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Schooling Representative Ryan

Laws and Legislation

The Inner city: Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin had to defend himself this week from accusations of racism. 

The accusations were prompted by this statement in an interview: "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work. There is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."

The accusers assumed that his reference to inner cities was coded language for African-American. Mr. Ryan denied any racist intent, explaining that he had instead been "inarticulate." 

It is possible that Mr. Ryan was being disingenuous, but also possible that he is remarkably ill-informed for someone in high office. I recall that inner city made the jump from urban planner and sociologist lingo to the general audience during the riots of the late 1960s, when black people in the inner cities--Newark, Baltimore, Chicago, and others--erupted in rage. 

Mr. Ryan is only forty-four years old, and I suppose that someone born in 1970 only heard about all of this in school. But it would take a remarkable naivete to miss that while there are many poor white people in the Republic, that term inner city in journalism almost always means poor black urban people.

Keith Woods wrote at Poynter.org in 2003: "We use 'inner-city youth' to mean young people who are poor, black, Latino, Asian or Native American -– though it is most-often reserved for the first two. It never means 'white' ..." And now that poverty has spread from the core city to the nearer suburbs, inner city as a code word for poor people has lost most of its original sense. 

What it is useful for now is race code. Most people are no longer openly racist, because it has come to be regarded as a Bad Thing. So when they want to say that African-Americans are lazy, shiftless, sexually overactive, prone to drug addiction, or parasitic on society without being impolite, they have to use code words. Inner city is one of them, and Mr. Ryan has now been informed of this.

The quoted word: You notice that I put inarticulate within quotation marks above. This is a standard journalistic technique for emphasizing that a speaker used Any Particular Word, and it is a bad idea. 

It is a bad idea because the reader may interpret that you are singling out Any Particular Word skeptically or ironically, the way people do in speech when they use the two-handed air quotes gesture. 

In editing I usually take out the quotation marks around single words, and lo, it usually makes no difference whatsover to the substance of the article. 

On a completely unrelated subject: I have given up sporadic efforts over the past few years to justify an hotel to my readers.* No one pays attention; no one responds. 

And yet I regularly see texts in which people have written an Hispanic. So how come? Huh, huh? 


 

*The justification went like this: The aspirant in hotel is lightly voiced because the accent is on the second syllable. You don't say HO-tel unless you're from Texas. When you say "an hotel" in American English, it's not "an ohtel"; the h is still there, but subtly, just barely heard. 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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