TODAY'S vocabulary lesson is inspired by the local government of Washington, D.C., which is to actual governing what boxer Brian London -- the "Human Speed Bag" -- was to the science of pugilism.
It started Jan. 15, the day Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 70. King once said he was glad to live in the latter part of the 20th century, which he described as history's most exciting time. That's because he never got to see what the 1990s would be like.
David Howard, who committed the offense of being white and male at birth and was at the time the director of the Office of the Public Advocate for the District of Columbia, used the word "niggardly" in a conversation with two black employees.
"The word does not have any racial connotations," Howard said in his statement announcing his resignation. "I realize that staff members present were offended by the word. I immediately apologized."
Howard heard over the next 10 days that he had used a "vicious racist remark." Let's stop mincing words here. An inaccurate rumor mill, driven by black folk who not only specialize in being offended but wake up each morning looking for something to be offended by, went to work on Howard. By the time the rumor mill had done its work, Howard was depicted as the next Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who had spat out the word "nigger," not as someone who had used the word "niggardly" in the exact context for which it was intended. Howard resigned Monday "in the best interest of my office."
So a white guy uses the word "niggardly" in front of two Negroes suffering from an acute case of vocabulary impairment and is pilloried as a racist. Anthony Williams, the newly elected mayor of the nation's capital, instead of chastising the employees and challenging them to expand their lexicon, issued this insipid pap:
"I have accepted the resignation of David Howard, the recently appointed director of the Office of the Public Advocate. Mr. Howard's resignation was prompted by reports that he made an inappropriate racial comment."
The remaining three paragraphs of Williams' statement express his dismay at the "racial divide" in Washington, his wish to include all people in his administration, and his angst that some blacks have dismissed him as "not black enough" and have protested his appointment of whites to positions in the city administration.
To call Williams' comments pathetic drivel would be too kind. He has knuckled under, folded completely and totally wimped out to those blacks who believe that whites have no place in a District of Columbia mayoral administration and that the entire English language should be revamped to appease the perpetually hurt feelings of African-Americans.
Williams' job is cut out for him. Any white official who says he or she saw a raccoon on the way to work will have to go. Raccoon contains that offensive term "coon." The word "spade" can no longer be used, even in the context of a shovel or a card suit.
To ensure equal time for other ethnic groups, members of Williams' administration had best not use terms like "spick-and-span" and "chink in the armor." Italian-Americans probably would not get offended by the terms "whopping increase" or "guinea pig," but then again Italian-Americans don't view Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's conservatism as an ethnic crisis or treasonous.
It's quite the pity that Williams didn't track down the folks driving the rumor mill and kick them right out the door behind Howard. They deserve to go more than he does. But any guy who admits to being nervous that he isn't "black enough" probably doesn't have the backbone to give such grousers the well-deserved boot. Williams' response to the "not black enough" charge should have been: "I'm not black enough? But Marion Barry, the crackhead, was?"
Blacks offended by the word "niggardly" need to check their offense at the door, to stop seeing insults where none are intended and looking for white racists in every closet and under every desk. David Howard's resignation doesn't bridge the racial divide vexing Anthony Williams. In fact, it increases it. It also makes blacks appear not too swift on the uptake. A scene in which blacks believe the word "niggardly" is a racial insult sounds like it could have been written for the "Amos 'n' Andy" show. Much to the embarrassment of African-Americans, it happened in real life.
And it happened because of a bunch of nigglers -- look the word up before you get offended -- who probably haven't cracked a dictionary in years.
Pub Date: 1/31/99