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Published on Tuesday, April 11, 2000 in the Cape Cod Times
Who Are The Bush People?
by Sean Gonsalves
Porch monkey. Nigger. Okay, now breathe....That's right, breathe. Let's talk about these words - words that became a huge public relations nightmare for the Bush campaign last week.

Ever heard of Charles W. Williams? Well, brother Williams, 57, was appointed by George Dubya to oversee Texas' law enforcement training. Now this appointment came a year after Williams said - in a sworn deposition, mind you - that words like "porch monkey" are not necessarily racial slurs.

He also said that calling my forbears "niggers" 50 years ago was no big deal and, in fact, black folks didn't mind white people calling them "nigger" in those days.

"I was born and raised with blacks, and back then we had Nigger Charlie and Nigger Sam, Nigger Joe, and we regarded those people with all the respect in the world. That was their name," explained the south-central Oklahoma native. "It just depends on how ('nigger') is used and who it's used toward," Williams tried to explain last week.

According to Bush spokesman Mike Jones, the GOP presidential candidate was not aware of the Williams deposition when the appointment was made. Jones says Bush has appointed about 3,000 people to more than 200 boards and commissions. The implication being that someone in the Bush gubernatorial administration recommended the appointment, a "standard" background check was done that did not turn up the deposition, and Bush signed his name on the official papers.

That's a plausible explanation. However, that would indicate that the Bush people, while they may look into whether or not a nominee has a criminal background, they don't so carefully probe civil litigation where they are likely to find evidence of discriminatory abuses of power on the part of the nominee (if it exists).

Of course, there's some truth to what Williams said. The intention of the speaker matters. And, certain words do take on different meanings depending on who is speaking. So on one level brother Williams is correct. But that doesn't settle the issue.

I've had numerous conversations with white brothers and sisters in which it became clear that they defined a "racist" as a person who intends to harm someone of a different racial or ethnic group with either words or action.

But, for sure, that definition is far too slippery. There's an important distinction to be made between a bigot and a racist. Yes, all racists are bigots but not all bigots are racists. Why? Racism is inextricably linked to power. Racism is prejudice plus power. And, I would add, racism is inextricably tied to history.

In Western civilization, racism was born out of the belly of white supremacy and nourished in a culture that systematically degraded black beauty, intelligence and moral worth for centuries, justifying some of the most brutal circumstances in human history; not the least of which being a period in early 20th-century America, where some black body was tortured and lynched every three-and-half days!

Much confusion results when black folks use the word "racist" to refer both to bigoted (and relatively harmless) whites who have no power over the life-opportunities of blacks and those white people who personally don't mean any harm to blacks but who cash in on white-skin privilege nevertheless.

For example, "color-blind" affirmative action opponents who remain silent, or support, racial profiling by police, banks or other businesses.

Now about the word "nigger." It is commonly said that blacks in general, and my generation in particular, are using a double-standard in that we call each other "nigger" but freak-out if a white person says it.

Again, we need to make crucial distinctions. We don't call each other "nigg-er." Some of us say "nigg-a." It's a subtle difference in pronunciation and meaning. For example, a black basketball fan might say of Vince Carter: "that's my nigga," meaning "Carter is one of my favorite basketball players." That's different from a pompous or angry white person saying "nigger," which conjures up images of brutal oppression, as it is probably intended in such cases.

I've heard Puerto Ricans and poor whites, who grew up in the hood, use the word "nigg-a" without their black peers batting an eye; and vice versa. Key word is peer. The relationship is among equals. There's no implied threat. Recall the scene in "Jackie Brown" where Samuel Jackson says to (and of) DeNiro: "my nigg-a."

So we're talking about power relationships here. Blacks didn't have the power to stop whites from using the word, so we flipped it around and made it a term of endearment in order to nullify its sting. White people with social power are criticized by marginalized blacks when whites relate to blacks unequally; not because of word usage. But that's still a small price to pay for white-skin privilege, don't you think?

I suspect the Williams deposition will not ultimately hinder Bush. The Willie Horton ad didn't prevent his father from winning the White House.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columinist. He can be reached via email:

Copyright 2000 Cape Cod Times


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