When is a Racial Slur not Offensive? Never.

Not long ago, Prince Harry, son of the late Princess Diana and third in line for the British throne, unleashed a storm of controversy after a three-year-old home video was released in which the prince used the terms paki and raghead. The video was shot while Prince Harry was still a cadet at Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy.

In the first scene the prince pans his camera over fellow soldiers waiting in an airport departure lounge, pausing on fellow cadet Ahmed Raza Khan and referring to him as “our little paki friend.” In another scene, he tells another soldier that he “look[ed] like a raghead.” Prince Harry rightfully caught flak and did the right thing by promptly apologizing, but he’s had more than his fair share of apologists who want us to believe that calling someone a paki or raghead is not really that offensive. But they’re wrong: directing a racial slur at someone is always offensive.

Rod Richards, a former Royal Marine and Foreign Office minister in the Conservative government of John Major had this to say in defense of Prince Harry’s use of the slurs:

I am a Welshman and it was quite common for people like me to be called Taffy. Similar nicknames are also used for people from other parts of the world. The use of the word ‘Paki’ doesn’t surprise me but in a military context, it is not derogatory. People are making an issue out of something that is not an issue.” 

And this was the response of Michael Evans, Defense Editor of the Times Online:

Prince Harry was clearly not attempting to be deliberately offensive towards his Pakistani colleague but appeared to be using the pejorative term in a light-hearted way. Similarly, the term ‘raghead’ is used not infrequently in the Army when soldiers are referring to the ‘opposition’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Richards and Evans, and the many others who defended the prince, are missing the point. Paki and raghead are not mere pet names that can be tossed around willy-nilly. They are racial slurs and that makes them offensive. For starters, paki and raghead are used solely in reference to South Asians and Arabs/Muslims respectively, and never as terms of endearment or respect. Furthermore, calling people names based on their skin color, ethnicity, language, or region of origin is plain wrong. Even kindergarteners know that. After all, nobody chooses their skin color or where they were born, and nobody should be called names because of things over which they have no control.

But the bigger issue here is that unlike nicknames, which may stem from an individual’s height, weight, or hair color, racial slurs are used against entire populations. And, unlike nicknames, racial slurs are created and used in specific  historical and political contexts. In other words, they are created in a context of inequality in which one group (let’s call them the namecallers) creates and uses a slur while simultaneously doing violence to, marginalizing, exploiting, or otherwise denigrating another group (let’s call them the namecallees). For this reason, it is impossible to separate a racial slur from the context in which it was created.

Take, for example, two common American slurs—nigger and gook. These words were created, and came into popular use, at a time when the namecallers were doing some kind of violence to the namecallees. Nigger came into use at a time when Africans were being captured and sold into plantation slavery in the New World, and continues to be used as a derogatory term to this day. Gook came into being as long ago as 1899 and has been used sequentially against Filipinos, Japanese people, Koreans, and Vietnamese people. Is it any coincidence that these uses followed the sequence of America’s wars in Asia?

Similarly, paki came about at a time when newly arriving South Asians were experiencing hostility, to say nothing of violence, at the hands of native-born Brits. Is it any wonder, then, that attacks against South Asian immigrants came to be known as paki bashing? Michael Evans, the Times editor, lent (perhaps inadvertently) support to this point when he reminded his readers that “the term ‘raghead’ is used not infrequently in the Army when soldiers are referring to the ‘opposition’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Put another way, this means that British and American soldiers are doing violence to Arabs and Muslims, all the while referring to them as ragheads.

Wars might end and time—to say nothing of equal rights legislation—might pass, but racial slurs do not cease to be offensive, nor do they lose their power to denigrate. Because they are conceived and used in violence, they can never go back to being mere words. To call someone a nigger, a paki, a gook, or a raghead is not just to remind them of the violence done to people who shared their skin color, religion, or birthplace. It is also to point out that they are different, that they do not belong, and that they will always be outsiders in the dominant culture. After all, can nigger be separated from the brutality of the Middle Passage, plantation slavery, and Jim-Crow segregation? Can anyone honestly claim to have successfully divorced paki from paki bashing? When will gook lose its connotation of napalm and free-fire zones? And, long after the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan come to an end, what meaning will raghead retain? Will it really be possible to draw a neat, sharp line between the word and the violence done by British and American soldiers to the people they called “ragheads“?

