Racial and Ethnic Slurs Still Pervasive

Over the past 60 years, America has seen many great advancements in science, technology and medicine. Some would say that we’ve also made great strides in race relations, thanks to such ground-breaking events as Brown v. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act and the election of an African American to the highest office in the land. Yet here we are in the year 2015, and the nation is still plagued by racial prejudice and racial slurs, the latter of which is a tangible indicator of how pervasive the former is. Slurs are spoken by people from all walks of life, some in a private setting, others in front of a national audience. Who could forget “Seinfeld” actor Michael Richards’ on-stage rant at a black heckler or Don Imus slinging a slur at the Rutgers women’s basketball team? And then there was the recent utterance by a Cleveland TV news anchor.

Following this year’s Oscar telecast, WJM’s Kristi Capel and Wayne Dawson engaged in an unscripted discussion about Lady Gaga’s musical tribute to “The Sound of Music.” Dawson, an African American, praised Gaga’s performance, then Capel, a white former Miss Missouri, responded, “It’s hard to really hear her voice with all that jigaboo music.” Dawson resisted the temptation to verbally scold Capel, so hundreds of viewers and bloggers did it for him. Within minutes of the broadcast, the Twitter universe was ablaze with criticism of the beauty queen, prompting Ms. Capel to post this apology: “I deeply regret my insensitive comment. I didn’t know the meaning, or that it was even a word.”

For me, Capel’s apology rang hollow.

First of all, how can you use a word that you don’t think is a word? Second, every caucasian with half a brain (and that pretty much describes Ms. Capel) should know that the word she used is a hurtful, insulting racial slur against black people. So what was Ms. Capel’s punishment? A paltry three-day suspension. Unfortunately that’s the typical response by employers in such situations. Why? Because unlike specific guidelines that deal with sexual harassment or vacation policy, most companies don’t publish a list of racial slurs which, when uttered, result in immediate dismissal. You’d think such a template would exist, but it doesn’t, at least not universally.

Ironically while racists are getting away with speaking the actual slurs, journalists (including this writer) are generally told to use an abbreviated version when referring to a slur. The fact that racial slurs are still spoken freely in public, and especially in the workplace, while reformers are hamstrung from teaching about those slurs, means we have not been successful in explaining to everyone why such words are so offensive. Translation? Political correctness hasn’t really corrected anything. That’s the belief held by a number of notable African American columnists, authors and comedians. Randall Kennedy, author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, warns us about the dangers of not openly confronting that particular racial slur, saying, “To be ignorant of its meaning and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend or even one’s life.”

The same could be said of most slurs, which still have a powerful impact because we haven’t done enough to explain them or to punish those who use them. For example, until I researched the derivation of racial slurs, I was ambivalent about whether the Washington Redskins football team should keep its name. But then I learned that part of the origin for that slur comes from a time in the early days of our country when white hunters would actually skin Native Americans. I am no longer ambivalent. And so, it’s not enough to simply say that racial and ethnic slurs are bad, we need to know WHY they are hurtful, both historically and currently.

I urge every corporate HR director to search the Racial Slur Data Base, the Random House Dictionary of American Slang, and the Urban Dictionary, and compile, then post a list of vile words (and their derivations) which, if spoken will result in an immediate termination of employment for the offending party. Ignorance must no longer be an acceptable reason for the use of slurs. Nor should we continue to accept hollow apologies from people who aren’t really sorry for their language, they’re just sorry they got caught.

Racial slurs should be fully understood, discussed, and then posted for all the Kristi Capels of the world to see. Employers will never be able to get rid of the hate in someone’s heart, but they can sure as hell get rid of anyone who spews that hate at work.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15). !