The casual racism of the liberal newspaper of record

The New York Times never fails to astonish me with its casual, unthinking racism. It seems that the journalists and editors employed at the Times either have no training in the appropriate use of words, or are simply incapable of associating the word “people” with blacks, be they Africans, African-Americans, or as in this case, Haitians.

This is from the front page a few days ago. Check out the caption below the picture:

It’s not the first time that I’ve come across poor people of color being described as “scavengers” by the Times. Yes, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us of one of the favorable uses of the term. “Scavenger,” in this favorable sense, refers to: “one who labours for the removal of public evils.” But surely, that’s not what the caption under the picture here is implying. The connotations of the word “scavenger” are overwhelmingly negative, not positive. The OED includes, among its definitions of the word “scavenger,” the following:

One who or something which removes dirt or putrid matter. Applied to various animals that feed on decaying matter, esp. the scavenger beetle.
One who collects filth; one who does ‘dirty work’; a dishonourable person.

Remember this, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?

"Looters" and "Finders"

Déjà vu all over again. And again.

But these instances point to a larger problem: the fact that, over the last two decades or so, our understanding of the place of language in social change has gone backwards. When I first arrived in the U.S. in 1992, I learned very quickly to use words more self-consciously than I had been accustomed to. This was when the so-called “culture wars” were still raging in academia and in the public sphere. The attack on “political correctness” had gathered pace, but the legacy of the 1960s had not yet been erased. Thanks to my left-leaning grad student friends at Syracuse, I soon learned that women did not appreciate being called “girls” or “ladies,” any more than gay people appreciated being called “pansies” (yes indeed, my political awakening was rather belated).

I remember reading a socialist pamphlet called What’s Behind the Attack on ‘Politically Correct’? by Lance Selfa, and getting my first clear understanding of the battle lines in these “culture wars.” Where liberals and leftists were being accused of “policing language,” there was something much larger at stake. The right-wing backlash against the gains of the 1960s was the cultural counterpart to the “employer’s offensive” that sought to turn back the clock on the wage- and benefits-gains of the postwar decades.

Lance Selfa’s useful pamphlet is, sadly, out of print today. I think it is perhaps more relevant today than it was in 1991 when it was published, because each day brings me new reminders of just how much the Right has succeeded in pushing back against the progressive thrust of “political correctness.” Indeed, the phrase itself has morphed into a slur. Small wonder that my students, many of whom were toddlers when Selfa’s pamphlet came out, scoff at my discomfort when they refer to women as “girls,” or when they casually toss around words like “bitch” and “bitching.”

We are long overdue for a new political and cultural upheaval that will push us to look forward into the future rather than backward.