To be clear, this is not to argue that anyone who uses a racial slur is a racist. The question, ultimately, is not whether it is possible for someone to use these words and simultaneously not be a racist, but whether it is decent to do so in the first place! After all, racial slurs on their own do not constitute racism but their use is an essential component of it. Using racial slurs is an exercise of power by the namecaller, used to establish his dominance over the namecallee and everyone else who shares his skin color, religion, language, or birthplace. In addition to being reminders of past violence, racial slurs let the namecallee know that he does not belong, that he is inferior to the namecaller. The intended use of a racial slur is immaterial: the context in which it was created—in other words, how it acquired meaning and thus the power to offend and demean—is what really matters.

So while Prince Harry may not be a racist (although showing up to a party wearing a swastika armband does little to rule out the possibility), his casual use of racial slurs proves that a top-notch education does not necessarily endow its recipient with common sensitivity, let alone common sense. As for Ahmed Khan, Prince Harry’s “little paki friend” (now a captain in the Pakistani army), there is no way to know how he feels about having been called a little paki: the army has barred him from discussing the matter.

At the end of the day, Prince Harry’s affinity for swastikas and racially insensitive language says a lot about his level of cultural sensitivity, but at least he has enough sense to apologize when he has caused offense. That’s much more than can be said of the people who rallied to his defense and tried to argue that paki and raghead aren’t so offensive after all.


Anti-Immigrant Organizations Linked to Racist Hate Groups.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) just issued a report linking several mainstream anti-immigrant organizations to racist and White supremacist groups. The report concludes that the groups FAIR, Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and NumbersUSA. Here’s an excerpt:

Three Washington, D.C.-based immigration-restriction organizations stand at the nexus of the American nativist movement: the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and NumbersUSA. Although on the surface they appear quite different — the first, the country’s best-known anti-immigrant lobbying group; the second, an “independent” think tank; and the third, a powerful grassroots organizer — they are fruits of the same poisonous tree.

FAIR, CIS and NumbersUSA are all part of a network of restrictionist organizations conceived and created by John Tanton, the “puppeteer” of the nativist movement and a man with deep racist roots. As the first article in this report shows, Tanton has for decades been at the heart of the white nationalist scene. He has met with leading white supremacists, promoted anti-Semitic ideas, and associated closely with the leaders of a eugenicist foundation once described by a leading newspaper as a “neo-Nazi organization.” He has made a series of racist statements about Latinos and worried that they were outbreeding whites. At one point, he wrote candidly that to maintain American culture, “a European-American majority” is required.

FAIR, which Tanton founded and where he remains on the board, has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Among the reasons are its acceptance of $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund, a group founded to promote the genes of white colonials that funds studies of race, intelligence and genetics. FAIR has also hired as key officials men who also joined white supremacist groups. It has board members who regularly write for hate publications. It promotes racist conspiracy theories about Latinos. And it has produced television programming featuring white nationalists.

The full report can be found here.

There was always something deeply troubling about the rhetoric coming out of the anti-immigrant camp but it was hard to put a finger on exactly what it was. But it’s clear now, thanks to the folks at the SPLC.

The Douche-tastic Duo Has Done it Again.

So . . . I normally wouldn’t blog about celebrities but, thanks to Spencer Pratt’s total and utter douchebaggery on the Tyra Banks Show, I’ve decided to say “eff it!” and take the plunge.

Apparently, the topic of adoption came up while Spencer and the other half of the douche-tastic duo were on Tyra’s show. Naturally she asked what they would name their adopted kids and—true to form—Heidi and Spencer opened their mouths and spewed forth a tidal wave of douchery unseen since the time Tom Cruise jumped up and down on Oprah’s sofa.

