Racial Slurs Spotlight Historical Biases in US

Many see comments as signs of entrenched views, not casual slips

BASKETBALL superstar Charles Barkley and Rutgers University president Francis Lawrence have something in common. Each man stuck his foot in his mouth recently by uttering negative racial comments in public.

Touching off angry reactions, their statements brought into focus the deeper historical question about the level of intolerance existing in American society. Are such comments indicative of widespread prejudice and bigotry that smolders just beneath the surface of everyday American life? Or are such comments merely embarrassing ``slips of the tongue'' magnified by publicity?

Mr. Barkley of the Phoenix Suns was questioned by a white reporter about groupies who follow professional basketball players. ``That's why I hate white people,'' he said, upset at the question. Later he said he was just ``joking around'' after the remark was replayed on ESPN.

Mr. Lawrence started a firestorm among blacks and minority students at Rutgers University when he said that disadvantaged students did poorly on admissions tests because of ``genetic hereditary background.''

Student groups called for his ouster even though he apologized for his ``misstatement.'' His record at Rutgers is one of accomplishments on behalf of minority students and faculty, and university trustees have publicly expressed their support for Lawrence.

``His statement doesn't seem like a slip of the tongue,'' says Susan Musinsky, director of the Northeast region of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. ``Somewhere those words were associated together before. If he had said that in a room of African-American leaders, he would have been clobbered. Getting to the point where he could say that to leaders of other backgrounds in order to discuss it, there would have to be a tremendous sense of trust.''

Many historians say that racial tension in the United States continues because the paradoxical origin of the US has yet to be resolved. Formed in conflict by Europeans to ensure the rights of individuals, the new nation was also built on slavery and the killing and forceful removal of Indian tribes.

Not until decades later did the federal government act to protect the civil rights of all citizens and to try to end discrimination. And today, several programs put in place to address historical injustices, such as Affirmative Action, are under challenge. Some question whether they are needed.

Yet examples of intolerance are not hard to find, starting with name-calling, which is being heard not only on streets and campuses, but in the halls of Congress. Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank (D) was recently referred to as ``Barney Fag'' by House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas. Representative Frank is homosexual. Armey apologized for his ``mispronunciation.''

At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst last month, a dining-hall employee listening to a black student say, ``Eenie meenie minie moe'' over a selection of entrees, replied, ``Catch a nigger by the toe.'' Despite a letter of apology from the university to the student, student groups have demanded the employee be fired. The university issued a reprimand, but the employee was not fired or suspended.

The current nominee to head Connecticut's Veterans Affairs Department, Eugene Migliaro, refuses to apologize for a comment made seven years ago calling homosexuals ``lollipops.'' ``It's just the way an old Marine talks,'' he told a reporter.

``All of us have prejudices,'' Ms. Musinsky says, ``and if you don't know your own prejudices, it is like a blinder. Once you understand them, at least you can begin to work through them.''

But the complex individual and societal factors that lead to racial hatred, and many kinds of intolerances, are not so easily unraveled or understood. Most sociologists and professionals working to rid society of prejudices say intolerant attitudes have been deeply embedded in society for a long time.

Horace Seldon, executive director of Community Change, a nonprofit agency in Boston, has worked for 26 years on behalf of racial justice. ``I remember my father saying so many terrible anti-Semitic things as I was growing up,'' he says. `` `Jew them down' is a phrase that still comes to me every once in a while. I absolutely abhor it, but it comes to my thought. Whether or not it comes to my lips depends on my ability to beat it down.''

Anti-Semitic statements and incidents occur regularly in the US. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of anti-Semitic acts in 1994 rose to 2,066, an increase of 199 over 1993.

From a black perspective, racism today is a continuation of the European dominance of North America. The Kerner Report of 1968 concluded that blacks and whites were living in two separate nations. To many black leaders, and despite a growing black middle class, little has changed.

``I see racism as a kind of pathological condition,'' says Charles Rowell, professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and editor of Callaloo, a journal of African-American and African Arts and Letters. ``And as soon as that is healed in white communities things will change. A lot depends on how fast those communities mature on the issue of race. Discrimination against groups is learned and becomes a social and political response.''

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