A judge in Mendocino County (CA) Superior Court has ruled that the word “racist” has lost its edge, has been watered down by overuse and has become common coin in political discourse.
(Apparently the word hasn’t gotten out to the many people who bristle if you even mention the word “bias,” let alone “racism.”)
This case is full of so much weird I am not even sure how to describe it. But let me try anyway, for you, faithful readers. Warning: vague mishmash of thoughts to follow.
It started when teacher’s union negotiator Dennis Boaz used the word “niggardly” to describe the progress (or lack thereof) of contract negotiations. His exact words were “The tenor of the negotiation tactics have [sic] become increasingly negative and niggardly.”
(Yes, we all know what that word means. So don’t clot up the comments with definitions cut and pasted from the internet. You may notice that we and our readers use the internet, from which you may infer that you are not the only person in the world aware of dictionary.com. We also aware of wikipedia, although I don’t like it much for source material.)
The school district superintendent is black. Not only that, but she’s apparently the only African American superintendent in the whole county.
The assistant superintendent responded by writing, “This memo is formal notice to UTA that Mr. Boaz’s communication is insulting and unacceptable … (and) racism or suggested racism has absolutely no place in this district.”
I couldn’t find the memo online, but it doesn’t appear from the news reports that the superintendent actually called Boaz a racist. Yet it appears that being called a racist was the action the judge thought was under consideration:
[Judge] LaCasse did not render a judgment Friday on Boaz’s suit, which is asking for $7,500 in damages, the maximum for small claims court, explaining he wanted to further research whether the racism inference was “a privileged opinion (rather than) actionable slander.”
The judge said his primary focus would be the “existence of malice” in [assistant superintendent] Barrett’s letter, adding that there is the “presumption of malice if (he) knew the word’s definition.”
Regardless, LaCasse said that while being called a racist “40 years ago may have been a badge of honor, today it can be devastating to someone’s career.”
As Jay Smooth has noted, even if you talk about “racism or suggested racism” what many people hear is Hey you just called me or my friend or that other white guy a racist!
And “a badge of honor”? For whom?
But in any event, the judge has since ruled that it’s not devastating to Boaz’s career. Since it’s lost its edge and all.
What of this “existence of malice”? Was the assistant superintendent’s accusation of racism malicious? Maybe the assistant superintendent should just claim he was trying to give Boaz a badge of honor.
The more interesting determination, I think, would be whether Mr. Boaz used the word “niggardly” with malice. Because certainly I’ve known people to use a word in what they feel is a sly, clever way and then claim the dictionary definition. Because you know the brown folk are poor and uneducated and not only are we incapable of recognizing racism, but we don’t understand multisyllabic words, either! (Exhibit A: An e-mail that describes your humble bloggers as “illiturate mud persons.”)
Decide for yourself. Here’s Mr. Boaz’s explanation:
Speaking outside the courtroom, Boaz admitted that he was “pushing buttons” by writing the original report, which he pointed out also included the phrase “Welcome to Draconia,” but was still surprised and hurt by the district’s response.
“I expected them to be annoyed, but I never expected to be called a racist,” he said, describing the district’s reaction as both “collective stupidity” and an “attempt to get rid of me.”
“At first I was amused by the response, and then I was angry,” he said.
Source. (Daily Journal article no longer online.)
So angry he sued.
So where’s the outcry about Boaz being oversensitive? Playing the racist card? Being bitter and angry?
It struck me that Boaz’s lawsuit was just another version of a SLAPP. SLAPP lawsuits are often used against activists, frequently alleging interference with contract or economic advantage. For example, a company might file suit against an activist who organizes a boycott because of racism.
Boaz is using a defamation claim. It appears to have been successful in two ways: First, he deflected charges of racism and transformed them into allegations that somebody called him a racist. By doing so he was not forced to account for his behavior. He also cast himself as the victim.
Second, the lawsuit virtually guarantees that the school district may be less inclined to address racism in the future.
In any event, since the R-word has lost its edge, can we talk?