Here’s the transcript:

Tyra: So what would you name your children . . . like Speidi or Hencer . . . or something?
Heidi: He wants to name one Dunk.
Tyra: Dunk?!
Spencer: No, ’cause I mean, this is when I was saying I wanna go to Africa and I wanna adopt an African and . . . he’s gonna be very tall and he’s gonna be Dunk . . . you know . . ..
Tyra: Like to dunk the ball? I thought you meant ba-dunk-a-dunk, like have a big booty.
Spencer: Yeah, I mean . . . that’ll work . . . if it’s a girl . . ..
Heidi: [giggling moronically].

There’s also a clip from The Soup on Youtube. Spencer and Heidi’s supreme demonstration of douchiness doesn’t come until six-and-a-half minutes into the clip, so jump ahead if you can’t wait to see douchery at its finest (the video will make you wish Tyra had shoved her mic into a part of Spencer’s anatomy where the sun traditionally don’t shine, but she doesn’t—proving once again that there is no God).

Now we know that when Spencer thinks African, he thinks basketball and big butts. That’s OK though, ’cause when I think douche, I think Spencer Pratt. In fact, I think I’ll go to LA and adopt him. Then I’ll name him Douche . . . ’cause I mean . . . you know . . . I want to give my kid a name he’ll live up to . . . and . . . well . . . I can’t think of anyone who better lives up to that name than Spencer Pratt.

Wheels of Justice Appear to be Turning in Luis Ramirez Murder Case.

Three teens charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez will be charged with third-degree murder, aggravated assault, and ethnic intimidation.

Three Shenandoah, Pennsylvania teens charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez will be tried for third-degree murder, aggravated assault, and ethnic intimidation.

CNN reports that Brandon Piekarsky (left), Colin Walsh (center), and Derrick Donchak (right) will stand trial on charges related to the beating death last month of Luis Ramirez, a Mexican migrant. The case cast a national spotlight on the Pennsylvania town of Shenandoah, where the Latino population has encountered hostility from the White community.

Sixteen-year-old Piekarsky and 17-year-old Walsh will be tried “on counts of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation.” Both will be tried as adults.

Eighteen-year-old Derrick Donchak “has been ordered to stand trial on aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other offenses.”

According to eyewitness testimony from Ben Lawson, a 17-year-old friend of the three accused,

Ramirez [the victim] was fighting with one of the suspects, Derrick M. Donchak, when another, Colin Walsh, sucker-punched the victim. A third suspect, Brandon Piekarsky, then kicked Ramirez in the head while he lay motionless in the street.”

Lawson also testified that he, the three accused, and two other friends had been drinking in the woods on the night of the attack that resulted in the death of Luis Ramirez. Lawson went on to say that the next day, they met at Brandon Piekarsky’s house to plan what they were going to tell the police:

We made up a plan that we we’re going to tell the cops that nobody kicked him, that there were no racial slurs, there was no booze, and Brian got hit first.”

Having failed to protect Luis Ramirez in life, we can now only hope that the legal system will dispense justice to the people responsible for his death. More importanly, let’s hope the outcome of this trial makes other would-be hate criminals think twice before beating someone to death simply because he looks different from them.

Luis Ramirez Death Brings Calls for Tolerance

At Sacred Heart Church in Allentown, Marcos Urbana (left) talks about the meaning of Luis Ramirez's death in Shenandoah. With Urbina are (from left) the Rev. Manfred K. Bahmann, the Rev. David Kozak, Jesus Ramos and Fernando Almazan. (Rich Schultz/Special to The Morning Call / August 11, 2008)

At Sacred Heart Church in Allentown, Marcos Urbana (left) talks about the meaning of Luis Ramirez's death in Shenandoah. With Urbina are (from left) the Rev. Manfred K. Bahmann, the Rev. David Kozak, Jesus Ramos and Fernando Almazan. (Rich Schultz/Special to The Morning Call / August 11, 2008)

From The Morning Call:

In Shenandoah, the Schuylkill County borough where the beating happened, residents and religious leaders called for unity and tolerance. They acknowledged ethnic tensions within the changing community makeup but said borough residents had a lot of good to offer.

