California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is in the midst of one of the worst scandals of his career. No, the state's second-highest-ranking elected official was not accused of child molestation, adultery, or influence peddling; he was accused of using the dreaded "N-word."
On February 13, in a speech to a group of black trade unionists, Bustamante was reciting a list of African-American labor organizations established in the early 1900s, many of which included the word "Negro" in their titles. While uttering one of those names, Bustamante let slip the word "nigger" instead of 'negro.' A handful of blacks in the audience stormed out in protest, and Bustamante has been apologizing up and down the state ever since.
A legion of black and Latino officials rushed to the defense of Bustamante, the state's first Latino lieutenant governor, citing his excellent record on affirmative action and relations with the African American community. Still, that hasn't saved the man from being momentarily shoved into the ignominious ranks of such notables as Cincinnati owner Marge Schott, Dodger executive Al Campanis, and a parade of other prominent whites who speared themselves with their mouths.
The difference, however, is that most of them deliberately uttered racist epithets that pandered to the most vile stereotypes about blacks. Bustamante, it seems clear, is guilty of nothing but an especially ill-timed slip of the tongue.
The colossal danger in lumping someone like him in with bigots is that it deepens racial resentments and heightens tensions. It forces many non-blacks to walk in mortal fear that if they say anything about blacks, no matter how trivial, they will be swiftly called on the carpet. That fear is already too well-founded: a Washington, DC city official briefly lost his job in 1999 because he used the word "niggardly" -- a term meaning miserly that has nothing to do with African Americans.
All of this also leaves blacks open to the charge that they propagate double standards on race. Black rappers, comedians and writers have made a virtual fetish out of using the word nigger, to no angry outcry from other blacks. Some black writers go through tortuous gyrations to justify using the word. They claim that they are cleansing the word of its negative connotations so that racists can no longer use it to hurt blacks. Comedian- turned-activist Dick Gregory had this in mind years ago when he titled his autobiography "Nigger."
Many blacks say they use the word endearingly or affectionately, as in "You're my nigger." Comedian Russell Simmons went to the outer limits of this racial self-flagellation when he said: "Twenty years ago 'nigger' was self-defeating. When we say 'nigger' now it's very positive."
Blacks' hypersensitivity to the same word in non-black mouths can in part be traced to the notion that everything that happens to African-Americans, from racially motivated hate attacks to police abuse, is part of an on-going orchestrated assault on blacks. Racial paranoia theories have been rampant since the urban riots of the 1960s. The conspiracy buffs claim that the ghettos were flooded with drugs, alcohol, gangs and guns, and that AIDS was deliberately imported during the 1980s. The "white establishment," the argument went, wanted to stop blacks from developing unity or strong political organizations and to self-destruct instead.
There is no evidence that any of this is true. However, an endless line of black politicians, ministers and sports icons know the drill well. Whenever they are accused of sexual hijinks, bribery, corruption, drug dealing, and even murder they reflexively shout that they are victims of a racist conspiracy. It's a well-worn but sure-fire crowd pleaser, because many blacks are conditioned to believe that anything whites, and now Latinos, do or say is evil and malicious. It's also another example of double standards, considering that the victims of the misdeeds of black miscreants are almost always other blacks.
The well-intentioned but naive Bustamante was the latest to get whacked hard by racial correctness. And as long as many blacks see racists behind every errant word uttered by a prominent figure, he won't be the last.