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The Words That Continue to Divide Us

When public officials use words like “black” and “white,” they need to keep in mind the color bias of language and do what they can to eliminate it.

Dick Gregory
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory used humor to explore the color bias of language.
(Associated Press)
July 17 marked the first anniversary of the deaths of two civil rights icons, Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian. Although the Senate has yet to approve the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and many are starting to lose hope for its passage, this is still an appropriate time to look anew at how race relations can be improved in a nation bitterly divided by race, class and political affiliation.

If public officials want to improve racial relationships — if they are truly committed to creating a colorblind society where all are judged by the content of their character and no child is made to feel ashamed because of the enslavement or sins of their ancestors — let them start by working to eliminate color bias within the English language, beginning with the words they use themselves in their public and political speech.

For sure, most Americans, including public officials on both sides of the aisle, don’t perceive the language they use as being psychologically harmful to African Americans, particularly to children. Yet I have observed Blacks cringe on many occasions when they hear negatives associated with the word “black” — whether it’s “blackballed,” “blackmailed” or something else. There are probably implications for policy as well: It doesn’t take much imagination to see a link of negative perceptions of African Americans as a whole to polices like racial profiling, the redlining of Black neighborhoods or mass incarceration of Black males.

History and research illuminate these problems dating back to the days of slavery, when there was a deliberate effort to promote racist theories to justify enslaving Africans. Over time these images and words lingered in American culture and lexicon. If one were to consult a dictionary even today for the meanings and common usages of the word “black,” one would find many negative references, including terms like “black eye” and “black deed,” along with definitions including sad, gloomy, calamitous, connecting with or invoking the devil, sinister or evil, and dirty. The list goes on and on.

As if this was not enough, some of the most enduring stereotypes, like those of Jim Crow, Old Black Joe and Uncle Tom, prevailed during this time along with affiliated terms like the N-word and “darkies.” By contrast, the term “white” is associated with positives like moral purity, innocence, cleanliness, favorability, good fortune and even Snow White. Those of us of a certain age remember people signaling approval or gratitude, sometimes sarcastically, by saying something like “that’s white of you.”

In the early 1970s, the late comic genius and civil rights activist Dick Gregory captured our imaginations with wit and humor when he spoke to the student body at my alma mater, the University of Bridgeport, about who “dirtied up” the term “black power.” In 1969 he made a record album entitled “Dick Gregory’s Frankenstein,” excerpts of which can be found today on YouTube. In it he quipped: “Angel food cake is white, devil food cake is dark. A little bitty lie is a white lie. … You can’t find anything blacker than a tornado until it gets ready to clean up the white lady’s kitchen — then it’s ‘the white tornado!’”

The political humorist used laughter to get through to college students, but back in the 1940s two African American psychologists, Drs. Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie Clark, had begun researching the effects of racial prejudice on children. Data from their landmark studies, referred to as the “coloring tests” and “doll experiments,” found that young Black children identified white dolls as more aesthetically pleasing than Black ones and were aware of racial prejudice by the age of 5. These studies and others like them proved valuable for the plaintiffs in legal cases leading up to and including the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954.

Closer to today, in 2010 CNN hired University of Chicago Professor Margaret Beale Spencer to conduct a new expanded study using the Clarks’ research as a model. From her findings, Beale wrote: “What’s really significant here is that white children are learning or maintaining those stereotypes much more strongly than the African-American children. Therefore, the white youngsters are even more stereotypic in their responses concerning attitudes, beliefs and attitudes and preferences than the African-American children.”

Although for decades African Americans have had to struggle with negatives associated with the English language along with the reality of their Black existence, something important occurred in the late 1960s that attempted to reverse the negative impact associated with the word “black”: Black educators, activists and leaders embraced it and tried to redefine it more positively. From this effort came the declaration that “Black is beautiful” and the popularization and acceptance of “Black Power” as a slogan; even the title of today’s Black Lives Matter movement grew out of this effort.
There is no doubt that the existence and legacy of bias in language, as well as in policies and practices, has had an effect on the self-esteem of those in the African American community. But there is some good that public officials and political leaders can do if they work in a bipartisan and biracial manner: They can use their bully pulpits to educate the public about the harm done when we are thoughtless in the language we use; set an example in the personal and public words they use; encourage school board members and superintendents to use culturally sensitive books and learning materials that make students aware of biases embedded in the English language; and, above all, eliminate policies and practices that are derived from stereotyping and generalizing about a specific racial group.

This would help heal our divisions and move us beyond racially charged and partisan attacks such as the ones we’ve seen lately on the teachings of critical race theory and on voting rights. It would allow the voices of the true victims of racial bias and practice to be heard. And though this does not equate to passing important voting rights legislation, it would be a way that we all could honor the legacies of both John Lewis and C.T. Vivian. This would be so white — I mean so right.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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