The mood at the Allentown vigil was more political, with Hispanic advocates criticizing Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta and Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli for helping to create an anti-Hispanic climate.

The fatal beating occurred on July 12, as Ramirez, 25, walked home with his fiancee’s sister. Police said the teenagers ran into Ramirez at 11:30 p.m. and told the woman to ”get your Mexican boyfriend out of here,” according to court documents. When Ramirez responded, ”What’s your problem?” the fight began.

The teenagers beat Ramirez so severely he never regained consciousness, authorities said. Two days later, the father of three died.

Colin J. Walsh, 17, and Brandon J. Piekarsky, 16, were charged as adults with homicide, ethnic intimidation and related offenses. Derrick M. Donchak, 18, was charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and related crimes. All live in Shenandoah.

Police said a fourth teenager, who is 17, was being charged as a juvenile for other offenses.

On Sunday, the Rev. Brunilda Martinez expressed disappointment at the size of the crowd: About 60 people gathered for a ”Reconnecting Healing Service” Sunday afternoon at First United Methodist Church in Shenandoah.

The bad publicity the borough is getting could translate instead into opportunity for showcasing its strengths, she said. ”That is a challenge for us. You say what? I can prove you wrong,” said Martinez. ”We are going to make a new Shenandoah for our children and our grandchildren.”

Outside Sacred Heart Church in Allentown, nearly 50 people gathered, holding candles near a sign that said ”No to Racial Discrimination.”

Marcos Urbina, president of the Mexican Cultural Association of the Lehigh Valley, said Barletta and Morganelli seemed to forget their families had at one time also been immigrants. He criticized those who said Ramirez was in part to blame for being in the country illegally.

”This man isn’t dead because he was here illegally,” Urbina said. ”This man is dead because he was Hispanic. It could have been me or anyone else.”

Ann Van Dyke, assistant director of the state Human Relations Commission, said the small coal town fits the profile of a community more prone to fostering hostilities.

In such places there might be fear about the changing demographics, Van Dyke said. She said there’s a separation based on race, ethnicity or economics, youth feel alienated and often, the place may be struggling economically.

”The eyes of the country are on you. Now is the time to define Shenandoah,” she told attendees in Shenandoah.

In a report released earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center found 33 hate groups in Pennsylvania in 2007, up from 27 in 2006.

The Alabama-based civil rights group linked that increase in part to growing anti-Hispanic sentiment, pointing to FBI data that showed 819 hate crimes against the ethnic group in 2006, a 38 percent increase from 2003.

Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, who teaches Puerto Rican studies at Brooklyn College, said while there may be an anti-Hispanic feeling now, it’s always some group.

”It’s not just now. It’s not just Shenandoah,” said Stevens-Arroyo, who spoke in the borough.

Racial and ethnic tensions have existed as long as humans have been around, he said.

Allentown Councilman Julio Guridy said Barletta’s attempts to get legislation fining landlords who rent or employ illegal immigrants was instrumental in creating a situation where people could feel comfortable giving in to their hate.

He called on state and national leaders to get serious about passing meaningful immigration reform.

Justice Department Joins Investigation into Beating Death of Luis Ramirez

Derrick Donchak (top), Brandon Piekarsky (middle), and Colin Walsh (bottom), have been charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Ramirez died on Monday from injuries sustained during the attack.

Derrick Donchak (top), Brandon Piekarsky (middle), and Colin Walsh (bottom), have been charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Ramirez died two days later from head injuries sustained during the attack.

The Associated Press reports that the federal government—through the US Department of Justice—“has opened an investigation into the fatal beating of [Luis Ramirez,] a Mexican immigrant in [Shenandoah,] a small northeastern Pennsylvania town.”

The case has been assigned to FBI agents in Allentown and the criminal section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the department and the FBI confirmed Wednesday. Justice Department spokeswoman Jamie Hais would not say what prompted their involvement.

