of political correctness than an homage to it.
Bustamante wasn't even sure what he'd said. At the end of the speech, he said, "If you heard what I think I heard..." They had. People were mad. One black teenage activist told a reporter, "A person's disguised understanding of a people was manifested..." To which one can only remark: No, it wasn't. California Gov. Gray Davis called the remark "indefensible." No, it isn't. The Los Angeles Times called it "potentially a career-ender." It may well be. But it shouldn't be.
No such defense is even plausible for Byrd. After the Fox News incident, Byrd's spokesman Tom Gavin told reporters, "It certainly wasn't the best of words. He meant to criticize members of his own race." If Byrd really believes that, he's delusional. Because the phrase "white nigger" is insulting to black people, not white people. The insult, interestingly enough, lies in the adjective, not in the noun. (Think of "male nurse," or of "white trash"?which carries with it the assumption that trash is a synonym for black unless you receive a strong adjectival signal to the contrary.)
What's most curious is the way Byrd brings his mother into the discussion. It's tough to tell where her voice leaves off and his picks up, but it seems he learned the expression from her. He actually seems proud of it, trying to pass off the saying "There are white niggers" as meaning something like "Bad manners?and therefore good?know no race." If the two expressions are identical, then "nigger" becomes a race-blind word meaning "person with really bad manners." But we know that that's not what people like Mrs. Byrd used the word "nigger" to mean. Byrd is telling a small untruth about his family life, because if his mother was the race-blind paragon Byrd implies, how did she feel that day he came home and said, "Hey, Mom, can you sew me a hood?"
But worse, he's telling a big, outrageous lie about the moral universe he and his mother inhabited. Perhaps political correctness is to blame for why we can no longer tell the difference between a "bad word" and a "slur." As the essayist Richard Rodriguez writes, "For generations, Americans spoke the N-word, referring to slaves, to human beings they regarded as chattel. They used the word casually. They meant their cruelty to be mundane." The whole point of a slur is that it allows for no recourse to manners or education or non-skin-color-related criteria. There were not, in point of fact, "white niggers" in the Jim Crow South, and to claim there were is to misrepresent what segregation was all about. Democratic State Sen. David Paterson of Harlem was about the only politician who understood that such a misrepresentation was at the heart of Byrd's use of the term. "I don't know what a white version of it would be," Paterson said, "because I don't know what a black version of it would be." Ultimately, Mama Byrd's statement is a summons to a hatred even more comprehensive than pre-World War II West Virginia made room for.
But what of her son? Was he trying to reclaim the word "nigger" through sleight of hand, in much the same way right-wing grammarians try to reclaim the word "gay"? Or is he just senile? If so, then it appears likely he never really mended his ways after his KKK "episode," only kept the battlement of his mind well manned with vigilant sentries, while inside he marveled: "Wow, these people are easy to fool."
In the Byrd incident's aftermath, a number of Republicans were quick to remark that there was a double standard for racial etiquette, and that any Republican would have been asked to resign if he'd done what Byrd had done?or even if he'd committed the gaffe DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe did three weeks ago, when he referred at a fundraiser to "colored people." The Republicans had a point, even if they didn't always make it elegantly. As Dick Armey said, "There's a rhetorical symbiosis between being a Democrat and getting away with it."
Rhetorical symbiosis? Who does Armey think he is, Robert Byrd?