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The New York Sun


The Perils Of "Sensitivity"

August 24, 2006

By John H. McWhorter

According to a certain script, the informed American agonizes over "sensitivity" to minority groups. Not with fostering these groups' ability to make the best of themselves in an imperfect but workable landscape, but with "sensitivity" towards their feelings.

"Sensitivity" is what civil rights pioneer Andrew Young slipped up on recently. Praising Wal-Mart's impact in poor black areas, Mr. Young complained to a black Los Angeles newspaper about the alternative: black people "ripped off" by Jewish, Arab, and Korean store owners "selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables."

Immediately Mr. Young was condemned by assorted Jewish groups and black "spokespeople," including, of course, Al Sharpton.

However: if the shopkeepers in question were, say, Polish Americans, no one would have batted an eye. Mr.Young's sin was not just criticizing, but criticizing people who are not white Christians.

The modern American notion that doing so automatically carries gruesome "implications" is posturing in the guise of civic engagement.

It's one thing when Mel Gibson growls about Jews as the killers of Jesus, or even when Trent Lott grinningly muses about a Thurmond presidency, as if Jim Crow wasn't a crime.

But treating any and all disapproving statements about any minority group as unconscionable is a mere game of nyah-nyah. Racism is no longer the cause of everything nonwhites do that is subject to criticism. For one, nonwhites have increasing access to power. To have power is to show what one is made of,and this will inevitably include screw-ups, or just things lending themselves to many interpretations.

To wit, are the inner-city corner store owners innocently offering what the market will bear, or ought they rise above this for a greater good? Rich issue. But the current "sensitivity" ritual stipulates that we suspend engaging it seriously, in favor of genuflectively exempting colored people and Jews from all criticism.

People resist natural engagement with reality because of emotional interference. True pride weathers criticism, and even welcomes it. Self-doubt, though, seeks an artificial sense of confidence from being the noble victim. Just as the blind develop extra-sensitive hearing, insecure people can develop a pride in victimhood to fill in for a pride in self. Meanwhile,whites who support minorities in this rank the self-congratulation of "feeling our pain" over requiring us to make sense, a condescension in itself.

The insincerity of the "sensitivity" racket is clear in how strained the accusation against Mr.Young is. He marched with Reverend King as the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, represented in Congress a Georgia just steps past Jim Crow, and was ambassador to the United Nations. The man is even an ordained minister. Might we entertain that this is one person who has the racism thing covered?

Anyone who pretends otherwise is driven by inner demons.

One senses a desperate hunger for a fix among these "critics," even hauling out accusations that require mental acrobatics to comprehend. Both Mitt Romney and Tony Snow have been jumped recently for using the word tar baby to mean "sticky situation," the idea being that it is also a racial slur. Romney is "completely disconnected with reality in terms of racial sensitivity," Boston NAACP president Leonard Atkins teaches us.

Excuse me, but in 40 years of reality I have never heard tar baby used as a slur. If it was more current a long time ago, why are we drawing and quartering people for not being etymologists? In 1911, a joke name for a black person who dressed up and strove for advancement was "Alexander," a polysyllabic, dignified name like this seen as incongruous for a black man. Hence the title of the song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was a race joke. Who knows today? And now that we do, who cares?

Presumably, about as many who care that the French use a word for a kind of monkey, macaque, as a pejorative term for North Africans. But last week the blogosphere was alight with the delicious notion that Senator George Allen picked this term up on his Tunisian Mom's knee, and then jocularly hurled it at a brown-skinned (actually Indian) Democratic functionary filming one of his speeches.

"Sensitive" Allen has not always been, with his erstwhile fondness for Confederate memorabilia. Nor, however, is he brain dead, which he would be to gleefully lob a racial slur—repeatedly, mind you—at a brown man he knew was from the opposing camp, pointing a camera right at him.It's unlikely that someone who has made it as far as the Senate lacks the basic cognitive equipment of our species. "Macaca"—as opposed to the French word which is pronounced "ma-COCK"—was Mr. Allen's clumsy on-the-spot cartoon name for a foreigner. Dopey—and as such, trivial: people truly concerned with discrimination would not find the episode worth attention.

"Sensitivity" today means: "We reserve the right to stop sociopolitical discourse dead on a moment's notice on the basis of laborious interpretations of innocuous statements as racist."

There is no genuine constructive intent in that. Activism is weakened by people who are more turned on by press-friendly melodramatics than by nuts-and-bolts initiatives to help the poor.

Original Source:



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