I wonder if the fact that the case is being investiged by the criminal section of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division means that they think it’s a hate crime? Only time will tell.

Speaking of which, it is pretty telling that some White Shenandoah residents—like the police chief and the burrough manager—are denying that the killing of Luis Ramirez has anything to do with race.

Here’s Police Chief Matthew Nestor’s take on the killing:

From what we understand right now, it wasn’t racially motivated. This looks like a street fight that went wrong.”

And here’s what Borough Manager Joseph Palubinsky had to say:

I have reason to know the kids who were involved, the families who were involved, and I’ve never known them to harbor this type of feeling.”

Unsurprisingly, the defense attorneys expressed similar views. Roger Laguna, who’s defending Colin Walsh said he did not think it was a hate crime, despite the racial slurs uttered by Luis Ramirez’s attackers as they beat him to death. And Frederick Fanelli, Brandon Piekarsky’s lawyer, echoed Police Chief Matthew Nestor’s sentiments, saying he is “surprised and disappointed” that his client faces a homicide charge, attributing Ramirez’s death to a “street fight that ended tragically.”

Luis Ramirez, a Mexican migrant, lies in a coma after being severely beaten by White teenagers in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. The photo was taken just hours before Ramirez died from injuries sustained during the beating.

Luis Ramirez, a Mexican migrant, lies in a coma after being severely beaten by White teenagers in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. The photo was taken just hours before Ramirez died from injuries sustained during the beating.

Odd, isn’t it, that a defense attorney and a police chief share the same opinion on a crime? Although my legal expertise is limited to a few episodes of Law & Order and CSI, I know that it’s rare for police and defense attorneys to agree on much. So either the episodes I watched were wildly unrealistic or there’s something funny going on here. Either way, I’m sure it’s good news for the boys who killed Luis Ramirez that their defense attorneys and the police chief are on the same page.

But not all White Shenandoans justify the killing or defend the killers. CNN reports that there are a number of mixed-race couples in Shenandoah, many of which have produced biracial children. Luis Ramirez himself had two children with a White woman and was also raising her daughter from a previous relationship.

Nonetheless, the Latino reaction to the killing has been somewhat less optimistic, judging from the response of lawyer John Amaya of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which held a vigil Tuesday in Ramirez’s memory.

It legitimizes our concerns, that Shenandoah — while it might be a small, little town in Pennsylvania — the significance (of the slaying) really rises to the national stage.”

“When we hear it spewed every night on CNN or radio talk shows, real people hear it and they take matters into their own hands. These children, they turn into monsters.” 

This case, like others, has left me wondering how it is that something that is not a hate crime to some people is percieved as nothing less than a hate crime by others? In cases like this, I find it’s better to look at it from the standpoint of the victim, not the perpetrator. In this case, we have not only racial intimidation but also a long history of White racial violence—against Native Americans, Black people, Mexicans, Jews and other immigrants—that sets the backdrop for the Luis Ramirez killing.

Regardless, I hope the feds can shine some light on this case. More importantly, I hope the DOJ has assigned some Black and Latino agents to this case.

McCain’s Anti-Obama Ad was More Than Just Cynical.

Last week, the McCain campaign released a TV ad calling Barack Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world” and comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. I have to say I didn’t really expect John McCain et al. to play clean but this is pretty low, even by their standards. For starters, the ad reaches for the heights of hypocrisy. After all, as Carrie Budoff Brown points out, McCain has been hogging the media spotlight for much of his own career. He’s a regular on the late night talk shows and he even had a cameo in Wedding Crashers. In other words, he has embraced the celebrity moniker. Barack Obama’s response—saying the ad was cynical but not racist—is far too charitable a reaction. Paris Hilton’s mom, Kathy, was actually closer to the mark in her response!

