The “N-Word” and the “M-Word”
I think I’ve earned a couple of short ones … this is an opinion I’ve had for a while, and is reasonably topical given that the world has been buzzing recently with the news that the Republican Party in the USA might be about to re-address its Southern strategy.
I am somewhat less optimistic than, say, Brad DeLong that this will herald a new dawn of racial equality in the USA. Students of history will be aware that the “negro problem” has been around since well before De Tocqueville identified it as such, and the whole history of civil wars and civil rights doesn’t appear to have done anything about it. The history of civil wars and civil rights is particularly unfortunate in as much as it tends to a) throw up clouds of partisan bullshit relating to whether it was the Republicans or the Democrats who did this or that, and b) throw up clouds of regionalist bullshit relating to whether the South of the USA is uniquely horrible and “racist” compared to the Northeast or not.
Before pursuing this line of thought, I’d like to make a quick and controversial assertion about language, which will contain one use of the word now known in polite American circles as the “N-Word”. I warn readers of this because it seems, I don’t know why, that this “N-Word” has taken the place of the sexual swear words as the Worst Thing You Can Say. I don’t actually blame “political correctness” for this, because fear and revulsion for the “N-Word” goes well beyond those who regularly take pains not to cause needless offence. It appears that a much stronger taboo has grown up; everyone in America has agreed that the mere use of this word is beyond the pale, and I am enough of an old Freudian to believe that this taboo is based on the repression of something important. OK, warning over, here’s the opinion:
In the opinion of D-Squared Digest, the epithet “nigger” is a much less offensive term when used to refer to an American of African descent, than the more popular word “minority”.
Because, in the opinion of D2D, a bluntly stated truth is less offensive than an Orwellian lie. The word “minority” is the clearest and most pernicious example of Newspeak that I can come up with today. “Minority” is a word which means “Black, Southeast Asian, American Indian, Indian and all other non-white”, but which is often used in contexts (particularly, university admissions) in which it can only be reasonably interpreted as meaning “Black”. I will for the moment pass over the slightly revolting points of etymology whereby the Polish-Americans, Italians, Irish and even Jewish-Americans are no longer considered to be “minorities” and get to the meat of the issue.
The word “Minority” in its modern use, is offensive and pernicious because it aggregates the experience of the USA’s immigrant communities with its African community. Uniquely among non-Native American ethnic groups, the majority of Americans of African descent are not descended from immigrants1. They are descended from slaves. I do not feel that I am exaggerating, and do not expect anyone to invoke “Godwin’s Law” on me, when I say that the use of the word “minority” to lump together the populations who arrived in America in search of an idea of freedom, with the single population which arrived in America as chattel slaves, is something uncomfortably akin to Holocaust denial.
“Nigger”, on the other hand, is a blunt diminutive of “Negro”, which is powerful in its capacity to offend African Americans precisely because it tells the truth about their status in the social hierarchy of the USA; right at the bottom, reflecting their history as slaves.
When one thinks about the matter in this way, a number of social issues become clear. America does not have a problem with “race”; it is, in all likelihood, the most non-racist society in existence. America is today, as it was in de Tocqueville’s day, an open, colourblind, melting-pot society with a Negro problem.
For example, we can talk all day about why it is that Black Americans lack the “social capital” of, say Chinese Americans. Why do they not have strong extended family links and social and business networks? Because they were separated from their families by slave traders and shipped two thousand miles away from their social capital, in chains. They even lost their surnames, for God’s sake..
Why is “black culture” so opposed to learning/advancement/success/anything except criminality and music? Why do black children seem to regard doing well in school as “white”? Because culture is history, and the history of black people in America is one which has given them no reason at all to trust white people.
I could go on multiplying examples, but am reluctant to do so because it would look like British America-bashing, and that would be stupid and unfair. The British bear more responsibility for the problems created by the transatlantic slave trade than the USA does, because it was for the main part the British who ran it. I’m only talking about America because it matters, and because this particular problem is located within its borders. But let’s just state the main crux of the problem.
What is the Negro Problem in the USA? It is nothing to do with “racism”. It has everything to do with the fact that a large minority of the population are the ongoing victims of one of the most monstrous crimes in history.
This is why, in general, I have a sneaking suspicion that the well-spoken people who use the word “minority”, while “decrying all kinds of racism, black and white” are a much greater obstacle to progress than the people who use the word “nigger”. I think that Martin Luther King Jr agreed.
I happened upon the points above while trying to put together a few ideas of my own in solution of the Negro problem, after reading a few articles on the history of the London Irish. Given that the problem of black people in America seems so bloody intractable, we ought to take heart from the fact that as recently as 1955, the Irish lived three families to a tenement in some of the worst slums in London. Given the hurried and scattershot nature of the Irish Diaspora, they suffered from some of the same problems of broken family networks which characterise the African Diaspora, and it is extremely encouraging to see how quickly the virtuous circle can work when it begins to happen; the Irish would have been fairly and squarely considered as “minorities” fifty years ago; to suggest that they were a systematically underprivileged or even genetically inferior group today would be to make a bad joke.
How did the Irish managed to rebuild their social capital? Basically, through local government corruption.
I’d recommend everyone to read Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, the memoirs of a ward boss in New York City at the turn of the century. It’s a cracking read, and it will teach you more than a hundred years of high school civics lessons. Plunkitt describes how the Irish built themselves up in two or three generations from the lowest of the low (apart from the blacks) to the level where one of their number became President. In short, forget about all the outreach programs, “it takes a village”, “each one teach one” and all the other crap you can hear on Oprah and every Black History Month. There has been only one case in which a scattered diaspora reached the USA and built itself up to become integrated with the rest of the American class structure, and they did it like this:
- First, recognise that your vote is worth something.
- Second, recognise that blocks of votes, if they can be delivered, are worth much more than general sympathies
- Third, organise your blocks of votes under ward captains. (Tammany Hall often got 99% straight ticket voting and 99% turnout, better than Saddam Hussein)
- Fourth, the ward capitans must look after their people with government jobs.
- Repeat election after election, until no longer needed.
After fifty years of machine politics, there was no reason for an Irish youth to want to go into crime, booze or any other of the recreations of the poor and desperate. They were no longer stigmatised. Like it or not, it worked.
This analysis would suggest that the model for the black community in the USA has to be the Reverend Al Sharpton. I am always bewildered at the number of well-meaning, high-school civics types on the internet who profess not to understand “why the Democrats pay court to a race-baiter like Sharpton”. It’s because he delivers his block of votes, and by doing that, he has done more for his people at a practical level than any other Democrat has even thought about. Sure, he’s often crossed over the line into outright racism, but remember: America doesn’t have a problem with racism. It has a problem with black people. And when you’re attempting to maintain the solidarity of a racial block, racism has to be part of the territory. What I’m saying is, that if every major city in the USA had an Al Sharpton, there would for certain be a hell of a lot more time and effort expended on things that black people care about.
Anyway, this comment has grown to be longer and more rambling than it ought to have been, and has probably lost most of its impact as a result. I’m not certain about my conclusion; I started trying to look into the Plunkitt model of development shortly after giving up hope on slavery reparations. But what I do know is that America is going to be stuck with the Negro Problem for another two hundred years if the best that polite thinking can offer us is to demonise the “Souther Racists” and dress up the problem with weasel words like “minorities”.
1This line of thinking comes from Malcom X, who memorably reminded us “We never landed on Plymouth Rock! Plymouth Rock landed on us!”