Certainly, we would be naive to think this attack ad is a fluke, or a one-off. No doubt this is just the beginning because, mixed in with the stink of hypocrisy, is the unmistakable stench of Rovian political machinations. Using a candidate’s strengths against him was, after all, a technique perfected by Karl Rove in the 2004 “swiftboating” of John Kerry, and the Obama “celebrity” ad smacks of a similar touch. In 2004, the swiftboat ads used Kerry’s military record against him, and now, Obama’s popularity is similarly being used to diminish his appeal.

So why would celebrity necessarily be bad for Obama? Well, being a celebrity is generally a positive thing in the entertainment industry but it’s not such a great asset in politics. Celebrities are valued for one set of qualities, politicians for another. Britney’s fans may appreciate her looks or her ability to sing and dance. It’s harder to identify which of Paris’ qualities makes her famous, but we can all agree that even the most adoring fan would think twice about voting either of her or Britney women into the White House. What, then, does any of this have to do with Barack Obama? Why compare the presumptive Democratic nominee to a pair of celebutantes? It’s really quite simple. First off, we can be sure that education or educatedness—or whatever other qualities might prepare someone to lead a country—do not rank very high on the list of qualities people love in Paris or Britney. This is not to imply that Britney and Paris are unintelligent or uneducated. The point is only that  these women are beloved not for their being qualified to lead the country. The Obama comparison thus implies that Obama, like Britney and Paris, is popular—because of his looks or some other quality—but not for his ability to lead. Ergo: Barack Obama is very popular but he’s not ready to lead.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. Entertainment—music, film, sports—has been the one area of public life in which Black people have gained the greatest visibility in American society. Black athletes, actors, and musicians have attained tremendous fame and secured professions for themselves by entertaining the American public. In my view, these accomplishments should be seen as a testament to the resilience of Black people in this country. Alas! No good deed goes unpunished so the Black community is repaid with binary stereotypes that place intelligence and athleticism/artistry/musical talent at opposite ends of a spectrum. “Sure,” the argument goes, “Black people are good entertainers but they’re not so smart. This is why there are so few Black directors, quarterbacks, or music executives.” In other words, talent and intelligence become mutually exclusive categories.

There is, however a deeper level to the athletic/musical/artistic talent-versus-intelligence binary. There is often an implicit assumption that Black people are good at what they do because of some inherent, magical talent that enables them to effortlessly excel at something. This view maintains, for example, that a top Black athlete isn’t at the top of her game because she trains hard and is disciplined. Rather, it’s talent that propels her to the top. Likewise, Barack Obama’s rise to the top of the Democratic presidential race is not due to his intelligence, hard work, grassroots organizing experience, and campaign strategizing. No. Like the magical negro, Barack’s success is due entirely to circumstances beyond his own control. In fact, his success is nothing less than magical because it is so contrary to his own abilities. In other words, Barack Obama is succeeding despite himself (Lets not forget that Rush Limbaugh used to play a song entitled “Barack the Magic Negro” on his radio show).

John McCain’s ad is therefore nothing less than an attempt to remind the American people that there is actually less to Obama than meets the eye. Yes he’s popular, just like Britney and Paris. And, just like Britney and Paris, he’s good-looking. But, just like Britney and Paris, he’s nothing more than an attractive package, pretty on the surface but lacking the depth, the experience, the intelligence that would make him capable of leadership. After all, the ad seems to ask us, who would want Paris and Britney—or Barack Obama, for that matter—to lead this country? By overlooking Barack Obama’s other qualities and presenting him as a superficial, one-dimensional caricature (I say caricature because there is certainly more to Paris and Britney than what’s shown in the media), the ads also aim to devalue him by negating his personal accomplishments. After all, Barack Obama is an impressive person and a formidable candidate in his own right. From his organizing days in Chicago, he has experience bringing people together and transforming ideas into action. He’s also a constitutional lawyer and a professor and, lest we forget, a United States Senator. But by ignoring all of Obama’s other traits and focusing only on the external and superficial, the McCain ads seek to convince us that there’s nothing more to Obama than his fame.

They might as well have just come out and reminded us that he’s nothing more than a talented Black entertainer.